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Playing With a Blind Dog: Toys, Games and Enrichment Ideas

blind dog enrichment

We all know how much dogs love to play. And who can blame them? Playing is one of the best ways for our furry friends to get exercise, release energy, and just have fun. But what happens when your dog loses their sight? How do you keep your blind dog entertained?

I asked Eve Welton from The Underdogs Training for her advice. Eve shares her story and some tips on enrichment for bling dogs, including how to choose the right toys for a blind dog and games that they can engage in with their human companions.

Meet Eve, Poppy and Jacob her blind dogs

I’m Eve Welton, I have 2 beautiful blind dogs who are very different. I started my journey with blind dogs back at the start of the COVID pandemic when (after 3 vet visits!) I was told that my 5-year-old Pomeranian, Poppy, was blind. The vet was empathetic and kind but told me to ‘Just Google It’ and said due to COVID and this not being an emergency I would have to wait to see an ophthalmologist. So off I went with a broken heart, cradling my beautiful girl. I was in despair for 2 days, wondering what to do, how we were ever going to be able to do X, Y & Z ever again!

Google didn’t really tell me anything very useful and kept wanting to give me information on ‘Guide Dogs’. Anyway, I sacked google off and went with a more optimistic approach, looking at things we could do to help. As soon as I changed my own attitude, I saw an almost immediate change in Poppy too. Instead of slugging around and staring into space with those big puppy dog eyes, she was more engaged and willing to learn. We wiped the slate clean with everything and started again with basic training, walking, play and found out wayyyy more about enrichment.

There was more to enrichment than just giving her a Kong? Shock Horror!

What is a snuffle mat? x
What is a snuffle mat?

I decided I wanted to help people struggling with their blind dogs just like I did so I started a Facebook Group dedicated to training blind dogs where I could help other people with the issues I faced in the past. I am also a qualified dog trainer with the IMDT, so I am all about helping people find kind solutions for their lovely pooches.

A few months ago, I decided it was time to help another blind dog by giving them a home. I looked every day on the Blind Dog Rescue UK site and there was this very sad looking blind Border Collie called Jacob, he had been there for a couple of months. He was saved from a kill shelter and was living in Bosnia. After bombarding my partner every day, we finally applied to adopt him.

He came to us with all kinds of behaviours, but my goodness we have seen so much progress through working really hard with him. I have made sure that enrichment plays a huge part in their day-to-day activities and while Jake took a while to understand what he was supposed to do, they both LOVE enrichment now and I know how much it has helped with their development!

What Happens When a Dog Goes Blind?

Having a sighted dog that goes blind can be for an array of reasons. Poppy, when we finally got to see an ophthalmologist, was diagnosed with suspected SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome). Like SARDS, there is a similar condition called PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy). Both are similar in the fact that the retina changes and causes blindness with no physical pain but differ in the reasons why.

Another common reason is due to something called Glaucoma, which is where the pressure in the eyeball is too much and it either causes blindness, in a very painful way, or due to the pain and problems the eye(s) is removed to take the pain away. Even when the dog has gone blind it is common for the eyes to be removed too to prevent pain and discomfort.

There are a few other reasons why this might happen but when a dog has had sight and they suddenly lose it, it can be extremely hard for them to cope initially. Although, some owners haven’t even known that their dog was blind due to their dog coping so well!

A lot of dogs though, Poppy included, get ‘Doggy Depression’. They are low, expressionless, don’t seem interested in anything and we and owners can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel to help them.

  • “How can they play fetch if they’re blind?”,
  • “How can we go on different walks?”,
  • “How can they climb the stairs?”,
  • “How do they know where I am?”,
  • “Will they ever be the same again!?” and the list goes on…

I have news for you though, a dog’s primary sense is not their vision, it is their sense of smell! They also rely on hearing and touch too. So, to really help a blind dog we MUST figure out how to incorporate the other senses into everyday life.

Benefits of Playing with Your Blind Dog

I mean, where do I start with the benefits!? What isn’t a benefit to playing with any dog!? Without sight, a dog taps into their other senses even more. Their hearing appears to become more sensitive, and they like to feel things with their mouth more so when playing we need to bare this in mind.

