Why the Deaf Dog Barks
Bosco, the Great Dane puppy, doesn't listen to his owner. No amount of yelling or pleading can get him to respond to a single command. The reason for Bosco's seeming indifference is simple – it's not that he doesn't want to listen to his owner, it's because that he can't hear. Bosco was born deaf.
Congenital deafness is not an uncommon problem for purebred dogs. Dalmations, Boston Terriers, Dachshunds, Collies , Bull Terriers and Shelties are just a few of the breeds that are known for this condition. While truly responsible breeders take every precaution to insure the creation of healthy dogs, the majority of pet dogs do not come from responsible breeders. Many millions of dogs are born as the result of casual "back yard" breedings and puppy mills . For the person seeking to buy or adopt a pet, failing to check for deafness can cause unexpected hardships and may ultimately end the relationship.
To determine that an animal is deaf, it helps to know how normal pups develop their ability to hear. For the first two weeks of life, all dogs are effectively deaf. At about the 14th day, the pup's ears open up and the animal can start to perceive sounds. While normal pups become adept at identifying sounds, a deaf animal will rely on its eyes and nose to make up for its inability to hear. Using primarily visual cues, the deaf puppy may appear to be reacting to sounds exactly like its litter mates. When a human calls the puppies, the deaf one merely watches and follows the others. It will be assumed that the deaf pup "heard" the call.
If a breeder is specifically concerned with this problem, it is common to test for deafness by making a loud noise and then observing the litter's reactions. While this my seem to be a foolproof method, there are inherent weaknesses to this casual examination. Dropping a large book may convince you that Fido actually "heard" a sound. In reality, he may have felt the vibration of the floor, through the pads of his feet. Banging pots and pans together may also prove futile. A puppy that has spent its life devoid of sound often learns to constantly scan for visual cues. If the puppy perceives a subtle change in ambient light, shadows or peripheral movement, as you bang a pot, it may still beat the loud noise test.
A better way to test hearing is to select a noise that the pups are unlikely to recognize, and associate it with a pleasant consequence. An inexpensive, toy slide-whistle offers the dual advantages of uniqueness and variability. To start the test, take one of the pups to a relatively quiet room. Softly blow a rising tone on the whistle and then, give the pup a treat. After about 20 repetitions, put the pup back with the litter. Now return the puppy to the quiet room and have an assistant waiting with the slide whistle. Let the puppy investigate the room for a minute or so, and then get the pup to focus on you with a hand motion. Make sure that you keep the pup's attention away from your assistant. When the pup is fully focused on you, have the assistant blow the whistle, softly and move the slide to raise the pitch. Watch the pup's reaction closely. A normal puppy should turn and look in the direction of the whistle, or rotate one or both of his ears to try and locate the sound. If a pup does not respond, further testing may be necessary. If you are unsure about the animal's ability to hear, make sure the sale is not final until after a thorough veterinary exam.
If you should decide to buy or keep a deaf puppy, you will soon learn how much we depend on our sense of hearing. While it is easy to assume that your decision will merely require additional work and commitment, anticipating the reality of deaf pet ownership is more difficult. Once the pup is at home, the difficulties will become readily apparent.
One of the first problems you will encounter is simple housetraining. Most people understand that you should take the puppy to the appropriate area and then praise him for correct elimination. HMMMM, now, how are you going to do that? Your puppy can't hear verbal praise. Suddenly you have a big problem. Hand signals, a pleasant luxury for most owners, will become your primary means of communication. Before you can teach the pup where to eliminate, you must first teach a hand signal for "yes". The process of teaching a "yes" signal is relatively simple. First, you give the hand signal, then you offer the puppy treats and physical affection. After 50 repetitions, or so, the pup will learn to associate the hand signal with an earned reward, just like verbal praise. Now that you have solved this critical first problem, you are ready to try again. This time, as the puppy finishes eliminating, you are prepared to offer your "yes" hand signal, but he is looking the other way. Unless you are quick, he isn't going to see you signal, and isn't going to connect the treat and affection with eliminating in the right location. Did I mention that hand signals don't work very well at two in the morning?
Besides the difficulty of merely trying to praise your pup, another constant challenge will be in getting your pup's attention. You will not be able to "call" the dog in a conventional fashion. Until you create a signal connected with "attention", your deaf puppy will not have a "name". Outside of actually touching the pup, you will be unable to communicate.
For the inventive owner, technology can help make communication easier. While flashlights work well at night, they are of limited use during daylight hours. A laser pointer can be used, instead, as a way of "calling" the dog. Laser light is far brighter than flashlights, and can reach up to 100 yards, at night. By shining the laser spot in front of the dog, or on a wall, you can attract the dog's attention the way a hearing dog responds to its name. Because of potential damage to the dog's retina, special care should be used to make sure the laser light is never shined directly in the dog's eyes.
If you are contemplating raising a deaf dog, it helps to contact people who have already done so. Common misconceptions may lead you to believe that deaf dogs are more likely to become vicious, or that the condition implies other brain abnormalities. For those dog owners who have successfully raised and trained deaf dogs, these concerns are meaningless. Any dog that is not properly socialized may learn to bite. Teaching a deaf dog is more often a matter of trying to keep pace with a focused animal who is not distracted by extraneous sounds.
If you accept and meet the challenge of raising a non-hearing pet, you will need skill, patience, gadgets and imagination. In return, you will earn wet kisses, a wagging tail and a priceless gift – a lifelong friend.
P.S. If you’ve noticed that I didn’t explicitly explain the title, that’s simple -- just like people, a dog’s ability to wag his tongue has nothing to do with his ability to hear what someone else is saying.