Deaf Dogs Hear With Their Hearts

By: Judy Hamontre, AVHS Vice-chair

Their world is silent, but they see and feel.

Their spirit is boundless.

Their only needs are your patience and love,

Love that will be returned to you, a hundred fold.

They are the special dogs who hear with their hearts.

According to both the American Kennel Club and the Veterinary Centers of America, “deaf dogs have special needs, but they do not require much more commitment than any dog.” They cope well with their world of silence, can be easily trained, even competing in sports, and definitely can be loyal companions. Other than having hearing loss, they behave like other dogs. They make normal dog noises, love to play, socialize, and are eager to please.

Because studies are limited, an accurate count of dogs deaf in one or both ears is only an estimate, which is about 5-10% of the US dog population. More than 30 breeds have a known susceptibility for deafness. It is hereditary and often associated with piebald or merle coat patterns.

According to the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund, “the most common cause of congenital deafness is pigment related. If there is unpigmented skin in the inner ear, the nerve endings atrophy and die off in the first few weeks of a puppy’s life, resulting in deafness.”

Deaf dogs are trainable. It just requires a shift in technique, which simply means using hand signals instead of vocal commands.  Hand signals are used by many trainers with hearing dogs and often recommended, as several dogs lose hearing as they age. Learning hand signals prepares them for their possible transition to a quiet world, causing them less anxiety.

Focus and startle training are essential for deaf dogs.

Teaching focus means getting your dog to make eye contact with you and recognize it as a positive behavior. It begins with first rewarding your dog for voluntarily looking at you and then progresses to a visual or sensory signal to get his attention.

A visual signal is usually a flash of light with a flashlight or a laser pointer, just not in the dog’s eyes. It is important to note that dogs may just want to chase the laser pointer dot rather than see it as a signal. A sensory signal is a gentle touch on the shoulder or top of the rear end.

Whatever you choose should be consistent and always rewarded with a tiny treat or favorite toy.

The gentle touch will also be a way to condition your dog to not be startled by your appearance. Remember, he cannot hear you coming. He can feel vibrations so stomping on the floor may also alert him you are near. When you are close enough, his keen sense of smell will recognize you as a friend.

Having established a way to get your dog’s attention, and warn him of your presence, you can now use hand signals to teach obedience commands and tricks, just as you would with a hearing dog. Choose hand signals that are distinct from each other for each command and use them consistently.

When training, minimize distractions and be patient, as each dog learns at a different rate. Share your hand and touch signals with others who will have regular contact with your dog.

Because your dog cannot hear noises that could warn of danger, he should not be left unattended outside. Fenced in yards are ideal to keep him safe, and he will love those walks on leash, just as all dogs do.

Your deaf dog is not handicapped. He is special. His senses of sight, touch and smell will allow him to live a normal life and be your loyal companion, hearing you with his heart.


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