Deaf Dogs 101

Deaf dogs are just like hearing dogs! Whether you have a deaf dog or you’re thinking about adopting one, deaf dogs make for great companions, as long as you give them the resources and tools they need to succeed.

Why are Dogs Deaf?

Some dogs are born deaf, which is known as congenital deafness. Have you ever noticed that many deaf dogs are white? This is because deaf dogs often lack pigment cells called melanocytes that are responsible for fur color as well as their ability to hear.

Breeds more prone to deafness include Dalmatians, Cattle Dogs, English Setters, Australian Shepherds, Collies, and other breeds with a merle (marble) fur pattern.

Other dogs may lose their hearing from old age, injuries, or even chronic ear infections. In general, there are no health concerns correlated with deafness in dogs and they are just as healthy as hearing dogs.

How Do I Know if My Dog is Deaf?

If your dog doesn’t respond when called, doesn’t react to loud noises, and is disobedient to commands, there’s a chance they have hearing loss or deafness. Use loud sounds to test their hearing, or try and wake them up with sounds when sleeping.

To diagnose deafness and measure the extent of hearing loss, veterinarians can use the BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) test. This non-invasive test looks at the electrical conductivity of the brain in response to auditory cues.

Dogs and puppies are not routinely checked for deafness but it is usually easy to catch during a routine physical exam.

What Should I Know about Life with a Deaf Dog?

  • You’ll have to be your dog’s ears. You should never let your deaf dog off-leash in an area that’s unsecured. Enclosed dog parks and dog runs are great tools for socializing deaf dogs in a safe space.

  • They may not understand certain concepts and dangers that hearing dogs do. For example, your deaf dog can’t hear cars or honking, so aren’t able to use these scary sounds to act accordingly.

  • Deaf dogs can get startled easily. Wake them up gently and give warning signs before sneaking up on them. Tap your foot to get their attention and use their other senses to your advantage. There is a myth that deaf dogs may be more aggressive as they can be scared more easily, but this isn’t true.

  • They do bark! There is a common misconception that deaf dogs don’t bark, but they can bark just as much as hearing dogs. They may also bark in various situations where a hearing dog would not bark.

  • Each dog is unique, deaf or hearing. Deaf dogs aren’t more expensive to care for than hearing dogs, and the costs and care will be specific to your own dog.

As the owner of a deaf dog, you are their ears. They can’t hear cars honking or other scary sounds, so you should always keep them on a leash in open areas.

How Do I Train a Deaf Dog?

Training a deaf dog doesn’t necessarily require any more patience and time than training a hearing dog. They are often even more focused as they can’t hear distracting noises!

Replace your audible commands with hand signals and visual cues, and they will pick it up quickly. You should also choose an exciting hand sign – like a thumbs up – to replace the verbal praise of “yes!” or “good boy/girl!” with hearing dogs.

For example, here’s how you can teach a deaf dog to “sit”:

  1. Hold a treat in between your thumb and index finger with your palm facing upwards.

  2. Bring the treat to your dog’s nose and extend your arm forward, over their head.

  3. This motion should bring their head backwards/upwards as they follow the treat with their nose, and will naturally encourage them to sit.

  4. As soon as they sit, follow with your chosen hand signal (such as a rising palm facing upwards).

  5. Reward your dog with the treat and a thumbs up.

It’s particularly important to practice recall and ‘check-in’ or ‘watch me’ commands with your deaf dog. Because they can’t hear, it’s crucial that your deaf dog checks in with you regularly and learns a strong ‘come’ command.

‘Check-in’ or ‘watch me’ commands tell your dog they need to pay attention to you, watching you closely for a number of seconds. Once your dog has mastered this, you can then follow it with another command, such as ‘come’ or ‘stay’. Your visual check-in command can be whatever you choose – an example could be pointing your index finger to your eye.

Use positive reinforcement with plenty of praise, pets and treats whenever your deaf dog looks at you during walks, and when they respond correctly to your check-in commands. This will help strengthen their recall and encourage checking in with you should they ever run away or get lost.

Reach Out For Advice

If you’re considering adopting a deaf dog, or have questions about your deaf or hearing-impaired dog, reach out to your veterinarian for advice. They can help alleviate any concerns you may have, and put you in contact with additional resources such as dog trainers to help you and your deaf pup get off to the best possible start.

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