Once upon a time, it was common practice to surrender or even euthanize a dog with a disability. But dogs are resilient and are able to live comfortable, relatively normal lives despite disabilities. For National Deaf Dog Awareness Week, we’re highlighting the unique joy that comes with caring for a deaf dog.
Dogs suffer from two kinds of deafness. Many are born with congenital deafness, which is hearing loss due to genetic causes or other influences that affected the fetus while it was in utero. Any dog can be born with congenital deafness, but white dogs seem to be more affected by it, according to George M. Strain, professor of neuroscience at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Sudden onset deafness or acquired deafness in dogs happens for largely the same reasons it happens in people. Noise trauma, infection, drug toxicity and even old age are the primary reasons for acquired deafness.
No matter the reason, deafness is no reason a dog can’t live a happy and rewarding life.
How to tell your dog is deaf
If your dog seems to ignore you, doesn’t come running when you pour food into their dish or seems startled easily, they may have some form of hearing loss. Luckily, you can test it yourself pretty easily by making noises outside of their range of sight. Stand still to avoid getting their attention through vibration and try a range of sounds, from hand claps to whistles. A dog may only have trouble hearing certain frequencies. If you suspect that your dog is deaf and they “fail” your home tests, it’s time to visit your veterinarian for a hearing test.
Training a deaf dog
If it’s determined that your dog is deaf or partially deaf, there’s no need to panic. Training a deaf dog isn’t much harder than training a hearing dog: it just requires hand signals instead of verbal commands. Dr. Strain offers a list of common hand commands suited for communicating with deaf animals, but as long as your signals are clear and consistent, almost any signal can be used for any command.
The hardest part of training a deaf dog is getting their attention. Broadly waving, stomping your foot to send vibrations or gently touching them (in the same place every time) are the best ways. The American Kennel Club suggests that you maybe want to try a collar that lightly vibrates (not a shock collar!) if the other methods don’t grab your dog’s attention consistently.
As when training any dog, reward-based, positive-reinforcement training is recommended. For deaf dogs, it’s a good idea to create a “good dog” hand signal to tell them when they’ve successfully completed a task. Everyone loves a good word, and deaf dogs are no exception. A “thumbs-up” or other obvious signal that they’ve pleased you is just good for morale.
Other than these small changes, training a deaf dog is largely the same as training a hearing dog. It just requires a little more patience.
Are deaf dogs more aggressive?
Some people believe that deaf dogs are more prone to snapping at people than other dogs, because it’s easier to surprise them. This makes a certain logistical sense, but it’s not exactly true. Deafness is a part of their lives, and they adapt to it like they do anything else. This isn’t to say that a deaf dog can’t be aggressive; any dog can be aggressive if startled or scared in the wrong circumstance. Deaf dogs aren’t any more aggressive than a hearing dog, though, on average. You just have to take some extra steps to not surprise them.
You can, however, take steps to get a deaf dog accustomed to waking up suddenly or being touched when they aren’t expecting it. Make waking up a positive experience by appealing to your dog’s other senses. Place your hand in front of his or her nose, letting them smell that you’re there. Then, gently touch them on the shoulder or the back, first with fingertip and then with your whole hand. Have a treat ready for when they wake. The combination of seeing your friendly face with a treat in hand will make waking up a positive experience.
The same concept applies to alerting your dog to your presence even when they’re awake. Gently get their attention by stomping on the floor or turning on a light, and have a treat at the ready to accompany a gentle touch.
Keeping them safe
Keeping a deaf dog safe is really no different than keeping a hearing dog safe. Always keep them on a leash when outside, unless they’re in a fully enclosed space. Know how to get their attention, using a vibrating collar if need be. Take precautions around strange dogs. Make sure your dog is aware of its surroundings. Make sure they have identification or a microchip in case they wander off. Consider purchasing a vest or harness that identifies your dog as hard of hearing so that other pet owners know.
You might have to be a little extra vigilant for your dog, but otherwise, general safety principles apply.
Owning a deaf dog is different than owning a hearing dog, but it’s no less rewarding. Deaf dogs can do everything hearing dogs can do. Except hear!