At first, Carla thought her 12-year-old Samoyed, Ben, was ignoring her when he started failing to respond to her commands. “Whenever I called him in from the yard, he always used to run straight to the back door, but not anymore. Sometimes he wouldn’t even look around, even when I yelled. I just thought he was getting crotchety in his old age.” It wasn’t until Ben, always keen to greet visitors, started “ignoring” the doorbell as well that Carla realized he was going deaf. “We’re having to find other ways to communicate with him now.”
Hearing loss in dogs is relatively common, and can have a variety of causes, including old age, infectious disease or reactions to medications. Some dogs are born deaf, having inherited a gene that predisposes them to the condition. This gene is most often found in white dogs, or those with a mottled coat. Dalmatians and white great Danes are among the breeds most likely to suffer from congenital deafness.
Should I adopt a dog with hearing loss?
Adopting and training a deaf dog isn’t for everyone. “If you don’t have the extra time to spend with him initially, then he isn’t for you,” says Lin Gardinor, who shares her home with five congenitally deaf canines, and helps others with their own hearing-impaired dogs. “At the same time, I don’t want to put people off. If you know a person with hearing impairment, and you don’t find that so much of a challenge, then you won’t have a problem with a dog that is deaf.”
How is training a deaf dog different?
There are several key points to start from when living and working with a dog who can’t hear.
1. “First and foremost, remember that he’s a dog,” advises Lin. “Don’t think of the deafness first. Even though he can’t hear, he’ll have the same instincts as any other dog.” She adds that it’s important to treat the dog as normally as possible. “Don’t baby him, or shy away from all the regular things you’d do with a hearing dog.”
2. Most deaf dogs compensate for their loss of hearing by making heightened use of their other senses, including sight, smell and touch. This means they can be more responsive than average to non-auditory cues, an important factor that helps make the training process easier.
3. Another important factor is to find a training school that uses positive reinforcement and is open to helping people with deaf dogs.
According to Lin, training a deaf dog isn’t as big a departure from the norm as you might assume. The main thing to remember is that your dog can’t hear you, so the usual vocal commands like “come,” “stay” or “sit” don’t apply. Instead, you and your dog have to rely on visual cues and commands.
• “I recommend clicker training using a flashlight,” says Lin. “You’ll need an instant on-off flashlight with a button rather than a sliding switch.” Do not use a laser light.
• Lin also uses American Sign Language to train and communicate with her dogs, although she adds that a knowledge of ASL isn’t mandatory and that you can make up your own signs. “To teach the dog to sit, for example, put a treat over his nose, then move it slowly backwards until he sits. Then add a sign to it.”
• When using sign language, it’s important to keep the signs consistent, so that the dog learns to recognize specific gestures as commands. “A lot of ASL signs are two-handed, which means you may have to adapt them because you’re often holding a flashlight or a treat at the same time,” advises Lin.
• Train with your back to a wall, or even in a corner, so that your dog is able to focus more exclusively on you. Dogs that can’t hear need to rely on their vision to keep tabs on what’s going on around them, and are more likely to be influenced by visual distractions. “You don’t want him to be looking behind and all around you when you’re trying to train him,” says Lin.
• Smile, so the dog can see your expression and will come to regard the training as a happy experience.
• Remember to always reward the dog for good behavior. “I always consistently reward my dogs with small treats because they aren’t able to hear me say ‘what a good boy,’ or pick up on the warmth and friendliness in my voice.”
Socialization is critical
You might think that because your dog can’t hear, he needs to be kept close by your side at all times. On the contrary, a deaf dog can easily learn to interact positively with other people and dogs, and can even be allowed off lead in certain circumstances. “Dogs need to be dogs,” says Lin. “They need to go to the park. You will need a fenced yard or a tie-out at home, but there’s no point getting a deaf dog and keeping him shut up or on a leash all his life because he can’t hear.”
• Before letting your dog off-leash, be sure he recognizes and responds well to your visual commands, and that he will come when you “call” him.
• Before taking your dog to a new off-leash area, visit it on your own to check out any potential trouble spots. Deaf dogs can’t hear traffic, for example, so avoid areas that aren’t fenced off from nearby roads.
• Don’t panic if your dog runs beyond your sight. Many deaf dogs can learn to use their sense of smell to find their way back to you. “Mine are absolutely brilliant with their noses,” Lin says. “I can hide in the woods and they’ll find me.”
• Be vigilant when your dog is around other canines. “I continually socialize my dogs. I want them to use their visual skills, so they’ll see when a dog is snarling at them. I don’t want them to turn their back on another dog, or ever get in a situation where they misread another dog.”
• When people are greeting your dog, tell them to smile, avoid direct eye contact, and to offer him a palm to sniff. “Be in his line of sight, and never approach him from behind.”
Training a dog with hearing loss involves some extra challenges, but it can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. “You’re learning along with your dog,” says Lin, who adds that common sense and an ability to think outside the box are also helpful. “We installed French doors in our house, for example, so the dogs can see me coming. Don’t be limited by a lack of imagination. Find a way to make it work.”
Old dogs can learn new tricks
What about dogs who aren’t born deaf, but lose their hearing through other causes, such as aging? Can they benefit from the same training approaches? Absolutely, says Lin. “When I was training my deaf Australian shepherd, Maggie, I also had a cockapoo who’d lost his hearing due to old age. He’d watch our training sessions, saw that Maggie was getting something good for obeying my commands, and got right in there with us. He learned to sit in sign language, and he never, ever used to sit for my voice, even when he could hear! He also learned to shake a paw and give me a high five – and he was 13.”