Giving a blind dog a toy to play with by themselves can be beneficial but with you getting involved too it can add so many benefits! A lot of blind dogs lose confidence and struggle to regain it, but play is like saying to your dog “It’s okay, we can do this together!”. It can improve bond and trust much quicker and ultimately help a dog, struggling with their loss of sight, enjoy life again.

If you play with your dog and work on simple training techniques their confidence will soar, and you will be surprised at how well they manage other everyday tasks too. Playing isn’t just about wearing your dog out, it is about the dog’s belief that they can figure things out for themselves and live an amazing life where they don’t feel scared.

How to choose the right toys for blind dogs

Every dog is different. Each dog will have a preference to what they get excited about and what they just don’t find interesting at all. Without sight a lot of people do try to use smelly toys or noisy toys or sensory touch toys. The truth is a dog may just like its old faithful chewed up teddy.

A dog’s sense of smell is so good that they can smell their toys without scents. Their hearing is more focused so they can hear where a toy might land or roll, they then can find it by heading in that direction and sniffing it out. I am not saying the noisy or purposely smelly toys are bad, but they just aren’t for every dog so don’t get too engrossed in spending all your money on them just yet!

The Best Types of Toys for Blind Dogs

Noisemaking Toys

Blind dogs can be, and usually are, more sensitive to noises. This can be a good thing, but some noises might scare them. I am always on the hunt for long lasting squeaker toys for my pom as she is OBSESSED with squeaking them!

The other toy I have tried is this ‘babble ball’. The perks to it are that when moved it continues to make noises for a few seconds so the dog can find it. I think the idea behind it is great, but the noises were a little bit creepy, and my dog just looked terrified every time it moved. It was a very hard plastic so not chewable or a nice sensation in the dog’s mouth either. Some blind dog owners recommend this but from my own experience it wasn’t a good match for us.

Aside from squeaker toys the other way I like to play noise games with my dog is by using the chaser toys from tug-e-nuff . I slowly drag them along the floor and my dogs will follow and pounce on them, this is a fun way to help them use that chase instinct too and then we follow it up with a bit of tug.

Scented Toys

As I have mentioned, a dog’s sense of smell is ridiculously good. In their minds all toys are scented. There is a ball called the ‘Five Senses ball’ which I bought and gave to my Pomeranian. She ripped it apart in about an hour, and while she had fun doing so, it wasn’t worth my £5.99. I now avoid anything commercially scented.

I scent my dogs own toys by adding food! Using a Kong, LickiMat, Snuffle mat or other similar toys. I hide or smear natural treats on them and let my dogs find them. They spend a long time licking/chewing/sniffing them out and then I can reuse them over and over again too. If you’re looking to buy something naturally smelly then check out the chews section below.

Interactive Toys

Interactive toys to me are toys that my dog can play or figure something out on their own. I mentioned under scented toys that I use Kongs, Lickimats and snuffle mats, these keep my dogs busy for a very long time.

I use the LickiMats to feed my dogs their wet food each day. Instead of gobbling it up (Poppy, especially with her SARDS, tends to wolf down food like nobody’s business!) they must lick and use their teeth to get into the corners of the mats. I use the buddy, the one with the crosses, for their meals and the soother, the one with lots of tiny bobbles, for any treats or as a distraction.

I have also tried using puzzle games too. While they take a little while to figure out and I did help Poppy with hers to start with she figured it out eventually. Its is good for a dog’s brain to solve problems and figure out how to get the food or reward. Give them some help to begin with, or when they need it, but then sit back and watch the cogs in their brains ticking.

If you’re looking for a cheaper option then save up your amazon boxes, egg boxes, toilet rolls and anything else you can use to hide treats. Make your own interactive toy like this destruction box! Start with an empty box and encourage your dog to go in and find a treat, slowly build up until you have a box full of hidden gems. If the dog rips it to shreds that’s okay, this helps build confidence too.

I have also decided to invest in some k9connectables for Christmas as you can make them different every time and I think my dogs will be all over them, so have a look at those too!

