What to Know About Caring for Your Deaf Dog

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Dogs can experience hearing loss due to accident or injury to the ear or ear structures, congenital abnormalities, disease of the ear, or most commonly as part of the aging process. You may notice your dog not responding to the doorbell, or being startled when they wake up-- these are common signs of hearing loss.

If you suspect your dog cannot hear properly they should be taken to the veterinarian for assessment, as some conditions such as wax buildup are reversible. If your dog is permanently deaf, there are several strategies you can employ to communicate with your dog. Because communicating verbally is not a priority for dogs, they have other ways of communicating, such as body language and scent that are more important to them. Your dog can adapt rather well to not hearing, it is their dog owners that need to adapt to communicating in other ways. Read on for more information on how deafness occurs in your dog and what you can do to communicate with and deal with their hearing loss.


Signs and Causes of Hearing Loss

If your dog is experiencing a loss of hearing, there are some signs you may observe. These include:

■ Being difficult to wake up, or startling when they awake
■ Not reacting to sounds such as the doorbell, traffic, vacuum, or other dogs barking
■ Not responding to their name or commands
■ Ears that do not rotate or move to pick up sounds
■ Barking excessively

Causes of hearing loss include:

■ Congenital defect: Dalmatians, English setters, Australian shepherds and Jack Russell terriers are more prone to this type of deafness than other breeds. Dogs with white or merle coats may be more susceptible.
■ Cancerous or benign tumors that interfere or destroy ear structures or nerves associated with hearing.
■ Age: Degeneration and hardening of ear structures with aging can render hearing structures non-functional.
■ Ear infections that are chronic or untreated, and where ear structures are destroyed as a result of bacterial activity.
■ Head or ear injury
■ Degenerative nerve conditions
■ Poisoning
■ Wax buildup resulting in temporary hearing loss, which can be rectified with treatment


Communicating with Your Deaf Dog

If your dog is experiencing hearing loss there are steps you will need to take to be able to effectively communicate with them, ensure they are not put in situations where they are frightened and could develop behavioral problems, and to protect them from environmental hazards.

Attention-Getters

Because dogs are not primarily verbal communicators, they can adapt rather easily to other forms of communication. Many owners of deaf dogs develop hand signals to give their dogs commands instead of the traditional, verbal “come”, “sit”, “stay” commands. This usually works very well, but requires you to be in sight of your dog when commands are given. Some pet owners may use a flashlight to signal their dog and get his attention, or turn the lights on and off. An alternative that may be used when you are not in your dog's field of vision is to use scent from food or aerosoled odor to get their attention or use a vibrating collar. Vibrating collars available for deaf dogs are NOT shock collars, they are commercially available collars that gently vibrate when signaled by the pet owner to get your dog's attention and can be associated with commands such as come or stay.

Safe Startle

Many people believe that a deaf dog can be aggressive, especially if startled. This does not have to be the case. If your dog is experiencing hearing loss, it is important to condition them to being comfortable with being startled by using positive reinforcement and giving them the feeling of a secure, safe environment. Use food as a positive reinforcement for reacting calmly when approached or touched unexpectedly. Especially in houses with small children that may move suddenly and startle a dog that can not hear them coming, working to get the dog conditioned to accept being startled by a small child and rewarding them for responding appropriately and not aggressively will establish positive behavior. Teach family members to signal the dog before approaching, so that startling them unnecessarily and constantly does not result in anxious behavior. While you want your dog to accept being startled occasionally as a non-threatening event, you do not want to overdo it, constantly subjecting them to a startle response, as this can be counterproductive. Also, steps to ensure training and conditioning to give the dog confidence in their environment, in spite of their lack of hearing, will reduce anxiety that could lead to other behavioral problems such as excessive vocalization or destructive behaviors.

Care and Caution

Because your dog cannot hear, they have to rely on their sense of sight and smell to interact with the world. However, this can put them at a disadvantage of identifying dangers such as vehicles or other dogs approaching. You will need to protect your dog when outside by keeping them on a leash, or in an enclosed area, so they do not run away into traffic or become subject to attack by aggressive animals. Some pet owners put a tag on their dog’s collar stating that he is deaf, so that if they become separated from their owner, someone finding them will understand why they respond differently than other dogs. You can also put a bell on your dog's collar, so you can locate him easier if he does become separated from you.

Who Really Needs to Adapt?

Dealing with deafness in your dog is probably more of an adjustment for you than for your dog. You will need to find new creative ways of communicating with your dog other than verbal cues. The use of hand signals is usually successful, you can make up your own, or you can use American Sign Language, the language that hearing impaired humans use, which will teach you a new skill too! Other means of communicating with light, vibrations, or scent can also be employed. Making sure your dog is comfortable with their condition and does not react in a frightened or aggressive way when startled will require some training, conditioning, and positive reinforcement. Pet owners also need to take extra steps to ensure their dog is safe outside and does not become separated from them and vulnerable to hazards, or that if they do become separated they can be located and returned to safety as easily as possible. Living with a deaf dog does not need to be a problem--a little bit of thoughtfulness and creativity communicating will keep your dog safe, responsive, and happy.