Fur parents are often devastated after a diagnosis of deafness, whether you have suspected this for some time or it is sudden and unexpected. It is important to remember, that, just like hearing-impaired humans, deaf dogs can live a full life with some changes to their environment and lifestyle.
The causes of hearing loss in dogs may be breed-specific. Certain coat patterns and colours like spotted, piebald or merle coats or white heads and ears have been liked to deafness in dogs. If genetic, the deafness may be congenital or the dog may go deaf at an early age. Other causes of deafness include injuries, illnesses, tumours and old age.
After a full assessment and diagnosis, your vet will explain to you the degree of your pet’s hearing loss. Deafness may be partial or permanent, depending on the cause and it may occur in one (unilateral deafness) or both ears equally (bilateral deafness).
Changes to consider
In order to ensure the safety of your deaf dog, you need to take cognisance of your home and environment.
First up, if your dog does not yet have a microchip, have one implanted as soon as possible. Your dog should also have a collar with an identification disc, your cell phone number and an inscription: ‘I am deaf’. This will ensure, that should anything unforeseen occur, he can get the assistance he needs.
- Deaf puppies
If you have a deaf puppy, don’t neglect puppy classes and obedience training. These are highly beneficial for deaf pups to learn socialisation skills. The instructors should be informed about your puppy’s deafness so additional instruction can be offered.
- Calling your dog
A partially deaf dog may be able to hear a high-frequency dog whistle which can be useful when you need to call your dog to come for his meal or when you want to go for a walk.
Dogs naturally communicate using body language, and you can take advantage of this if your dog is deaf. Try a physical gesture, such as waving your arms to attract his attention, and always reward your dog for coming to you. Do this even when the dog comes to you on his own. Show your dog that checking in with you is always a positive experience – this will encourage him to do it more often.
For smaller breeds, use a cat bell on the collar so that you can quickly identify where your dog is in the house.
- Safe at home
Take a walk around your property and ensure that it is secure. If your dog has access to your front gate and driveway, section off the property to prevent access to these areas.
Beds should be placed in a safe area where your dog cannot injure himself should he get startled while asleep. Beds should not be placed on a staircase landing or close to stoves, fireplaces and heaters.
If you need to wake your dog, do so gently or he may react with a nip or bite. Stand close by his bed so he can get a whiff of your scent or place your hand near his nose. You can also apply a gentle touch to his leg or stamp the floor, very lightly, so he can pick up on the vibrations. Try various options and see what works for your dog. Always be careful not to give your dog a fright.
- Walking your dog
Pay very close attention when out walking your dog. He won’t hear vehicles or people approaching and he may startle. Tie a bandana around your dog’s neck to alert people of his disability. A white bandana is sometimes used to indicate that the dog is deaf or blind. Always keep your deaf pet on lead when taking him for a walk or visiting the dog park.
The most important change that everyone in the family needs to make is how you communicate with your dog. Auditory language and spoken cues in training need to be replaced with visual cues.
Some pet owners use common signs from South African Sign Language, or you could make up and use your own signals, provided that each sign is different to the others you use.
Consider signs or gestures that you naturally do when you speak to your dog. Hearing dogs often pick up on visual cues and facial expressions too, so if you dog’s deafness has progressed over time, he may already be looking the visual cues that he associates with certain words and activities. Some trainers also advocate that you say the say the word with a clear mouth shape and/or animated facial expressions.
Establish the signals for the various commands and use them every time you communicate with your dog. For example, holding your dog’s leash, you clearly form the word ‘walk’ with your lips and move the leash up and down in your hand. For sit, place your palm facing down and move your hand downwards. You should have cues for heel, fetch, stay, food, car, bed and any other activities you do with your dog. When he understands your visual cues, use treats and physical affection to reward him positively.