Is your ageing pooch struggling to hear what you’re saying? Did your pup have an accident and lose his sense of hearing? Or are you considering adopting a special needs dog? Whatever your motivation, there are loads of reasons to celebrate a dog who’s hard of hearing (or even entirely deaf), and caring for one can become the most rewarding journey of your (and their) life.
If this sounds a little weird, we get it. Those who don’t have a pet, friend or relative who’s hearing-impaired may find it strange to be unable to use their voices to communicate.
Auditory senses are central to communication in almost all mammals, so understanding, caring for, and training a dog who can’t hear may seem daunting. The truth is, it’s perfectly possible to communicate with a pet who can’t hear – plus, it can challenge you to become a more creative and attentive owner.
But be aware that it’s not an easy path. The Dog ID blog warns, “There is a certain level of time commitment, responsibility and advocacy that comes along with adopting a deaf dog.”
Even if you never signed up for a deaf dog, it could still happen to your marvellous mutt. Deafness is commonly perceived to affect older dogs who develop health issues (which we detail here) but even if your furry friend is young(ish) and perfectly healthy, it never hurts to be prepared. “Deafness in dogs can happen at any time,” Erin Ollila at Hill’s Pet warns, though you may not notice at first. She points out, “It is most apparent when your dog stops reacting to common events: the doorbell ringing, the sound of you pouring his food for breakfast, or calling his name to come.”
Now you may be wondering, “Wait, is my dog deaf?” Luckily there’s an easy way to find out. Hill’s Pet demonstrates a simple informal hearing test you can try at home:
1. Stand behind your dog. They must not see or sense you, and can even be sleeping.
2. Make a loud sound like hands clapping or a shout (one that won’t frighten the neighbours). You can try a range of sounds, from the low thud of a foot on the floor to the high-pitched whine of a violin solo on Spotify.
3. If your dog shows that they heard it (their ears twitch or perk up, or their head turns in the direction of the sound), their auditory senses are working. If you’re unsure of the intensity of their response or get no response at all, visit your vet for a formal hearing test ASAP.
Dr George M. Strain, author of Deafness in Dogs and Cats, is the professor of neuroscience at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University and a leading researcher in veterinary neurology.
Through his research, he has identified breeds that are more likely to experience congenital deafness, and points out that breeds with white pigmentation are often most affected.
Some of these breeds include:
• English Bulldogs
• German Shepherds
• Great Danes
• Boston Terriers
If you’re considering adopting, there are deaf dogs who need you – but breeders may not even show you a pup born without hearing if you don’t let them know you’re willing to adopt a deaf dog.
Deaf dogs are often entirely overlooked in adoption shelters due to their disability. While they wait to bring their attentiveness and affections to a human home, they may be put down because nobody chooses them.
While the rate at which your dog goes deaf should set the intensity of deaf dog training, Hannah Savoy of Dog ID assures readers that the training is very similar to training for hearing dogs, a few simple tweaks in the approach.
She spoke to Christina Lee of Deaf Dogs Rock about how she manages with mutts who can’t hear. Christina says, “The dog must be looking at you to get a sign command, so we start with ‘watch me’ training and do it often.”
She trains deaf dogs to watch with the same positive reinforcement that clicker training uses, but without the clicker. This involves using a hand sign or gesture as a command, coaxing the pooch into the desired position/action with a healthy treat, and showing the dog that it has done the task right “with an open, three-finger flash of the hand or a thumbs-up sign” instead of the clicker.
The Bark offers helpful tips, too. Their training tricks include developing an array of hand signals to replace voice commands like “sit”, “stay”, “fetch” and “down”. Even “Good dog!” and the dog’s name can be demonstrated using your own hands!
For dogs who can’t hear, The Bark points out that it can be distressing for a hound to wake up to an empty house, or to feel something touching their head. Let your hearing-impaired dog know you’re leaving by saying goodbye with a signal, and wake a deaf, snoozing hound safely with the smell of a treat at the nostrils, or a gentle touch on the body, not on the head and neck.
The world is a very different place for a dog who can’t hear. While they can still live a happy, fulfilled life (and give you a happy, fulfilled life too!) it’s important to keep deaf dogs safe. Help them integrate with these top tips, also from The Bark:
• Deaf dogs won’t hear a passing car. Keep them leashed when off your property, and securely fenced when at home. And remember that dogs dig, so keep an eye on your fencing!
• Deaf dogs look just like hearing dogs. Alert other humans to their deafness. A bespoke collar with a message or tag can help, something we explore here.
• Deaf dogs, like other dogs, escape and go off adventuring from time to time. The problem is, they can’t hear you calling them back for dinner or treats. You could put a bell or tracking device on your dog’s collar and warn neighbours that they can’t hear.
• A torch is one way to signal in the dark or low light when a deaf dog struggles to see hand signs.
• Dog ID also warns never to sneak up behind a dog who can’t hear. As deafness is invisible, this is also good safety practise when approaching any other dog. Always ask permission to touch someone else’s dog, from the dog as well as the human!
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