Training and Caring for a Deaf Dog

WebMD discusses how you can train and communicate with a deaf dog using hand signals.

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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.

"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.

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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.

"Make sure they can't see your movement, or feel any vibrations, like you stomping on the floor," Newstead says. "And try different ranges of sound. Blow a whistle for the high range, clap your hands loudly for mid-range, and hit a drum for low range. Many mostly deaf dogs still have some limited hearing."

And if your dog suddenly seems to be ignoring you, or doesn't come running when food is poured into his bowl, you might want to test his hearing as well, Newstead says.

Pet owners who want conclusive evidence can ask for a test called the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response procedure, or BAER. During this test, electrodes are placed under the dog's scalp to read the brain's response to a series of clicks directed into each ear.

Can deaf dogs be trained?

Although it was once believed that deaf dogs could not be trained, many people that love and care for them say deaf dog training isn't difficult. Dick Russell, a dog trainer near Baton Rouge, La., has worked with more than 100 deaf dogs in the past 20 years.

"It's as easy to train a deaf dog as a hearing dog," Russell says. "The only difference is you use hand signals instead of verbal commands."

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The secret, he says, is having a clear hand signal for each action you want the dog to learn. It doesn't matter what they are, he says, as long as you're consistent.

Russell says it's also a myth that deaf dogs are more aggressive. He says any dog, if startled, could bite. He tells clients with deaf puppies to wake them up repeatedly, with a tasty treat in hand. Soon they'll associate being awakened, even if startled, with something good. And if you don't want to startle a sleeping dog, stomp your foot near them or bump the couch or bed they're sleeping on. The vibration usually awakens them, he says.

Other than that, Russell says, people really don't need to make a lot of special adjustments for their deaf pets. And Strain said hearing aids are a waste of time for most deaf dogs.

"Hearing aids only amplify sound, and if there are no nerve cells left to facilitate hearing, amplifying the sound won't help," he says. "Besides, most dogs hate having anything in their ears."

How do I keep my deaf dog safe?

Of course, there are some common-sense steps owners of a deaf dog should take, experts say. The first is keeping the dog on a leash or in a fenced yard for the pet's safety. A deaf dog can't hear a car or other danger coming.

To keep track of your dog, put a bell on her collar, Becker suggests. And put a tag on her that says "Deaf," along with your contact information.

One of the few problems people living with a deaf dog report is getting their pet's attention. Becker says at night it's easy, because deaf dogs can be taught to come in with the flash of a porch light or flashlight.

But during the day it can be harder if the dog is focused on something else. Russell says deaf dogs tend to become so bonded with their owners that they look to them constantly. Newstead says her dogs usually see her if she waves her arms. But she says if they're having a barking frenzy, she sometimes has to go over to them and touch them to get their attention.

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Despite all the information available on caring for deaf dogs, Becker says many breeders still routinely euthanize deaf puppies. And deaf dogs dropped off at public shelters usually meet the same fate.

"Deaf dogs can have a wonderful life," Newstead says. "They can do agility, obedience. They can be therapy dogs. They can do almost anything a hearing dog can do -- there's nothing wrong with them. They're just a dog that can't hear."

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on November 18, 2009

Sources

SOURCES:

Susan Cope Becker, author of "Living with a Deaf Dog," Vonore, Tenn.

George M. Strain, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University.

Holly Newstead, co-founder of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund and owner of five deaf dogs over the past 15 years, Navarro, Calif.

Dick Russell, owner of Dog Obedience with Dick Russell, Greenwell Springs, La.

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