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Training and Caring for a Deaf Dog

WebMD discusses how you can train and communicate with a deaf dog using hand signals.
By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

When Susan Cope Becker bought a cute Boston terrier puppy in 1995, she was shocked several weeks later to discover the puppy was deaf. She was even more surprised when she couldn't find any information on caring for or training a deaf dog.

Becker started researching the issue and ended up writing a book on the topic. Today, there's a good deal of information out there about living with a deaf dog. There are groups, web sites, books, and trainers who work with non-hearing dogs.

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"The opportunities for deaf dogs today are so much better," Becker says.

What causes deafness in dogs?

Some puppies are born deaf, which is known as congenital deafness. Other dogs can go deaf from a variety of causes, ranging from chronic ear infections or injuries to drug toxicity and old age, says George M. Strain, PhD, a leading veterinary researcher on the causes of deafness in dogs and a professor of neuroscience at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University.

Are some dogs more likely to be born deaf?

Strain says he has identified 89 dog breeds with incidences of congenital deafness, some much higher than others. Dalmatians seem to be the most at risk, he says, with 30% of puppies born deaf in one or both ears.

Other breeds with higher incidents of deafness include the bull terrier, English setters, Australian cattle dog, the Catahoula Leopard dog, whippets, and Parson Russell terrier (formerly known as Jack Russell terrier.)

Strain says although researchers still aren't sure what causes congenital deafness, they do know it's most common in dogs with white or nearly white heads.

"The lack of pigment on the head causes the pigment cells in the inner ear to fail to develop, or they may be lacking entirely," Strain says. "The lack of pigment cells causes the death of the nerve cells that need to develop for hearing to occur."

Oddly, some solid white dogs, such as the Spitz or the Samoyed, have no problems with deafness, he says.

What causes dogs to go deaf over time?

Other causes of deafness later in life can include repeated or untreated ear infections, toxic chemicals and some drugs, aging, and injury, Strain says.

"I've seen a number of [Labrador retrievers] with hearing loss from guns being fired too close to their heads," he says.

Dogs that go deaf later in life seem to have little trouble adapting to their condition, Strain said.

"Usually, the owners are more upset by it than the dog," he says.

How can I tell if my dog is deaf?

If you suspect your dog might be deaf, try this test: wait until your dog is asleep or not looking at you and make a loud noise behind him, says Holly Newstead, who co-founded the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund in the mid ‘90s with her husband, John, after they acquired a deaf Dalmatian puppy.

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