Virginia, the Blind Dog

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with a common-law wife, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

One of my dogs, Virginia, went blind late last year. I knew it was coming; she has glaucoma, and lost sight in one of her eyes a while before. We'd been keeping the other eye alive with lots and lots of medicine, but the vet told us it was just a matter of time. So, when the morning came and I found her running around crazily all over the house, nose to the ground, I shouldn't have been surprised.

Still, I was pretty alarmed. And while I read lots on the internet about this, and even saw the articles that said not to panic, the dog will adapt, those articles were almost invariably written by the sort of hyper-caring earth-mother women who could say taking care of a limbless, eyeless, incontinent sea lion was an easy, rewarding experience anyone could do. I didn't really buy it.

So, when she went blind, I did end up going a bit nuts. She's a profoundly sweet-natured and smart dog, and seeing her struggle, without benefit of understanding why, was wrenching. I looked into research into artificial vision, surgeries, other medications; everything was either a pipe dream, insanely expensive, and almost nothing guaranteed any vision retention. It was crazy, and while I was being an idiot, Virginia was out there, rewiring her little brain to make it work.

It's really amazing. In far less time than you'd ever guess, she adapted-- far, far better than I ever realized would be possible. I made the usual mistake of anthropomorphizing the animal I live with. Her brain just works differently than ours do: I'm told when they go blind, dogs just think something along the lines of "It's nighttime always now. Huh. How about that." and they get on with it. Plus, they're much less avid readers than us, and, of course, their primary sense is smell, so they're in a much better position to give up sight than, say, me.

Virginia learned how to navigate the yard and the house. She checks for open doors with her snout, she uses her ears far more than before it seems-- you can 'remote control' her through unfamiliar territory by clapping or yelling, and she'll make a straight vector to the recognized sound source. Plus, she got rid of her phobia of men who fit some mold from her past, because, apparently, the nose gives everyone a fair shake.


I knew she's really adapted when I saw her chasing squirrels. And doing a surprisingly good job of it. I made a little diagram here showing a bit of how I think she does it: the nose gives a general radar-like image of squirrel locations; the ears, each pivoting independently, are triangulating rapid movement and locations with some advanced unconscious dog-math; she has a good map of the yard in her brain, and I think she gets more information from her paws about the surface she's on, which must help pinpoint where she is in her mind's map.

Granted, she still occasionally plops on a pillow already occupied by another dog or cat, and will bump into things. When she does, though, she's completely undaunted, and bolts off headlong without fear. I close my eyes and try to take a few timorous steps, and I'm flailing my arms around in front of me like one of those inflatable monsters that try to get me to buy a used car.

None of this is really shocking information, I'm sure. But hopefully, another voice, one not really particularly skilled with animals, telling anyone going through something like this not to panic, and have some trust in your pet, will help put things in perspective.

Good girl, Virginia.


  1. Our dog lost her sight over two years ago. She had apparently been going blind for some time but had compensated so well we didn’t know. She has what is basically doggy meningitis, which is now controlled with medicine, but that medicine never brought her eyesight back (her eyes work well but pressure in her brain has compressed the nerves sending impulses from her eyes to her brain, so no info gets through in either direction).

    I was totally amazed at how well she adapted. We even moved into a much larger, two-story house after she lost her sight, and she quickly learned the paths through all our stuff to get to our bedroom, the back door, her food dish, and even comes and finds me when I disappear upstairs into the game room, which is a convoluted path even if you can see).

    She walks out to the edge of our deck on her own and jumps off into the back yard, where she proceeds to jump around and bark at every living thing that dares come within range of her sense of smell.

    It’s amazing, and I dare say a testament to just how smart animals really are. No one can tell me that my dog doesn’t have a great memory. She learns very quickly when things move around in the house or in the yard and adapts accordingly.

