Resources and Guides for Owning Deaf Dogs
Deafness isn’t a handicap restricted to humans – dogs also experience hearing loss in varying degrees of severity. Whether the dog’s deafness is a result of congenital birth defects, old age, or injury, hearing loss makes finding a loving, permanent home for the dog extremely difficult. Dealing with deaf dogs is difficult and time-consuming, and owners not up to the challenge often forfeit ownership to animal control. Thousands of otherwise healthy, intelligent dogs are euthanized each year, a grievous statistic that could be greatly reduced with proper education and training in the raising and training of deaf dogs.
Causes of Deafness in Dogs
Deafness in dogs is divided into two main categories: congenital deafness and acute deafness. Dogs with congenital deafness are deaf from birth, losing their hearing before the auditory canals open. The blood supply to the cochlea, the small spiral-shaped structure inside the ear, deteriorates kills off the nerve cells. Congenital deafness is permanent, and the puppy grows up in a world of total silence. Acute deafness occurs after an illness or injury, and may be either temporary or permanent. Ear infections, dead trauma and extremely loud noises may disrupt the cochlea and cause acute deafness.
Testing your dog for deafness at home isn’t foolproof, but may help you determine if there is significant hearing loss before calling your veterinarian. Stand close to your dog and shake a set of noisy keys, or squeak a toy behind your back. If the dog turns and looks at you as you make the noise, he may not be suffering from hearing loss. The only way to positively determine hearing loss in your dog is to schedule him for a BAER test. BAER stands for “Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response” and tests the dog’s neurological response to sound stimuli. BAER testing is expensive and only conducted at a limited number of veterinary facilities, but is the only foolproof test for canine hearing loss.
Medications may also cause deafness in some dogs. The most common classification of drugs that cause hearing loss are known as aminoglycoside antibiotics, and include medications such as kanamycin, neomycin, gentamicin, and tobramycin. These drugs destroy the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea that pass auditory sensations to the nerve cells, resulting in hearing loss or complete deafness. Cochlear hair does not regenerate, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
Training Tips for Deaf Dogs
Deaf dogs are not a lost cause to be thrown by the wayside: they can still be loving companions and friends with a bit of training and dedication. Training deaf dogs isn’t for the faint of heart, and many owners choose to hire a trainer instead of personally working with the dog. Ask to see the trainer’s credentials, and sit in on a few of his lessons to see how he reacts to both dogs and their owners. Speak to former customers and ask about the trainer’s methods and effectiveness. An experienced, gentle trainer uses positive reinforcement to shape good behaviors, and never punishes his clients with physical corrections. Deaf dogs are often extremely frustrating, and short-tempered trainer will frighten your dog. Set up a meeting for an assessment and bring your dog in, allowing the trainer to work with the dog so you can observe how they work together. Don’t hesitate to visit a number of trainers until you find a perfect fit.
If you can’t afford a trainer or you don’t find one that meshes well with your dog, you can train the dog at home. Hand signals, special commands and even clicker training are all part of the routine for training deaf dogs. Since the dog can’t hear, hand signals provide a visual to guide him into place. Use the same hand signal each time you ask the dog to perform a specific command, and she will quickly learn to obey even if she can’t hear your voice. Make sure to vary your hand signals with each command so the dog learns to associate a particular hand signal with the proper command.
Hearing dogs are often trained using clickers, and a variation of clicker training is useful for deaf dogs. A flashlight is the best alternative to a clicker, since most dogs can see the bright light from a considerable distance. Flashlights with a push button switch work best, as they can quickly be turned on and off to indicate a proper response. Give the dog a hand signal, and as soon as the dog obeys the command, flash the light and give the dog the treat. The dog will associate the flash with a job well done.
Living with deaf dogs isn’t a cake walk, but it’s not an impossible task. Move slowly around a deaf dog, and avoid touching her when she can’t see you to avoid a frightened bite. Always get the dog’s attention with a light or treat before you ask him to do something, and stay in his line of sight to avoid confusion. Above all else, be patient with deaf dogs. Find a training style they works for the individual dog, and work with him often for best results.
Adopting Deaf Dogs
One of the most important factors in limiting the number of deaf dogs put to sleep each year is to raise deaf dog awareness in the general public. Many people think that deaf dogs are broken and worthless, with is far from the truth. Deaf dogs can be wonderful house pets and companions, but potential owners must be ready and willing to take on that challenge. Breeders need to stop breeding dogs with congenital hearing issues to reduce the number of deaf puppies that may eventually end up euthanized or placed up for adoption. Breeds with a high occurrence of deafness, including Dalmatians, Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds and English Shepherds should be BAER tested before breeding, and any dogs with hearing issues should be spayed and neutered to remove them from the gene pool.
A large number of shelters and adoption agencies have dedicated themselves to helping out deaf dogs, and offer listings of hearing-impaired pets for potential owners. Petfinder has listing for thousands of available dogs, and include a search option specifically for special needs pets. Pets With Disabilities is an organization dedicated exclusively to disabled pets, and has numerous listings for deaf dogs. Call your local shelter and ask if they have any special needs pets, and look for rescue organizations in your region that adopt out deaf dogs.
Owning a deaf dog can be stressful, but support groups are available for resourceful owners. Handicapped Pets is an organization that sells products for special needs animals, and offers stories, testimonials and discussion areas for owners of disabled pets. Deaf Dog Connections is an advocacy and resource center for those with deaf dogs, and have an entire community based around supporting and educating deaf dog owners. Barry Eaton, a trainer and advocate for deaf dogs, also offers a number of training tips, hints and testimonials from fellow deaf dog owners on his website. Deaf dogs are a challenge to own, but with a little education and a lot of support, fewer deaf dogs will be put to sleep and will get to enjoy long, full, healthy lives.