Deaf Dogs – Tests, Rescue, Care, Training & FAQS

deaf dogs

Deaf dogs make great companions just as much as hearing dogs do. Dogs that are deaf can still be communicated with, using a little extra time and imagination. Deafness in dogs occurs for many different reasons, so it’s important to be prepared in the event that your pet loses his hearing.

How to Tell if a Dog is Deaf

The signs of deafness in dogs are often subtle or are misinterpreted as disobedience. They may manifest gradually or suddenly. Signs of deafness in a dog, whether in one or both ears, include:

  • Your dog doesn’t respond to their name.
  • You have to touch your dog to wake them up.
  • They sleep very deeply and don’t wake easily.
  • Loud noises don’t startle your dog.
  • Excessive or loud barking.
  • They don’t come running for dinner.
  • The doorbell ringing no longer causes a reaction.
  • Your dog doesn’t respond to squeaky toys.
  • Puppies who bite their littermates too hard.

A BAER test is the most definitive way to determine the health status of your dog’s ears. The BAER test, which stands for Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response, analyzes the electrical activity of the brain when sound is played. The test is done using three small electrodes. One is placed in front of the ear, one centrally on the forehead, and one on top of the head. These needles usually don’t cause any pain. A foam insert earphone is placed in the ear. Each ear is tested individually. The test takes 10 to 15 minutes. A printout of the results is given to the owner after the procedure.

Causes of Deafness in Dogs

Deaf dogs lose their hearing for a number of reasons. Deafness is the result of congenital defects, chronic ear infections, traumatic injuries, the aging process, and several other factors. Deaf dogs are either temporarily or permanently deaf depending on the cause.

causes of deafness in dogs
Hearing loss in dogs are caused by several factors.

Congenital Deafness

Congenital deafness is hearing loss that is present at birth or develops later on due to genetic causes. This type of hearing loss is often inherited in some specific breeds and coat patterns but also develops due to other factors as well. It is sometimes acquired through intrauterine infections, exposure to ototoxic drugs, liver disorders, and exposure to other toxins before or soon after a puppy’s birth.

Congenital deafness is associated with three coats in particular: the merle gene, the piebald gene, and the extreme piebald gene. Examples of merle breeds include the Norwegian Dunker, the Australian Shepherd, and the Border Collie. The piebald gene is present in Bull Terriers, Dalmatians, and English Setters. Deafness in these breeds is thought to be caused by the absence of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. When melanocytes are absent, the blood supply to the cochlea degenerates. This causes the nerve cells in the cochlea to die and results in permanent deafness.

Chronic Ear Infections

There are many reasons why a dog might get recurrent ear infections. The most common cause of recurrent infections is allergies, usually caused by food or environmental factors. Endocrine diseases, including hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism, also cause ear inflammation and infections.

Ear infections sometimes cause temporary or reversible hearing loss. This occurs because an ear infection blocks the Eustachian tube in the middle ear, which leads to a build-up of pressure in the dog’s middle ear. This means that ossicles can’t move freely, and sound is blocked from passing through to the inner ear. When sound is obstructed in this manner, the result is conductive hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss manifests through different symptoms. This type of deafness means that sounds will appear quieter to your dog. You may find that you need to repeat yourself because your pet has difficulty hearing you.

Injuries

The tympanic membrane, more commonly called the eardrum, separates the outer ear from the middle and inner ear. Traumatic injury that harms the tympanum can result in temporary or permanent deafness. Signs that your dog has a tympanic membrane rupture include discharge from the ear, pain when touching the ear, vomiting, facial paralysis and disruptions of balance and equilibrium.

Most ruptures heal within two months and most hearing loss is temporary, though some dogs do experience some level of permanent hearing loss. After your veterinarian diagnoses your pet with a tympanic rupture, they will perform a thorough ear flushing under sedation. Your dog might also require oral antifungal medications, corticosteroids, and antibiotics.

Old Age

deafness in senior dogs
Old age is the most common cause of hearing loss in dogs.

Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis. It is the most common form of acquired hearing loss in senior dogs. Presbycusis reflects the cumulative effects of disease, noise exposure, ototoxic agents and heredity superimposed upon those of the aging process. Old age hearing loss develops gradually, typically occurring at about 13 years of age. Sometimes, older dogs are mistakenly thought to be confused or uncooperative because they don’t hear well.

Protecting Your Dog's Ears?

Keeping your dog in optimal health is important to slow the progression of hearing loss. There are several ways to protect your dog from hearing loss, although it should be noted that some level of deafness often affects senior dogs regardless of the protection measures you put in place. Providing a healthy diet, keeping your dog’s ears clean and treating any infections that occur are just a few ways to slow the progression of deafness.

Diet

You already provide your dog with healthy meals, and it’s important that you continue to do so if your pet loses their hearing. Ensure that your pet’s food is made with high-quality, well-balanced ingredients.

Some epidemiological studies demonstrate the association between nutritional deficiencies and hearing loss. Others provide evidence of its prevention through dietary supplementation. Moreover, exposure to ototoxic heavy metals in the diet like cadmium and lead, as well as obesity, are also related to hearing loss. This confirms the negative consequences of an unhealthy diet with regard to auditory function.

a healthy diet prevents hearing loss in dogs
Nutritional deficiencies can cause hearing loss in dogs.

Ear Cleaning

Ear cleaning helps to prevent ear infections. Some dogs naturally have clean ears that rarely need cleaning. Other dogs require regular cleaning to prevent the build-up of dirt. Breeds with longer ears such as the Basset Hound are among those who are most at risk of ear infections, but any breed can develop them.

Before you begin cleaning, check to make sure that your dog’s ears actually need to be cleaned. Over-cleaning them also leads to ear infections, so it’s important to be sure of what a healthy ear looks like first. A healthy, clean ear is pink and odorless without visible dirt or foreign bodies. If your dog’s ear has a mild odor and your dog shakes their head more often, it’s probably time for an ear cleaning. If your dog has red, inflamed ears and appears to be in pain, it’s likely that your dog has an ear infection, ear mites or allergies that require medical attention. Refer to our article 5 Best Dog Ear Cleaners for instructions on how to clean a dog’s ears.

Avoiding Ear Infections

Ear infections are caused by a number of factors. Allergies, nutritional deficiencies, autoimmune diseases, hormonal conditions, and the buildup of debris and wax are all reasons why a dog might contract an ear infection. Keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry helps to prevent such infections.

Keeping on top of allergies is crucial. Like people, dogs react to allergens in the environment. Pollen, mites, fleas, and grass are just a few potential allergens in dogs. What you feed your dog is also a possible trigger – some dogs have food allergies that make them predisposed to ear infections. We recommend protecting your pet with regular flea and tick prevention and consulting with a veterinarian if you suspect a food allergy.

Make sure that your dog’s ears are dry. If your dog swims regularly or needs a lot of baths, we recommend drying their ears as soon as possible after contact with the water. This ensures that the moisture is removed and consequently prevents bacteria and yeast from colonizing inside the ear. It also helps to place a cotton ball in the opening of the ears during a bath to keep them dry.

ear infections can cause dog deafness
Avoid ear infections to prevent deafness in dogs.

Caring for a Deaf Dog

Learning to cope with deafness in dogs is important for your dog’s safety and wellbeing. Fortunately, with a little extra help from you, a deaf dog is just as capable of living a fulfilling life as a hearing dog. Adapting how you communicate, training to reduce the startle reflex and keeping identification tags up to date are all vital elements of deaf dog ownership.

Communication

Deaf dogs are great at reading body language. This simple fact opens up a whole new avenue of communication with a deaf dog – American sign language. There are hand signals for various commands, including “sit”, “down” and “come”, but it’s also important to use phrases like “good dog” and “watch me” to reinforce good behavior and keep attention. To make training easier, begin in a room with few distractions. It’s also recommended that you keep your dog’s training sessions short. Between five and ten minutes up to three times per day is sufficient.