  2. We have a blind dog also. She is quite elderly, and we knew this was coming. Sometimes when we talk to her she’ll look in the wrong place, higher or off to the side. She gets around fine, but she can startle when woke up, so I try to touch her very gently, or blow on her first to wake her up. Otherwise when she’s bounding around begging for food or sniffing around in the yard you would never know.

    Dogs don’t suffer from the same thought processes as us. They don’t mourn the loss of limbs or senses, and they don’t dread coming infirmities. In many ways they are blessed with their ignorance. I wish we could be so lucky!

  3. Dogs are really amazing. My husband and I have an old Aussie who has cataracts in both eyes. I don’t think he can see very well during the brightest part of the day, nor when it’s really dark out, but he trusts us so much, it’s amazing. He’ll still come when I call (although he’s definitely losing his hearing now, too, which presents its own sets of challenges), and he can follow me through the house when it’s dark if I talk to him and I’m not too far away from him. But I can definitely tell that sometimes he gets confused about the fact that he can’t see. That doggie head-tilt “huh?” look is unmistakable!

    Reading your article has given me hope for him, though. I’ve been worried about what will happen if he becomes totally blind, or loses an eye due to pressure or other problems. :) I don’t want him to suffer because of it, and it sounds like after some adaptation, he probably won’t.

    Of course, all dogs are different, just like all humans are different, but I think you’re right about their noses. For sure he uses his more now that his sight is diminished.

    The really cool thing is it makes him much easier to distract with treats than it ever was before!

  4. Awww! Sweet Virginia!

    I adopted my first blind dog almost 12 years ago. She’d been passed over at the animal shelter because of her blindness, but when I saw her, I knew she was meant to be mine. She’s always done great. Her name is Helen, and we’ve always called her “smellin’ Helen” because she is always sniffing her way around. When she gets to a new place, she’ll sniff the perimeter over and over again until she’s got it down. She’s been the best dog!

    We adopted our second blind Pekingese (she lost one eye in an attack and infection spread to her other eye, leaving her blind) a year ago, and she’s also been great. The most fun thing to do is get her on the leash, where she’s now comfortable knowing we’ll take care of her, and she will RUN full speed down the street! Just like Helen used to do in her younger years.

    At this point, I don’t know what I’d do with a sighted dog. We’ve grown so accustomed to our sweet blind dogs!

    Virginia is lucky to have you!

  5. Dogs are such troopers. You’ll almost never know when something’s going on with them unless it’s really really bad for fear of getting expelled from the pack. I read an article a while back showing a video feed of a dog with an ailment(I think it was arthritis, possibly a sprain) who would only really show symptoms when nobody was around via a video camera set up, but when the family was around, it was putting on such a good show of being normal they couldn’t believe their beloved pet was actually in pain.

  6. I had a cocker spaniel who went blind and partially deaf. She knew the entire layout of the home and would go outside in the backyard without any assistance. Her nose and her ability to ‘feel’ vibrations became her main way of discerning her world. She ‘knew’ my family and would be just as agile spotting a stranger. And, as most dog owners can attest to, for as blind as she was, you better believe when she heard/felt the food dish hit the floor she could run to the exact place without bumping into anything. The only time it became an issue is if we made a substantial move of furniture but she quickly adapted.

  7. I’ve got a friend with a blind cat. It’s amazing how well she gets around his house.

    Also I’m currently housesitting for a friend who’s got a deaf dog as well as a hearing dog. The deaf dog responds well to hand signals when she sees them, but she definitely uses the deafness as an excuse to pretend she doesn’t see you signaling “come here” or “stop barking” or “bath-time.”

  8. reading people talk about animals with such compassion makes one optimistic about humans.

  9. Good girl indeed. Our dogs are lucky to have people who take good care of them but us humans are also lucky to have these animals around us because they certainly can teach us a thing or two.

  10. dogs just think something along the lines of “It’s nighttime always now. Huh. How about that.” and they get on with it.

    Except that they really don’t have an inner monologue like we do, so it’s just “they get on with it”.