Treat-Dispensing Toys

The Kong Wobbler all day long. I had this before Poppy went blind, but this was one of the first toys we used to start boosting her confidence. Without sight this is still great because they can knock the wobbler and feel where it is, then sniff around on the floor to find the treats. With it being weighted it wont roll away so it is easy for a blind dog to find again.

A newer toy I invested in was a snuffle ball. It’s a snuffle mat that is folded up into a ball shape, so its quite big (A little too big for my Pom!). I hid treats inside this and gave it to Jake, my big Border Collie X, who had never played with toys before until now. To start with he was confused and grabbed a bit of the fleece and bobbed it up and down in his mouth like a cheerleader with a pom pom! In my eyes, this isn’t wrong, it works for him and as long as he was engaged, I was happy.

However fast forward 2 months and he has now learned that using his nose to knock it around and his paws to pull it backwards it dispenses treats even better! I am a huge fan of the treat dispensing toys for blind dogs, it uses ALL of their remaining senses and gets their body’s moving around too!

Chew Toys

I love natural chews. They can keep our blind dogs occupied for ages without giving them extra treats. They are also another good way to keep their teeth clean. If you’re looking to buy something that is naturally scented look into deer antlers, yak chews or chewroot. These are, in my opinion, better than buying artificially scented chews or balls.

Top tip: Swap the chews, dogs get bored and leave toys for months untouched. If you rotate the toys or hide their chews when they have had enough, they will enjoy them so much more if you bring them out in a weeks’ time.

Prices pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Keep Your Blind Dog Engaged and Happy with These Games

Hide And Seek

This is a good game for building up confidence in the house. Can you and someone else in your household go into different rooms and call your dog for a little reward? This way the dog is able to go from room to room a few times and map out the floor plan in their heads. It is also building trust in you and making coming to you a good thing.

Tug of War & Chase

A firm favourite in our house. This is a good way to build your dogs strength and focus. Using a tug toy or a chaser toy drag it along the floor slowly so your dog can hear it, they will try and follow it and either put a paw on it or use their mouth to grab it. Once they have it you can play some tug together. Keep tug at the dog’s level and use left and right swaying with the toy or let your dog pull back. Don’t lift your blind dog up or go up and down sharply or this can hurt them and scare them.

Some dogs love it when you talk and stroke them when playing tug, some don’t, so see what really gets your dog engaged! Let them win sometimes too, tug is about giving them more confidence and holding on until they let go and give up isn’t going to help them. Also, remember when you do let go, make sure they don’t go flying backwards into something! Read this article about how to avoid aggresssion when playing tug with your dog.

Fetch

I like to use the Kong Wubba for fetch. It isn’t scented but it will naturally have a smell to it. It has a squeaker inside and is almost like an octopus shape with fabric dangling off it so makes it bigger and easier to find without being too big to carry or throw.

Sometimes I throw it, sometimes I kick it, and Poppy will hear where it lands, run in that direction (sometimes she runs before I throw it!) and sniff it out. Then she will get it and bring it back to me, sometimes she won’t find it but continues sniffing so still wearing her out and using her other senses too.

Alternatively, using a regular tennis ball (or the Kong tennis balls if you like a squeaker) you can softly kick it, so it rolls along the grass or other surface. This makes a very gentle sound and means the dogs will follow the noise of the grass moving instead.

Learning something new

Aside from all the wonderful and amazing stimulative toys we can now buy or make to help our dogs flourish, you can’t beat a bit of good old training to boost your bond together. Start with the basics again like sit and down and then when they remember how much they love learning with you, you can start doing different things. Anything you like, if the time you’re spending together is valuable then they will be having the best time. Remember to keep training short and sweet so little 5-minute bursts a handful of times a day and end on a good note.

Wrapping up

I really hope you have found value in reading about the different enrichment we can utilise to keep our blind dogs happy. A blind dog is just as wonderful as a dog with sight, and they can really surprise you with their abilities if you only give them the chance to show you.

Finding out your dog is blind can be such awful news but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Your dog can and WILL live the best possible life with you by their side to guide them and show them thrive again. Enjoy your time playing and having fun together!

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