Ever gone snorkeling, or attended a rock concert? In both cases, human ears are at a significant disadvantage. Interpersonal sound cues are muffled, distorted or obliterated altogether. Communication generally takes place via some coordinated combination of hand signals, eye contact, facial expressions and body language. Recalling these types of experiences can help us understand what a deaf dog faces every day.
Deaf dogs — the basics
It hasn’t always been easy to find educational resources concerning dog deafness. In the past, that presented a problem for owners like Susan Cope Becker. She was inspired to share her personal perspectives by writing Living with a Deaf Dog: A Book of Advice, Facts and Experiences About Canine Deafness. Thanks to these sorts of firsthand observations — plus ongoing research, and improvements in digital information dissemination — insights continue to become more accessible.
Nonetheless, some pet owners remain wary about sharing space with a deaf dog. Dedicated rescue services like Maryland-based Pets With Disabilities regularly take in hearing-deficient canines who have been abandoned or owner-surrendered. But Chris Stirn, executive director at Chicagoland-based A.D.O.P.T. Pet Shelter, is quick to offer reassurance. “Adopting any dog can introduce challenges,” she notes, “and living with a deaf dog simply makes those challenges more specific.” Based upon her own long-term observations, Stirn emphasizes that welcoming a deaf canine into your life can be “a very rewarding experience.”
According to skilled behaviorists like Sara Swan, owner at Narnia Pet Behavior & Training, the same holds true for any hearing-impaired dog you may already own. She explains that deaf canines, if properly socialized, can enjoy a level of functionality similar to their hearing counterparts. “And remember,” she chuckles, “they usually won’t bark at the doorbell.”
Here, we explore the ins and outs of optimizing life for a deaf dog.
Causes of dog deafness
My own dog began losing his hearing around the age of 11. One day I noticed that he wouldn’t respond to the familiar, crinkly sound of his treat bag. Then he gradually lost the ability to hear thunderstorms approaching — a mixed blessing, really, since they’d always terrified him. Eventually, I could walk up behind my beloved pup completely unacknowledged.
We ultimately learned that my sweet boy was experiencing geriatric hearing loss. In his book Deafness in Dogs and Cats, veterinary researcher George M. Strain, PhD, explains that causes for this condition can range from drug toxicity to chronic infections to medical issues to head-related injuries — to yes, even simple old age.
But congenital deafness also occurs — in other words, some dogs are simply deaf from birth. Strain and other researchers have noted a few fairly intriguing connections. Certain statistics, for example, suggest that specific dog breeds seem more predisposed to congenital deafness than others. Interestingly, some studies have found that dogs with white heads can sometimes display a stronger tendency toward inborn hearing loss. It’s thought that lack of pigmentation in the head region may impact nerve cells commonly used to conduct sound.
Is your dog deaf? Initial diagnosis
Do you suspect that your own canine’s hearing might be compromised? Try shaking a box of treats in the next room to test for any reaction. You can also rattle an empty can filled with pebbles, to see if it elicits a head-turn. But the best way to investigate possible hearing loss is by scheduling a vet visit.
My veterinarian began with a simple observational exam that looked for excess ear wax, fur overgrowth, ear canal blockage, signs of injury or redness that could indicate inflammation. If your own vet suspects some sort of infection, a simple ear swab and culture can help determine the appropriate course of treatment. If sustained hearing loss seems more likely, your vet might conduct something called a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test. This helps evaluate how the brain processes auditory stimuli. Additional imaging tests can provide clues about the possible cause of dog deafness.
Canine hearing loss: potential treatments
If infection is the culprit, your vet may prescribe some combination of topical ointment, oral antibiotics or ear flushing with an enzymatic solution like Zymox. Once successfully treated, this type of hearing impairment can often clear up in a matter of days or weeks. Likewise, ear plucking, wax cleaning or removal of a foreign body can open the ear canal and improve sound conduction.
In the book New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats, Tennessee-based holistic veterinarian Sandra Priest, D.V.M., notes that Animal Dermatology Laboratories Foaming Ear Cleanser is great for keeping canine ears free of debris on a regular basis.
But when dog deafness is caused by a medical condition or congenital defect, delicate inner structures or systems may be involved. In some cases, surgery can correct the problem. Canine cochlear implants might be another option, though these devices can be both expensive and tough for dogs to tolerate. Frequently, the best course of action is helping everyone in your hybrid family “pack” learn to live with the hearing loss.