  11. My wife’s dog ( a golden retriever) went blind overnight in 2000 – I think it was a y2k bug in the cpu – and never really seemed bothered by it in the least. She lived until this time last year and I doubt many people would have noticed anything much until they got close enough to observe the dog properly. It was apparently something called SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome) which just shuts down the retina completely. Very weird.

  12. My dog Sparks, towards the end of his 17th year went completely blind.

    He handled this latest infirmity with the same nonchalance he’d handled any previous one. He adapted, quickly, and still remained vibrant and happy to “see” me. He loved a good tug-of-war and remembered where he’d left his rope and would bound over to it and bring it to me when he wanted to play.

    I hope I can keep that in mind as I get older. Accept. Adapt. Keep a sense of humor and make the best out of any situation.

    Dogs are wonderful teachers.

  13. What a lovely tribute to Virginia! One of my coworkers is caring for a blind kitten, but you’d never know it with the way she faces the world so boldly and without fear. Isn’t it amazing how animals are so much more adaptable than people?

  14. If you don’t feel capable of caring for your vision-impaired canine companion, I believe the Girl Guides have some sort of adoption process in place.

    At least, I think I saw someone collecting money for “Blind dogs for the Guides”….

  15. This is, perhaps, one of the best posts I’ve ever read on Boingboing.. Jason, this was very well written and shines with the compassion you have for your four footed companion.

    And, thanks to all of you that contributed your own stories… and good for you for the love you’ve expressed…

    I’ll give my sighted pup and extra hug tonight…

  16. We have a 15-year-old Golden who is blind as a bat. He hasn’t adapted as well as everyone else’s dogs (I suspect because of age), but he manages pretty well. His big problem is with the ramp we built to help him get in the house. He bumbles and trips over that thing EVERY TIME.

    He’s in the twilight of his years now, and sleeps most of the time. Still, the sound of food being poured in his bowl gets the ol’ tail waggin’ every time.

  17. My favorite book as a kid was The Trouble With Tuck, about a dog that goes blind and his family adopts a seeing eye dog for him. I’m sure this is totally fictitious but I thought it was a pretty cool idea.

  18. Our dog just had to have one of her toes removed due to cancer. It had become really swollen and she ended up hurting it further somehow, so she could barely walk on it and she always had it shaking due to the pain.

    Once she had it removed it was like nothing was wrong. I just saw her today and she is RUNNING on it after 2 or 3 weeks. The vet told my mom that animals adapt to changes really well (much like Virginia), and that the dog had no emotional attachment to the toe like a human would. Animals really are pretty amazing :P

  19. Good luck to both of you. Cool post. I love my dog, Savannah, a golden retriever. She isn’t blind but I would hope that she would recover well too.

  20. It’s wonderful to hear about the adaptability of dogs. My aussie, Zephyr, was attacked by a pack of dogs last Monday, and ended joining the “tripod club” on Tuesday. By the time I picked him up after the operation, he had emotionally returned to his usual attentive self, and was standing and snoozing comfortably.

  21. Dogs are amazingly adaptable. We have two, one of whom is deaf. It’s really fascinating to watch the deaf dog follow and track the hearing one – he follows his line of sight and, if he sees him barking at something, runs up to see what it is so he can bark along. It’s really something to watch them acting like a team.

  22. Thank you very much for this story! I have a 9 year old Basenji who was recently diagnosed with progressive retinal atrophy. At first, I thought she’d be miserable and I cried over the fact that there wasn’t anything I could do (since it’s genetic, there’s not much to do to stop it), but now I’ve realized that she’ll be fine. She does ok during the day, but has a hard time at night; however it’s not slowly her down at all! We live on the 2nd floor of our building so when we go up the stairs at night, she just sniffs the entire step above her to know where she’s going. She still runs up to 3 miles me with me and loves going to the dog park.

    Anyone out there who thinks they have to put down a blind dog – DON’T! They’ll still live long and happy lives – often giving more than the get in return!

