OCTOBER 30, 2013
A friendship that requires no sound
Man’s best friend is a term with no discrimination. Whether your dog is large or petite, obedient or a little rebellious, you love them just the same. The unparalleled companionship between a human and their deaf dog is no exception.
It is a popular yet wildly misguided rumor that deaf dogs are unable to be a loving member of your family. Impossible to train, aggressive and unruly, and incapable of living a normal life are all stereotypes falsely attributed to deaf dogs. “Adopting any dog means that you are committing your family to providing a loving forever home,” said Dr. David Nelson, Clinical Associate Professor and director of Emergency Services at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “The handicap is not the determinant of suitability, but rather the training and assimilation that you are going to undertake."
The biggest difference between a hearing dog and a deaf one is that you can't use your voice to get the dog's attention. Training a deaf dog is not necessarily harder than a hearing dog; it just requires a different approach. “One key point in their training is that if they are not looking at you, they can't receive feedback and they don't know you have information to provide,” said Nelson. “They have to learn sign language and body posture which needs to be consistently delivered, and, just like any other dog, you must not let them get away with bad behavior.”
Another training technique helpful for communicating with your deaf pooch is to train them to respond to a vibrating collar. A push of the radio transmitter causes a vibration in the collar, and you can then condition your dog that this is a fantastic opportunity for a reward. After multiple positive rewards, their attention should turn towards you immediately after signaling, so you can then provide further instruction. Keep in mind that the vibration from the collar should never have a negative connotation, or your dog will be afraid to respond in the future. Having them come to you without hesitation is extremely important, so always be sure to provide positive feedback.
“We hike in the national forests with him off leash and he actually is easier to manage than the other dog who can hear just fine,” said Nelson about his own deaf dog. “We always have the safety net of the vibrating collar but rarely use it, and he has learned to check back visually and will come to a hand sign without delay.”
Another common misconception of deaf dogs is that they are aggressive. This makes many people question whether it is safe to have a deaf dog in their home around children. “It is not deafness which determines suitability of a dog to be with children, but the personality of the dog, the child, and the home environment,” said Nelson. “Deafness does not mean that the dog is bad for this or that; the dog’s personality and the owners’ training determine those results.”
Deaf dogs can be startled when touched unexpectedly, so establishing a “communication spot” that you touch when you need to wake them up is a good idea. “We have trained him that the top back of his head is the communication spot, and when we touch it and he is sleeping he immediately begins wagging his tail because he knows it is one of us,” said Nelson.
Certain breeds of dogs, such as Dalmatians, carry a gene that causes deafness. If the deafness isn’t genetic, it is still common for a dog to lose hearing from an ear injury or simply from old age, just like people. If you believe Spot may be deaf, there are various tests you can perform. Simple at home tests work just fine, like clapping your hands together or ringing a bell, but the most reliable way to test for deafness is called BAER testing (Brainstorm Auditory Evoked Response). This test can be costly, but it is extremely accurate and will let you know if your dog is partially or wholly deaf.
“If you came and interacted with our two dogs, you would not be aware that one is deaf, as we talk to him just like the other dog and the hand signs are subtle,” said Nelson. “He has been totally deaf since birth and is a wonderful boy that loves people, animals, and children.”
Despite the few adaptations you must make for training and living with a deaf dog, the love and appreciation you receive far outweighs any perceived adversity from their disabilities. The friendship between a human and their dog, hearing or not, knows no boundaries.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pettalk.