Dogs with a Hearing Impairment
Dogs with a hearing impairment can still be trained and live amazing lives with their humans! Read on to learn when to talk to a veterinarian and how to train and safely approach a dog who has a loss of hearing.
When to See a Veterinarian
Some dogs are born completely deaf. Puppies start responding to sound when they are just ten days old. A breeder may observe that a puppy is not responding to the sounds that other puppies are noticing - squeaky toys, doorbells, vocal praise, etc. The breeder will then ask the veterinarian to check out the hearing loss concerns during one of the litter’s routine visits.
Some dogs acquire deafness or a hearing loss over time. Most owners of dogs who acquire a hearing loss later in life do not realize that their dog has lost that ability until there is a significant change – normally the loss is gradual.
Contact your veterinarian if you observe these symptoms:
- Lack of response to sounds - squeaky toys, humans talking, clapping, whistling, barking, doorbells, etc.
- Acting shocked when touched from behind or outside of his field of vision or when physically touched while sleeping
- Difficulty waking the dog up from sleep with speaking or other sounds
- Decreased responsiveness to his own name and voice commands that he previously knew well
How to Train a Deaf Dog
Owners of dogs with a hearing loss should work on offered attention – this means the owner should treat the dog for checking-in by turning his head toward the owner’s upper body. This check-in will become a default behavior for the dog if the behavior is rewarded often.
“Attention is everything. If you don’t have the dog’s attention, you cannot train him. Deaf dogs also need to be kept in a secure area or on leash until they are reliably trained to be off-leash or check-in,” explained Mary Pollard, CPDT-KA trainer and owner of Homeschoolin’ Hounds in Raleigh, NC. If a dog with a hearing loss gets loose, the dog will not be able to hear the owner calling him to return and the dog will be more at risk from other dangers that make noise, such as cars and other things approaching, that could injure him.
Some owners use vibration collars to get their dog’s attention. Feeling the vibration on his collar takes the place of the dog hearing his name called – after feeling the vibration, the dog should turn and look at his owner. These vibration collars are remote operated and gently vibrate. The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund provides some great information regarding how to train a deaf dog with a vibration collar. Instead of just placing the collar on the dog, owners should start slowly and gradually introduce the dog to the vibrations; the owner should let the dog gently feel the vibration on his legs, side, and chest (while the collar is held by his owner) before having the collar placed on his neck. Two examples of a vibration collar are the Wolfwill and the PetSafe Vibration Dog Training Collar Remote. Although these collars can be purchased online, one owner made his own vibration collar by taking the motor out of a small remote-controlled toy car, putting it in a pill bottle, and attaching the pill bottle to his dog’s collar.
If a dog cannot hear well, trainers and owners must utilize body language cues. Thus, hand signals will fully take the place of verbal signals for sit, down, come, etc. In addition, instead of using a verbal marker word (“yes,” “good,” or “nice”) or clicker to designate to the dog that he did a behavior correctly, the owner will need to provide a hand signal, such as a thumbs up signal signal or a “starfish.” The “starfish” is a fist opening to five fingers spread-out, according to dog trainer and author of “A Deaf Dog Joins the Family” Terrie Hayward. Terrie Hayward offers more deaf dog advice in this free episode of a dog training podcast.
“Beyond the ‘getting the dog’s attention’ challenge, we often don’t give dogs enough credit, deaf or not, for their ability to pay attention to our smallest body language. In a lot of our training, our dogs aren’t paying that much attention to our words. It is more about our associated body movements, including tiny little changes in facial expression. The things we don’t even realize we are doing often offer the dog far more consistency than any of the words or signal we offer on purpose,” says CPDT-KA and CTC certified trainer Erin Bierwirth of the Charleston, SC area. Because dogs are so good at reading body language, dogs do well with only body language cues as commands.
How to Safely Approach a Deaf Dog
Owners of deaf dogs should take some special precautions for safety. It’s easier to startle a dog who cannot hear a person approaching than it is to startle a dog who can hear footsteps, crinkling clothing, and breathing.
Owners should make every effort not to surprise the dog with their presence. They should approach the dog in his range of vision - not from behind. People should be careful when waking up the dog from a deep slumber and gently shake the dog’s mat or bed instead of suddenly touching the sleeping dog. It’s helpful to practice shaking the dog’s bed gently and giving him treats when the dog is awake on the bed before trying this with a napping dog – that will minimize the disruption and give the dog a positive association (treats!) with someone gently tugging on his bed.
Owners should also educate all visitors so that houseguests know the appropriate protocol to not startle the dog. Owners may also consider putting a “deaf” patch on their dog’s leash or collar or using another indicator, such as a collar tag or bandana, to alert anyone near the dog at home or in public.