Some owners opt to use laser pointers to reward good behavior, but others argue against it. The use of light flashes, whether it be for training or play, inadvertently encourages obsessive behaviors in deaf dogs. Purposely teaching a dog to seek out light and then reinforcing that behavior sometimes leads to the dog seeking out the light in other places. This means that shadow chasing, car chasing, and anxiety upon exposure to a camera flash are possible results. This is most often seen in high-energy breeds like Siberian Huskies and Border Collies.

Adapting to the Environment

Deaf dogs startle easily. Fortunately, training often helps to soothe a deaf dog’s startle reflex. Start by approaching your dog whilst they’re awake from different places and presenting them with a treat after touching them gently. Once your dog is comfortable with this routine, move on to being out of their sight when you touch them. Next, try waking your dog gently and immediately offer a treat. It helps to walk loudly to produce vibrations that your dog can feel approaching. Gently tapping around their sleeping quarters also helps. Over time, the dog learns that waking up due to being touched is a positive experience, and not something to be afraid of.

Protecting Deaf Dogs

A deaf dog should not be allowed to roam on their own. This means that you must keep your dog on a leash when outside your property. If your dog escapes or is given free roam, they will be unable to hear traffic and unwelcoming dogs. In addition to a well-fitted collar, a harness is also recommended for extra security. Nervous deaf dogs are often fitted with harnesses that clearly show they are deaf to prevent strangers from petting without permission.

In addition, it’s important to give your dog up-to-date identification tags that clearly state that they are deaf. Not only will this speed up a reunion if your dog does escape, but it helps to prevent any misunderstandings – some people may mistakenly assume that a deaf dog is disobedient or dangerous because it won’t respond to verbal commands. Some owners even opt for bilingual tags due to the demographics of their area – if Spanish is commonly spoken in your area, consider using a tag engraved with “soy sordo/sorda” on one side.

Training a Deaf Dog

With a little extra time and patience, deaf dog training is as rewarding as training any other dog. Deaf dogs are capable of learning all the behaviors of a hearing dog, including recall, with the help of sign language or other hand signals.

Positive Reward Training

Positive reward-based training is an essential part of working with deaf dogs. To begin training a deaf dog, you must be able to get their attention and keep it. Since a deaf dog cannot hear a clicker or a verbal command, using an alternative signal that means the behavior was good is vital. Most trainers give a thumbs up or a flash of the open palm to signal this. It’s possible to condition your dog to this signal by giving the signal and then immediately rewarding the dog with a treat.

High-value dog treats are important for training. Some of the best high-value treats include beef liver, squirty cheese, hot dogs and peanut butter. The best high-value treats have a strong scent and taste that most dogs can’t resist, and as such, they work harder for them.

Use Collars

One of the biggest problems that owners of deaf dogs face is calling their dog from a distance. For a deaf dog to receive any instruction, they should be looking towards their owner. This means that when a deaf dog is distracted, it often becomes impossible to recall them. Fortunately, there are some creative options to overcome this problem.

Tools like the vibrating collar are handy for getting your dog’s attention. You should never use these vibrating collars for correction. Instead, the collar is used in place of your dog’s name. It’s recommended that you acclimatize your dog to the vibration gradually and that you never start with the neck. This is especially important if you are unsure of your dog’s history – a background of adverse shock training would mean that your dog immediately associates the collar with negative consequences. Begin by holding the device against the leg or other area and pairing it with a “watch me” type command. Always reward with treats and praise so that the experience is positive.

Sign Language

Sign language is an effective way to communicate with a deaf dog. The type of hand signals you use is less important than keeping them consistent. Make a note of the hand signs you will use with your dog – you could even draw or take pictures of them. Place the chart somewhere you can easily access, and ensure that you stick to using these signs.

