LGDs1Old Mo’ is doing much better at the end of his first week here. He is being a lot more cheerful, exploratory and starting to play and wag his tail. He is still barking a lot though, I believe out of boredom. It’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with himself without a human there to entertain him.

I’ve also discovered something about  him that I think may be important to understanding him: I think he is visually impaired.

Poor vision in dogs is something that’s rarely discussed. Dogs are generally known for having less visual acuity than humans already,  and they are also red-green color blind. Technology exists that would allow us to measure vision problems in dogs and create corrective lenses for them, and I believe a company has tried to productize this before, but it seems as though the concept never took off. Maybe it’s too expensive, or dogs don’t embrace wearing glasses. Or maybe it’s just not worth the bother, because dogs get along OK for the most part even if they can’t see well, or at all.

I think for dogs, their most important sensory organs are their ears and noses. Perhaps, for them, having blurry vision is about as debilitating as us losing our sense of smell; annoying and inconvenient, but not necessarily disabling. I have to imagine that vision impairment is probably as common in the dog population as in the human population, and studies seem to indicate that this is true.

Far-Sighted Spanky

SpankyTempI already have a dog that’s quite far-sighted, so I’ve done some thinking about this topic before. Spanky, my old rescued Border Collie, is nearly blind as a bat when trying to view things in front of his face. It took me a while of owning him to notice, and there were few clues. He cannot jump at dusk. Though he was a successful and athletic agility dog, I learned early on he needed to train in good light, or he would literally plow into jumps and knock them over. He just couldn’t see them and would completely misjudge them in poor light.

He’d also fall getting into the van at night, he needed guidance. And, though he’s a fetching nut, he has never been able to see toys and sticks when they are directly in front of him on uneven surfaces like grass. He will hunt and hunt with his nose and finally locate them by scent. Other dogs would beat him at fetch because of this too: they could spot the item faster than he could sniff it out.

When I first saw these symptoms, I took him to an ophthalmologist, fearing the worst, as night blindness is an early sign of Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), a congenital defect common in Border Collies. But nope, the doc said his eyes are perfectly healthy. And, that the far-sightedness probably wouldn’t affect his quality of life. And indeed, it didn’t seem to. Other than extra persistence required to fetch toys, he managed fine. He is a very laid back dog, so if if it ever caused him any distress, he didn’t show it.

I’ve often wondered if we may have inadvertently selected for far-sightedness in Border Collies, because it may contribute to their ability to spot sheep way in the distance in open field herding. The tradeoff of lack of up-close visual acuity is probably ok, and would make for an extra talented sheepdog, I’m guessing. 

Moses’ Eyes

LGDs2So back to Moses. If he is visually impaired, he, too, probably got along fine in the home in which he was born and grew up. He may have never presented any indication that he didn’t see well. When you think of a show dog’s life, it’s very structured- almost always on a leash, always going in and out of expected places, home, kennel, van, crate, etc. Always closely guided by a human (especially in the case of an intact male Kuvasz!), and almost always on predictable, smooth terrain. But insert him into a completely foreign, open space environment, and all of a sudden, a blurry world is going to show up in his behavior and ability to cope and function.

Arriving here, he was terrified. He planted himself next to the gate where he knew we entered and stayed there and barked. He did not explore at all, except when I was there to follow around.

But it was his reaction to Kirk’s and my approaches that really caught my attention. You know how most dogs can get fooled about your identity at a long distance, and maybe woof at you until you get fifty feet away, and then they break into a tee-hee, giddy greeting when they visually recognize it’s you? Well, not Moses.

Every time I’d go down to the field this last week,he’d see me coming and bark, threaten, and dodge me. He’d approach cautiously and slowly, until he was five feet away, still growling and warning, and circle me once or twice. And then, he’d break into a gleeful hello, wagging his tail and greeting me. Because he likes me, and is glad to see me. At least once he finally decides it’s me he’s seeing! And I can see that subtle blank look in his eyes: I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at up-close.

He seemed to have more trouble than normal in “reading” Bronte’s body language too, he flinches a lot when she approaches, even though her demeanor, to me, is clearly friendly. If he hears her running from behind, he really startles. And though they are starting to play and Bronte so wants him to chase her, and he tries a little, but he’s tentative. He doesn’t want to move very fast at all. But, he quickly spots anyone walking around up by the house, which is quite a ways away from the pasture. And then he barks and barks.

Bad Temperament, or Just Bad Eyesight?

LGds4And if it’s true that he indeed doesn’t see well, then that explains a lot. It sort of reverses one’s opinion of his temperament. He may have been considered “iffy” before- startles too easily at stuff, quick to give a warning growl as people and dogs approach, gets into conflicts with other males, acts anxious and fearful at times, and does not like to travel away from home. But, if you consider the possibility that his whole up-close world may be a complete blur, then you might think, wow, he’s actually coping pretty well.

It makes  me wonder about all the dogs we know and have known that are a little “iffy” in temperament (or a lot). Dogs that never really learn to love dog shows, who are always sensitive about their “space” and fearful that every nearby dog is going to nail them, dogs who stress out a lot, growl inappropriately, shut down too much, freak on the teeter, don’t like grates, dogs that get upset about going for a trip in the car, instead of getting excited about it. These dogs we always try to “fix” with desensitization, immersion, insistence that they comply with our notion that they should eventually “come out of their shells” and learn to love dog shows and be social butterflies like we want them to. But what if they can’t see, and the world outside of the familiarity of home is just a big, confusing, frightening blur that’s a headache to navigate?

I think it’s possible that these kinds of dogs may prefer to just stay home, in the places they have mapped out in their minds, with the people and dogs who are recognizable by voice, the sound of their footsteps, and smell; within the confines of routine familiar.

Visually Impaired Guardian Dog?

LGDs3So Kirk asked me  (a little too hopefully), does this mean he can’t be an LGD? It’s an interesting question.  I’m guessing he’s far-sighted, and that his ability to spot coyotes lurking in the distance may be just fine, or even enhanced. The main point of having an LGD is to have them map out the edges of the pasture with their scent and presence, and bark at stuff that they sense is “out there,” well before it would ever come inside the pasture. They are a deterrent. The coyotes learn the boundaries of the spaces these dogs occupy, and just steer clear. We don’t have wolves here, and the chances of big cats coming down off the hill into our open valley are fairly slim. So he probably won’t ever face any predator danger that he couldn’t already assess with his other senses, combined with possibly limited visual acuity.

His default behavior when he encounters unfamiliar people is to move off and bark in warning, so that’s a good thing too. I don’t consider him a liability in that sense. Given time he will learn the pastures by heart and will have no trouble navigating them. And we will probably always keep llamas to help watch over the sheep and give auditory warnings of danger (to wake up those snoozing dogs). And, I think he will be happy in this environment. It’s simple, unchanging, and manageable.

So, now the only remaining quests are to get him to stop barking, and introduce him to sheep!