  23. Dogs are amazing. I have two deaf shelties that I have raised from puppyhood. I use hand signals and body language to communicate with them, and they don’t know any difference. My deaf shelties have known no other life… to them, being deaf is very normal. It is us humans who have difficulty communicating non-verbally… most dogs do it naturally (see wolves interacting in a pack).

    I do agility with one of my deaf dogs, and most people at trials really don’t know that he’s deaf except for the fact that I don’t say anything to him during our runs… it is all non-verbal. Some do ask later if he is deaf, but he runs agility like any other hearing dog so most people just aren’t aware. He knows to check in often and watch me for handling cues. And we practice a lot so that when I give a signal or go in a certain direction, he knows from experience what that means and will take the next obstacle or turn in a certain direction. And, he has the advantage of NOT hearing the banging of the teeter totter, barking dogs, planes, and sirens that could distract him, or that could disturb his naps between runs. I don’t know if I could run a hearing dog in agility after running Alva…

    Enjoy and love your Virginia. She has already shown you that life is to be lived to the fullest, that there really is nothing wrong with HER, so go chase some squirrels!

  24. We had a pomeranian who went blind after contracting glaucoma in both eyes, but the blindness didn’t really seem to make much of a difference for him. Maybe I don’t remember much because I was around 8 when this happened, but he was absolutely fine. The disconcerting thing for me was the way his eyes looked (like raisins), but I got over that. He was a great dog.

  25. I am a cat person, but this post truly touched me, and made me want to get a dog. For my wife and the kids. :)

    Thanks BB for this (nowadays rare) post of a Wonderful Thing.

  26. friends went to mexico a few years back. they have a pug and a bulldog. they left the dogs with his mother. while playing one day the bulldog accidentally took out the eye of the pug. yes, it really was play and yes it really was an accident. when the couple got home and for a long time after, they, the couple were horrified and panicked (and we won’t even mention how guilty mom felt). no need. the pug, we’ll call her lu, ADJUSTED JUST FINE. PLUS, she makes one HELL of a pirate at halloween. oh one more thing. the bulldog, we’ll call him monte and lu are STILL the best of friends

  27. @23 Read that the other day. Made me smile a lot.

    Animals do survive pretty well with any infirmity, because they’ve got much more highly tuned senses than humans. Also they don’t think: Oh my god! I’m blind. They think: I can’t see the food bowl, but I know it’s there…

    Here’s to the animal kingdom. Reminding us to focus on what we do have, rather than what we’ve lost.

  28. Gorgeous story – the resilience of dogs is always amazing – my wee bitser was paralysed after suffering a spinal lesion 2 years ago, and has had surgery, lots of therapy and much much love and affection to nurse him back to 85-90% of what he used to be.

    Your story also reminded me of this old couple my parents made us visit as kids – they had THREE toy poodles that were all blind. It really freaked us kids out how these dogs were able to find us no matter how quiet we thought we were….

  29. Beautiful post it is. Thank you for posting this story and thank you for caring for Virginia.

  30. That was one very interesting read, I would not have thought that it’s that “easy” for a dog to adapt …

    And on a side-note … even though I am totally crazy for *any* dog, Virginia seems particularly sweet !

  31. “Me Too” with the blind dog. crohn disease. adopted from the mean streets of rembert, SC, where he was found, apparently escaped or abandoned. docked tail, y’ know. some kind of norfolk-norwich mix, he had one ear up & the other flopped down. after he went blind it was like a roomba, finding his way down the hall, up the steps, around the yard. jumped up on you, sometimes just sitting and ‘gazing’ at nothing, just like a sighted dog.

    we think he escaped from a traveling russian circus, where he was a Performing Dog, jumping thru hoops, etc. covered with burrs and filled with heartworms, he was a project from day one. the trainers at the circus must have been great huge russians with beards, because he was afraid of and aggressive towards large, blustery men. only dog that ever bit me.

    dear old Fig, we still love and honor him.