Human sign language

Although originally designed for human use only, dogs are often incredibly responsive to sign language. American sign language (ASL) is commonly used for deaf dogs. British sign language (BSL) and Australian sign language (AUSLAN) are also great options for communicating with deaf dogs. Not only can you use these languages with your pet, but you can use them with other people too. Furthermore, it’s handy to know one of these languages to communicate with other deaf dogs that you meet, if they also know it. In addition, learning sign language is completely free and many resources are available to help you learn. On the downside, sign language requires the user to make hand gestures, which is a problem for owners who lack the full use of their hands. The amount of light in the room also affects the ability to communicate using sign language.

K9Sign

K9Sign is a newer language designed specifically for dogs by Sean Senechal. It requires more time on your part and has a few prerequisites – your dog must already have basic obedience down and must be comfortable with you touching them. However, when taught, the system is an effective way for dogs to “speak” to their owners. The K9Sign system is consists of 100 words, including signs for water, play, keys, help, and pain. The paperback book is available on Amazon for $16.42.

Create your own

Your own original hand signals are effective too. The downside to using your own signals is that, in the event that your dog goes missing, other people have no way to communicate effectively with them. Your hand signals must be easy to tell apart, easy to see, and always consistent. If you use the wrong hand signal and your dog still follows the command, it’s crucial that you still reward the behavior to avoid confusion.

Touch training

Touch training is another viable option. This method involves touching the dog on different areas of their body and in different ways. For example, a rub along the chin can be used to signal “follow” or a tap can be used to ask the dog to “wait.” The con of this method is that not all dogs are comfortable with being touched. This is especially true for deaf dogs with an exaggerated startle reflex. Furthermore, this method requires the owner to be in close contact with their dog. This means that long-distance communication is more difficult to achieve. For this reason, some owners pair this training method with sign language.

Deaf Dogs – FAQs

Adopting a deaf dog naturally comes with a lot of questions. If our article hasn’t answered them all yet, feel free to refer to our FAQ section for more information about deafness in dogs.

How Can I Help my Deaf Dog?

There are many ways for you to maintain that special bond with your deaf companion. Consider learning a form of sign language to communicate with your dog – ASL, BSL, K9Sign and even your own original hand signals are all effective ways to “speak” with them. Deaf dogs have an increased startle reflex and will often need some training to help ease their anxiety. Protection measures should also be considered – clearly labeled and up-to-date identification tags, a secure harness, and always keeping your pet on a leash in public are vital for their safety.

How Can You Tell if a Dog is Deaf?

Signs of deafness in dogs include lack of reaction to loud noises, not responding to their name, excessive and loud barking, and sleeping very deeply. Many owners find that their dog no longer reacts to the doorbell when it rings, or that their pet doesn’t come running when inner is prepared. If your dog shows these signs and you suspect deafness is the cause, it’s important that you ask for veterinary testing to rule out other causes like canine cognitive dysfunction. The BAER test identifies whether dogs are deaf in one or both ears, if at all.

Do Deaf Dogs Bark Differently?

Deaf dogs tend to bark more loudly than hearing dogs. Without any auditory cues, deaf dogs don’t understand how loud they are being. On top of raising their voices to overcome their own hearing loss, some dogs bark louder under the assumption that you can’t hear them either. Barking more and more loudly is a natural response as the deaf dog navigates new methods of communicating with you. Deaf dogs sometimes make unusual sounds for their breed – yodeling and screaming are two of the most common examples.

Can a Deaf Dog Hear a Dog Whistle?

Surprisingly, some dogs suffering from hearing loss still respond to dog whistles. There are frequency-adjustable silent whistles on the market that you can use to find a frequency within your dog’s hearing range. If your dog is one of the lucky few who retains the ability to hear a dog whistle, it is advisable to keep a dog whistle in case of emergencies.

Deaf dogs make wonderful companions with a little help from their owners. Whether a dog is congenitally deaf or experiencing presbycusis, there are always ways to help them cope with hearing loss.

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