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Living with a Deaf Dog

By Langley Cornwell

When we rescued an all-white dog, we had no idea that white dogs are prone to certain health issues that other dogs are not troubled with. One problem these dogs face is the potential of being born deaf. The shelter told us to be on alert, but we didn’t understand what a dog’s color had to do with whether he could hear or not.

According to the WebMD website, researchers have not been able to determine the specific causes of congenital deafness but they can explain why it’s more common in dogs with white or mostly white heads.

Why white dogs in particular?

WebMD’s source, George M. Strain (a leading veterinary researcher on the causes of deafness in dogs and a professor of neuroscience at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine) explains why congenital deafness is more common in white dogs: "The lack of pigment on the head causes the pigment cells in the inner ear to fail to develop, or they may be lacking entirely. The lack of pigment cells causes the death of the nerve cells that need to develop for hearing to occur."

Are certain dogs at risk of being born deaf?

Due to lack of pigment, there are a number of dog breeds with a fairly high likelihood of being born deaf. Dalmatians are at most risk; 30% of Dalmatian puppies are born deaf in one or both ears. Other dog breeds with high incidents of congenital deafness include Jack Russell terriers, Catahoula Leopard dogs, Bull terriers, English setters, Whippets and Australian cattle dogs.

What causes deafness in dogs that aren’t born that way?

Some dogs are born with full hearing but go deaf at some point. Chronic ear infections, especially if left untreated, are a major culprit of this. So is drug toxicity, injury or overexposure to loud noises. In fact, many hunting dogs go deaf later in life due to guns being fired too close to their heads. And some dogs go deaf simply from old age.

How can you tell if a dog is deaf?

Holly Newstead and her husband John founded the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund in the mid 1990s after they adopted a young, deaf Dalmatian. If you question your dog’s hearing, the Newsteads recommend these home tests:

Stand still so your dog can’t see your movement or feel the vibrations of your walk. Make a loud noise behind him and see if he reacts. Try making this same noise when your dog is sleeping and notice if he reacts or not.

When conducting these experiments, use different sounds to test for different ranges of hearing. For example, blow a whistle to test your dog’s high range of hearing, clap your hands to test his mid-range, and beat a drum or the bottom of a plastic bucket to test his low range. According to the Newsteads, many dogs that seem completely deaf still have limited hearing in one or both ears.

Also notice if your dog begins to ignore commands that he’s usually on top of, or if sounds he used to acknowledge no longer elicit a reaction (i.e., the sound of his CANIDAE food being poured into his bowl). These are indications that he may be losing his hearing. For a conclusive answer, there are hearing tests that can be performed by your veterinarian.

Do deaf dogs require special training?

People who live with deaf dogs say they are as easy to train as any other dog. The only difference is that you use voice commands for hearing dogs and you use hand signals for deaf dogs.

With deaf dogs, it’s imperative to be consistent with your hand signals, whatever they are. Before beginning any training process, determine what signal will indicate what command. Use signals that you and your family understand and feel comfortable with so the dog always knows what he is being asked to do.

Additional considerations

It’s a good idea to condition a deaf dog to wake up in a calm manner; when startled awake he may respond poorly. One easy trick is to wake him up at random times and give him a dog treat every time. The dog will quickly associate being awakened with a positive experience. You can also bump the bed he’s sleeping in or stomp your feet near his dog bed so the vibrations wake him up.

It goes without saying, but a deaf dog can’t hear. Therefore, they can’t hear danger approaching like cars or other animals. For this reason, it’s important to always keep deaf dogs on a leash or in a fenced yard. It’s also advisable to add the word ‘DEAF’ to your dog’s tag, along with your current contact information.

Our dog can hear fine. Still, if she happens to lose her hearing I’m not concerned. With knowledge and love, she will thrive.

Photo by Sean Davis

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