Life with a deaf dog: training tips
It’s natural to worry that dog deafness might interfere with your human-canine bond. But remember, dogs generally don’t sit around feeling horrible for themselves — they simply accept things as they are, adapt and move on. “Owners of deaf dogs may need a jump-start understanding how to communicate,” says Swan, “but once these pets comprehend, they can definitely live great lives as loving family members.”
She recommends that owners start developing modes of communication that can supplement standard audio prompts. In fact, Swan notes that it’s not a bad idea to use a combination of body language, hand signals and auditory cues to communicate with any pet — even those without hearing loss. “Dogs actually learn hand signals faster,” she says, “and they respond more reliably to a combination of signals.” So using this approach with a hearing pet can actually facilitate faster adjustment, should deafness occur down the line.
Should you / can you teach a deaf dog sign language?
Some owners use American Sign Language (ASL), but any hand signal your dog understands should work fine. The important thing is creating unique signals for each key command, then using them consistently. You may also want to teach a special hand signal that represents your dog’s name. Mouth or say the word, and use the hand gesture simultaneously. For actions like “walk” or “car ride,” you can hold out your pet’s leash or display car keys while moving in the appropriate direction.
One command that’s especially fundamental for a deaf dog is “watch.” It asks your dog to focus full attention on your eyes and face. To teach this vital command, try holding a tiny morsel of food near your dog’s snout. Gradually pull this tidbit up next to your own eyes while clearly mouthing and saying the word “watch.” Eventually, your dog will learn to look you in the eye when you need to communicate — even after you stop using the treat.
Getting your dog to watch from a distance is also important. “Owners can use a vibration collar or laser pointer to help capture their canine’s attention,” notes Swan, adding that with both approaches, “you have to TEACH your dog that when he feels that neck vibration or sees the dot, he needs to look toward you.”
Lifestyle tips for deaf dogs
Learning to properly interact with your hearing-impaired pet can help both humans and pets avoid potential issues or injury. Keep the following checklist in mind:
- Home Navigation: The idea that deaf dogs never bark is largely a myth, but it’s still smart to keep an eye on your curious canine around the house. Placing a small bell on your pet’s collar can be a great way to quickly determine his whereabouts. You might also place a baby gate in front of any stairs, just in case your deaf canine becomes startled.
- Outdoor Hazards: Deaf dogs should always be leashed while outside, or permitted to play within a securely fenced area. “Always keep ID tags on your deaf dog as well,” notes Stirn, “and be sure to microchip your pet, and keep that contact information current.” You can also outfit your canine’s collar with an informational tag that reads, “Toby is deaf. If found, please call …” And remember, deaf dogs can’t hear approaching vehicles — so always watch closely when you’re walking near the street.
- Proximity Awareness: “Deaf dogs can startle more easily, particularly while sleeping,” notes Swan. To help prevent this, she suggests, “try flicking a light off and on when you approach — or, walk more heavily on the floor.” Scent is also a powerful informational tool for your canine, she says, “so, even pausing near your pet for a moment can help your dog catch your scent and recognize your presence.” Similarly, if you’re concerned your snoozing dog might become disoriented and nip, you can try touching him very lightly on the back with a long, fluffy dust mop. And don’t forget, always let your deaf dog know you’re leaving the house. Don’t simply sneak away while he’s dozing.
The bottom line on deafness in dogs
Bottom line, approach dog deafness as a unique chance to maximize your human-pet connection. Need personalized help mastering a few strategic lifestyle changes? Never hesitate to touch base with a certified trainer. Stirn notes that a little bit of empathy, commitment and patience can go a long way. With some extra practice and TLC, you can make every day fun and safe for your hearing-impaired pup.
Thumbnail: Photography ©HAYKIRDI | E+ / Getty Images Plus.
Additional resources for deaf dog parents:
- American Sign Language Video Dictionary
- A Deaf Dog Joins the Family: Training, Education, and Communication for a Smooth Transition, by Terrie Hayward
- Deaf Dog Education Action Fund
- Dogs Can Sign, Too: A Breakthrough Method for Teaching Your Dog to Communicate, by Sean Senechal
- Living with a Deaf Dog: A Book of Advice, Facts and Experiences About Canine Deafness, by Susan Cope Becker