Most dogs can hear frequencies 2-3 times what a human can hear. But not Ginny. Ginny can’t seem to hear anything at all. She is deaf. Deafness is fairly common and dogs and doesn’t just afflict older mutts; some dogs are deaf from birth. There is no way of knowing how long Ginny has been deaf (though I do have a theory that her chronic allergies led to chronic ear infections that resulted in hearing loss) but luckily, with a healthy nose and eyes, she probably doesn’t miss her hearing much.
Owners of deaf dogs face some unique challenges but not all hope is lost when it comes to training. Deaf dogs can’t hear commands but they can read your facial expressions. They can also understand hand signals just like deaf humans. The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund recommends using basic obedience signals combined with American Sign Language signals for things like “car” or “walk.” With a little work, a dog can learn dozens of signs! Many deaf dogs have just enough hearing that they can hear the sound of a clicker. Clicker training is a great reward-based training method that help you to develop a great relationship with your pup.
The two biggest obstacles to deaf dog ownership come when the dog’s back is turned. If he is not looking at you or is asleep, you may have difficulty controlling or comforting him. Unless your dog sticks to you like velcro, you will have to keep him on a leash 95% of the time. When I take Ginny to the dog park I let her off leash but I am sure to follow her around and keep an eye out. I have tried to walk her unleashed in safe spaces but after a minute or two she becomes distracted and I find myself chasing after her. To avoid any devestating accidents, the minute she steps out of the boundaries of a safe space like the dog park, the leash goes back on.
The first time I woke Ginny up from a deep sleep, I gently brushed her back with my fingertips. She jumped up, completely disoriented, took several steps backward and fell over. It took me a full 60-seconds to calm her down by getting low, stroking her slowly until she could get her bearings and her heartbeat slowed. Now I take the earthquake strategy: I stand near her bed and jump up and down a couple of times and let the vibration wake her. Instead of freaking out, she slowly opens her eyes, looks at me, then stands up and comes to greet me with a wagging tail.
And, lets face it, there are lots of other positives that come with doggie deafness: I can play the music in my car as loud as I want and it won’t bother her; I can wander around the house while she is asleep without waking her and without her following me around; when other dogs in the building bark, she doesn’t get all worked up and join the chorus.
Don’t let deafness come between you and an amazing dog! For more information, check out these books:
Living with a Deaf Dog by Susan Cope-Becker
Hear, Hear! A Guide to Training a Deaf Puppy by Barry Eaton
The Pocket Dictionary of Signing by Rod R. Butterworth and Mickey Flodin