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Deaf Dogs

How to determine if your dog is deaf – what a deaf dog needs from you

The story of Jacob, the deaf Boston Terrier, might make you second guess your own dog’s hearing ability. But how can you determine if your dog is deaf and not just a badly behaved dog that is plainly ignoring you? Short of traveling to a veterinary hospital that provides the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) test, which uses electrodes to evaluate the auditory capability of your dog, there is no other available confirmative test. Although the BAER test is painless, quick, and easy, the dough you shell out for the rather expensive test might be better put towards a training tool for your potentially deaf dog such as the vibrating collar.

There are various rudimentary but adequate tests that you can perform at home to support your suspicion. Such methods include observing your dog’s responsive (or, would it be more appropriate to say, “non-responsive”) behavior:

  1. When your dog is sleeping (e.g. when you come home from work), call his/her name loudly, or clap your hands. It is a good indication of deafness if he/she continues sleeping. Be sure that you are not wearing any perfume and do not stand so close that your dog may be alerted by your scent. Sometimes, the draft of air created even by walking slowly past your dog is enough to perk his sensitive nose.
  2. Have an assistant go into another room, out of sight of you and your dog. Ask your assistant to make a sound such as rattling a can of coins, or banging loudly on a metal pot (sounds should not include stamping on the floor as vibrations created by the stamping will surely attract your dog’s attention and make the results inconclusive). These sounds should not be pleasant so your dog may react by flattening his ears or lowering his body to the ground. If your dog has no reaction at all he is most probably deaf. If your dog happens to move his ears and his head as if he heard something and was confused as to where the direction of the noise is coming from, he may be partially or unilaterally deaf.

What do you do when you are convinced that your dog is deaf? First, you and your dog should visit and consult with a veterinarian. Your veterinarian will proceed to view your dog’s ear canal with an otoscope to ensure that the external ear has developed appropriately and there no malformation. In some cases, problems such as malformation of the external ear, or an ear infection, your dog’s deafness may resolve upon treatment of the underlying condition. In other cases, as with Jacob the deaf Boston Terrier, they are destined to live in a silent world. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on your options and he/she can also refer you to a specialist for the BAER test.

Although the BAER test may be costly, it is a definitive and reliable test. Knowing the degree of deafness in your dog can help you adjust your training methods to fit your dog’s needs. Here are some reasons you might want to consider the BAER test:

  1. You are uncertain if your dog is unilaterally or bilaterally deaf (deaf in one ear or both ears). The BAER test can determine exactly which ear is affected as it may be difficult to ascertain from rudimentary testing techniques done at home or in-clinic.
  2. In some cases, your dog may retain the ability to hear only at certain frequencies. Newly adapted BAER tests can test your dog’s hearing capacity at specific frequencies.
  3. You need a test to confirm your findings for peace of mind
  4. You may be concerned about deafness if you are breeding dogs that are predisposed to congenital/hereditary deafness.

When you have ascertained that your dog is in fact deaf, you should inform your breeder that your dog has inherited deafness and a responsible breeder will stop breeding the specific dam with the sire, or decide to not breed them altogether. It would also be responsible of you as an owner to not breed your dog and have him/her neutered/spayed if you haven’t already done so.

Many owners who discover that their dogs are deaf go through the tough decision of whether they want to take on the responsibility of caring for a deaf dog. The following is a list of important responsibilities that you will have to assume for the duration of your dog’s stay with you.

  • Your dog should never be off-leash in any area that is not completely fenced-in. If your dog runs away, you will not be able to call him back. In addition, if your dog does run away, he might be at a higher risk of getting run over by a vehicle because he cannot hear approaching traffic. This also means that if you don’t have the luxury of a fenced-in yard where your dog can exercise or play fetch, you will have to be active enough to personally exercise with your dog every day.
  • Unless you get a vibrating collar for your dog, the only way to get the attention of your dog when he is a distance away from you is to physically go up to him and touch him on his shoulder. Making the floor vibrate by stomping hard on the floor, using a squirt bottle, or throwing things at him may startle him and add to his anxiety.
  • You will have to establish a calm demeanor in your dog, because he will have the tendency to be highly anxious, being easily and frequently startled.
  • Training your deaf dog can be tricky and time consuming, especially in the beginning when you have to establish the understanding that he needs to read hand signals.
  • Your deaf dog will never be a good guard dog. In fact, you will have to assume the responsibility of his guardian throughout his life.
  • Some deaf dogs are quiet as a mouse, while other deaf dogs bark incessantly. Teaching a deaf dog not to bark can prove to be an arduous task. Still, there are many methods which you can try to steer your dog away from such disruptive behavior.
  • You will need to be mindful about your dog being alone with other dogs even if he may know them well. His inability to hear them bark or growl can put him in precarious situations which may lead to him being bitten. Jacob the deaf Boston was once bit by an American Bulldog, Reba, who was so old she could hardly move. One day, Jacob walked by where Reba was resting and she growled at him. He didn’t see nor hear her warn him and in a split second, she had gotten up and had taken a huge chomp on his little head. Nobody would have thought that sweet Reba who hardly moved could deliver such a blow, but if Jacob had been able to hear her, he would have moved out of harm’s way.

Although the demands of raising a deaf dog are undoubtedly more than that of a normal hearing dog, it is certainly by no means impossible. Patience and diligence in training are the keys to success. You will find that his training is only limited by your imagination and creativity to find ways to communicate with him. Remember, the only disability your dog has is his hearing, not his mental capacity to learn, and certainly not his ability to love you unconditionally. Raising a well-adjusted deaf dog can be a noble and rewarding experience.

In this article, dogs are referred to as “he/him” only because I write my articles with Jacob the Deaf Boston in mind.
By Serene Lai – writer

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