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Is Your Dog Retarded or Mentally Challenged?

By Aviram K.
Published in Training & Behavior
August 19, 2021
4 min read
Is Your Dog Retarded or Mentally Challenged?
✏️ This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.
🏥 The information in this article is not a substitute for professional help.

If you’re anything like the average, loving dog owner, you keep a very watchful eye on your pup at all times. You know their patterns, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Nothing they do ever slides past you!

What if I told you that despite your familiarity with your dog, something may still be hiding in plain sight? You may be missing something due to the sheer fact you don’t realize that it’s a thing you even need to look for.

You can pick up on obvious signs that your dog may be sick or in pain, but did you know your dog may be struggling mentally?

Mental retardation in dogs can manifest as blank stares, lack of learning commands, and slow response time, among others. Dogs can also be autistic or suffer from other mental disorders such as separation anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A more certain diagnosis for such conditions is best made by a professional vet.

In this article, I will explore the topic of dogs having special needs. I will also give you signs to spot if your dog may have a mental disability and wrap things up by giving you tips on training a mentally challenged dog.

Ready to learn things about your dog that go far beyond what the eye can see?

Come with me!

Table of Contents
Can Dogs Be Special Needs?
How to Tell If Your Dog Has a Mental Disability
How to Train a Mentally Challenged Dog
A Special Needs Dog May Add Special Meaning to Your Life

Can Dogs Be Special Needs?


Like humans, dogs can absolutely be special needs! As defined by Merriam Webster, special needs is “any of various difficulties (such as a physical, emotional, behavioral, or learning disability or impairment) that causes an individual to require additional or specialized services or accommodations (such as in education or recreation).”

If your dog is special needs, they aren’t an outcast or a liability. Instead, a special needs dog will just require a little more of your time, effort, and attention. You will likely have to make special adjustments to care for them in a way that caters to their individual circumstances.

There’s no doubt that a special needs dog may take a little more patience. They will also challenge you to learn different ways of doing things. Once you get the hang of the adjustments you need to make for your pup, their “differences” will likely turn into a normal part of daily life.

Some people even intentionally seek out special needs dogs so they can be the ones to go the extra mile for them. It can be rewarding to take the time that others may not be able or want to spend and lavish it on a sweet puppy that needs some added care.

How to Tell If Your Dog Has a Mental Disability


It can be hard to tell if your dog has a mental disability. One way to figure this out is to observe your dog. Are they moving differently? Are they acting or behaving in a way that is out of character for them?

If so, they could be showing new signs of a mental disability. However, their behavior could also be attributed to many other things. For that reason, I recommend having your vet evaluate your dog to get to the root cause of any symptoms you are seeing.

To give you an idea of what to be on the lookout for, here are a few mental disabilities your dog may be experiencing, along with the signs keep an eye on:

Mental Retardation

  • Can be with your dog since birth or can progress as they get older.
  • Mental retardation in dogs is similar to mental retardation in humans. Still, it is harder to diagnose since dogs can’t speak.
  • Symptoms: blank stare, lack of learning commands, slow response time, etc.


  • Canine Autism is still not a concrete diagnosis, but there is mounting research to support that dogs can have autism.
  • For a tentative autism diagnosis, a dog should show poor socialization and unconventional, repetitive behaviors.
  • Symptoms: tail-chasing, aggression, trance-like states, bent towards phobias, and more.

Separation Anxiety

  • Usually happens when dogs are separated from their owner.
  • Can begin as boredom and amplify into a full-blown panic.
  • Symptoms: Chewing and destroying household items, incessant barking, crying, etc.


  • Can happen after the loss of another pet or family member or change to their routine.
  • Isn’t the same as Clinical Depression that humans can face but has similar symptoms.
  • Symptoms: Loss of appetite, lethargy, and even hair loss, amongst other signs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Develops as a result of being exposed to a very traumatic situation.
  • May be triggered if placed in the same or similar environment where trauma took place.
  • Symptoms: aggression, shivering, intense efforts to flee the location, barking, and more.

How to Train a Mentally Challenged Dog


Mentally challenged dogs need training not just to correct problem behaviors but also to manage their mental health. Here are just a few basic pointers for training your mentally challenged dog:

Play the Searching Game

The searching game helps exercise your dog’s brain and works to enhance their sense of smell.

To play, allow your dog to smell a treat or a bone and then place it in different parts of the house. Then, encourage your dog to search for and find it.

*Bonus: If your dog needs extra help getting around, you can use a head collar or head halter to lead them. You can train your dog to get used to these devices by using the commands “stop” and “stay” as you walk them.

Make Sure Not to Over-Train Your Dog

You don’t want your dog to get overwhelmed or dread their training sessions. It is most effective to keep mentally challenged dogs’ training sessions short, consistent and impactful.

Keep Your Expectations Reasonable

When you’re training your mentally challenged dog, you will likely find they don’t perform like other dogs. That’s okay; they’re not supposed to! I encourage you to allow your dog to move at their own pace. Praise each of their victories, no matter how small they may seem.

A Special Needs Dog May Add Special Meaning to Your Life


You may have never thought that a dog could actually be retarded or mentally challenged. But, now that you know, maybe you believe that having a dog with any kind of special needs may be too difficult.

Perhaps it seems like it’s not even worth the effort.

To be realistic, a special needs or mentally challenged dog will likely require a lot more from an owner than a “regular” dog.

There is another way to look at this, though.

Parenting a mentally challenged dog can be an invitation to you to step into deeper levels of love on a daily basis.

Caring for a mentally challenged dog may help you to grow in compassion, presence, and tolerance.

The extra gentleness you practice with your dog may even extend to yourself. Accommodating their needs may, in turn, make you more forgiving of your own difficulties and imperfections.

As it often goes, you may think you set out to change your mentally challenged dog’s life for the better. But at the end of the day, they actually end up invading your life with a love you never knew was possible.

Dog BehaviorsDog Training
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