  32. The initial impulse to pity and overcompensate for blind pets is also the impulse most have when it comes to blind people. I don’t mean to scold but it’s the same impulse that gets the blind put in work homes where they get paid less than minimum wage to do menial labor. It’s the same impulse that gets the children of blind people taken away from them to this very day (illegally I might add). It’s the same impulse that gets blind people grabbed by the arm by well meaning strangers and led around without their consent.

    The pets teach a valuable lesson. They don’t need to be pittied they need to learn by doing. The skills it takes to be a “good blind person” are a more complex and benefit from education. But in the long run it’s the same concept.

  33. Half-blind cat here (she’s dictating, I’m just typing!), you guys all rock!

    Except for replica watch guy. Please go away.


    [dictated but not read]

  34. We own a sheltie puppy who has been deaf since birth, and she really doesn’t know any difference. Regardless of whether the dog becomes deaf or blind or starts out life that way, they adapt marvelously.

    While the site below focuses on deaf dogs, it has some good things to consider for any dog with sense impairment:

    Mind-mapping of Where Things Are is very important for blind dogs… Avoid rearranging the furniture or leaving out unexpected clutter.

    Also, to avoid startling her, it’s good to speak to her or blow on her before touching her. (This is especially important when she’s asleep.)

    Our deaf girl has taught us that there’s nothing at all she’s missing out of life. It’s the human beings who think that, and are continually surprised by how social and able she is.

  35. I used to have two blind dogs, a brother and sister. They were Basset Hound mixes. Evidently they lost their vision when they were very young, due to their owner not taking them to the vet when they had infections in their eyes. These dogs were incredibly intelligent and very sweet. I was amazed at how quickly they learned their surroundings. I had a doggy door for my other two dogs. The blind dogs learned to use the doggy door MUCH faster than the two who could see. I was truly amazed and touched by their curiosity and adaptability.

  36. I had a lovely cat who was blind from early kittenhood due to a pair of detached retinas. She rarely seemed hindered by her lack of sight – she would climb all the furniture, chase invisible insects, and was always able to find her people (or, more importantly, their laps) wherever they were in the house. She was also the only one of three cats who would get right into the mix when we had company over – she was totally unfazed by a forest of unfamiliar legs moving around in her space. She died young of other, unrelated, health issues, but had a very happy life for the six years she was with me.

  37. My mother in law has a miniature yorkshire terrier that is blind from birth, but you’d never tell if you didn’t know it. When they first got her they put a low fence separating the part of a room that had the stairs to go to the basement, maybe 14″ high, and she now jumps over it like a pro at a full run without even touching it lol. And she hasn’t fallen down the stairs once. She’ll take flying leaps of beds and chairs whenever she wants to get down too :P

  38. Jason,

    Thank you for this lovely and thoughtful post. As the owner of a 12 1/2-year-old dog, I am (for the first time) experiencing life with an aging dog. It has frightened me, broken my heart and amazed me. I take comfort in Virginia’s story.

    Best wishes to you and Virginia.

  39. That was a really nice story you shared. I wish Boing Boing did more “original” posts like these. Such a cute dog and a funny little drawing, and the comments here are pretty great, too.

  40. Growing up, we had a cocker spaniel go blind due to cateracts. Sadly, the dog turned vicious, though given how my father treated him I’m surprised he waited until going blind before turning nasty.

    The dog became unapproachable, and would attempt to bite anyone who came close, including members of our family.

    We had to put him down.

  41. Jason,

    Great article (sweet dog). I have to comment especially, though, on your writing style. It is most refreshing, and I’m going to look into your book, and look you up special on the Onion.


  42. It’s funny how blind pet owners are coming out the woodwork to comment on this article. I’m another one of the same – my dog’s been blind since a very young age (found on the street with infections in both eyes, had to be removed). The article does a great job of describing how he acts – he runs around, plays, and functions like any other dog, with surprisingly few bumps and accidents once he learns the layout of the area. He picks his feet up higher than most as he walks, so that he steps on top of obstacles instead of walking into them. Overall though, most people assume he’s only blind in one eye (other eye is partially intact, no vision though), because he functions well and is just as excitable and playful as anyone else.

