Deaf dogs can have a perfectly normal life and can be trained fairly easily once both of you have got the hang of a few basic principles – the most important of which is that you have to train using hand signals instead of verbal commands. In fact, dogs with perfect hearing actually find it easier to learn using hand signals and so being deaf shouldn’t be too much of a disadvantage in most situations (the obvious exception being recalls).
In the past, breeders and vets were likely to recommend that deaf puppies were put to sleep, but thankfully more compassion is now shown to them and they are more often given their chance to live full and happy lives. But what is involved in looking after a deaf dog?
What can cause deafness?
Dogs can be born deaf, or it can be acquired at a later age, gradually or suddenly, as a result of injury, disease or old age. Although there are some outward signs that a dog or puppy may be deaf, the only way to confirm this is by a vet or expert performing a BAER test (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response test). When dogs are born deaf, this is most commonly due to a lack of pigmented skin in the inner ear - the nerve endings atrophy and die off in the first few weeks of the puppy’s life. This causes deafness and may occur in either one or both ears. You cannot physically see into the inner ear from the outside, and just because a dog has white ears doesn’t mean that he will be deaf and deaf dogs can have ears that are coloured on the outside. Dogs that are likely to suffer from deafness often have merled or spotted coats, blue eyes or pink skin. This means that certain breeds are more likely to be deaf than others; Dalmatians, Bull Terriers, English Setters, Australian Cattle Dogs and Border Collies amongst others.
Are deaf dogs really so different?
All sorts of myths and untruths have appeared about deaf dogs over the years, but how accurate are they, or have they been used to justify such wide scale euthanasia of otherwise healthy puppies? Can deaf dogs really never live with children? If you startle them when asleep, will they attack? Are they more likely to be hit by a car? Are they incredibly difficult to train? And are they really time-bombs, just waiting to go off?
All dogs are individuals, deaf or not and so it is possible that occasionally a deaf dog may have one of these problems, however, if a deaf dog is raised properly like any other dog should be; socialised correctly, trained and cared for responsibly, there’s no reason why this should be so.
A few special considerations
If you are thinking about taking on a deaf dog or puppy it will help if you have had previous experience with dogs, because there are a few extra considerations that come with the job.
- If you have children, they should be old enough to understand that the dog cannot hear and be able to join in with training commands and stick to the ground rules you have laid for the dog.
- If you are walking your dog in an open area, it is not a good idea to let your dog off the lead. Unless you have trained a reliable recall and are confident that the dog will watch you at all times, a flexi-lead or long line will be best.
- Most deaf dogs will be a little startled if touched when they are not expecting it or are asleep, but they don’t tend to bite when this happens. Their reactions tend to range from jumping, to simply turning and looking. Because it is not nice to be startled, you can train the dog to get used to it by gently touching or waking the dog and immediately giving him a treat. He soon learns that being surprised is not a bad thing.
- Getting a deaf dog’s attention when he isn’t looking at you can be a challenge. You could try gently touching him, stamping on the ground, turning a light on and off, throwing a small soft object next to him (not hitting him), using a torch or laser pointer, using a vibrating collar (definitely not a shock collar) or simply waiting for him to turn around!
- Deaf dogs can get anxious if you have left the room without them seeing, so you may need to touch the dog on your way out, so he can watch or follow where you go.
- Most importantly, you will need plenty of patience and time for training – you can’t get away with letting it slide like you may with other dogs, since it could mean life or death for a deaf dog. Even though your dog may be deaf, a good training class with a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers is essential. You will also need plenty of imagination, because hand-signals and facial expressions are the key to communicating with a hound that can’t hear.
Hands-off! Training without touching
No dog likes to be shoved or pushed around during training – it makes it hard for them to concentrate or understand what you are wanting from them – but with deaf dogs it is even more important not to do this since you need at least one hand free for hand signals. By luring a dog into position with treats or his favourite toy and applying a hand signal, he’ll soon get the idea.
There are no right or wrong hand signals – you can choose whatever you like, as long as you and your family are consistent. One of the most important signs you’ll need to teach is ‘good dog!’ – a thumbs-up sign is commonly used. This is easily taught by showing the dog a thumbs-up and then tossing him a treat. This needs to be repeated until the dog looks expectantly for a treat when the sign is shown – then he knows what it means and the ‘good dog’ sign can now be used for training other commands.
It may seem odd, but you should always speak to your dog whilst using commands. Your dog will read your facial expressions as well as your hand signals. When you are signing ‘good dog’, if you say it whilst smiling, it’ll mean much more to your dog and be so much clearer. It may feel funny to be speaking to a deaf dog, but if you use exaggerated facial expressions at the same time, it’ll help him understand and communication will be a lot easier.
Physical punishment should never be used – your dog has to trust your hands and not be scared of them. A ‘no’ command can be taught by offering a treat and then withholding it whilst using a ‘wagging’ finger’ sign and using a scowl. However, it is always better to show any dog (deaf or not) a positive alternative course of action, instead of telling him off for doing something wrong – for example, ask him to sit when you enter into the house, instead of him jumping up at you.
Please contact the Association of Pet Dog Trainers on 01285 810811 to see if they have any registered trainers who can give specialist advice. You can also purchase a book called “Hear, hear” by Barry Eaton, a member of the APDT.