  43. thnx for sharing – aren’t dogs just f’ing rad? :)

    I have a 12 yr old blind and deaf (from birth) Australian shepherd (she’s white – and no pigment in eyes or ears for aussies = some degree of blind/deaf).

    Over the years it’s been absolutely cool to watch her cope/deal/manage so impressively with her environment on smell/feel alone. And it’s not s/thing she had to adapt to like sighted-dogs who lost their vision – she’s never known anything different.

    give your Virginia a pat on the head for me :).

  44. Virgina is a remarkable dog. You are lucky to have such a brilliant and resourceful dog — truly amazing.

  45. This article brought back memories of the emotions I had when our dog slowly drifted into blindness.

    I, too, had the same feelings: “they don’t understand, it’s my dog and she’s going blind. How can she adjust to that?”

    But over time, with a little bit of research on the internet, I was comforted by stories – many of them similar to Jason’s well-written experience – who helped me believe that this condition was not the end of the world, for me or for Senka.

    By the way, the articles on this website were some of the first pages that helped me see this condition in a new way, I hope it can help others.

    Thanks for a great article (and artwork!) Jason, it made my day!

  46. Is it appropriate (for this article) that the “Report this comment” icon is a small picture of an open eye?

  47. My dog Joyful was picked up by Animal Control after she had been seen running along railroad tracks for a couple of days. She was a lab/pitbull mix (probably), about nine months old. Her head was horribly injured, her skull fractured, both eyes destroyed. The vet said it appeared that one of her eyes had been out of the socket and somehow had gotten back. I keep asking her what happened, but she won’t say. I wonder how she survived, and how frightened and in pain she must have been.

    She was due to be euthanized as unadoptable but the people at the vet’s office casually asked if I wanted to see her — and I knew she was my dog and belonged with me. The optic nerves in both eyes are totally destroyed and we call her our Frankendog because you can see that her skull was cracked and put together oddly.

    She is one of a pack of a dozen dogs here and she functions amazingly well. Several of the dogs will run and play, zooming around, and there she is, running behind them. She has memorized the house and the yard and copes really well when things change — if a chair is moved, for instance. She seems to use her front legs sometimes to feel her way if she senses something in front of her.

    There have been times when she bumps into our oldest dog when he’s snoozing in a doorway. He snarls at her and she has learned for the most part to be very careful around the places he likes to be.

    I named her Joyful — because she is. She walks on a leash just fine. I’ve taught her that when I say “Step” it means something is going to change — a curb, a change from gravel to grass, a ramp. She is just a happy girl. There is no reason to think she spends any energy or thought at all to the concept that once the world was light and now it isn’t.

    Sometimes she will be running with the other dogs and they will have moved on and I look out the window to see Joyful doing a deep play bow with nobody there — and I get a lump in my throat. The important thing about that, though, is that it doesn’t bother her a bit. She just changes direction and finds the others and carries on.

    My brother sent me the link to this post. I loved it and every one of the comments. And — if somebody wants to contact me directly, I have the book “Living With Blind Dogs” which has a lot of good information. I’ll be happy to pass it along.

    Regards and tummy rubs to Virginia.

  48. Wonderful, Wonderful-well done. I will save this for information to give when this happens to a rescue pug. People often think it is the cruelest to keep a blind dog alive and are out of their minds when their dog loses sight. When I first started in pug rescue, I had the good fortune to speak w/ a trainer who said to mark the furniture, edges of hallways (you get the idea) at the blind dogs height with a scented candle or a bar of soap. The dog will (within a couple of hours)triangulate the scent. I have seen a little pug RUNNING through a house the very next day. This article explains all-the heartache, sadness and challanges of senior canines and how yes your dog will adapt. SO Thank You-Great Writing! and it will be of service for sight impaired dogs everywhere.

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