Why do well-meaning adopters so often pass over deaf dogs? Most pet parents assume training will be more difficult or the dog will be unruly, or perhaps they’ve heard the myth that deafness is associated with aggression. The truth is that deaf dogs are regular dogs, and their care is not much different or more complicated than hearing dogs. With proper training, deaf dogs can be happy, well-adjusted companions, and you may find owning a deaf dog actually has advantages over a hearing dog.
Success with deaf dogs requires research to adapt your training style and implement a few safety measures around your home. With a little extra effort, though, you can provide a deaf dog a happy, healthy home and be rewarded with a grateful, loving relationship.
What Causes Dog Deafness?
Many deaf dogs are born without hearing because of genetic defects related to breed or color. Most congenitally deaf dogs are white or have a primarily white head, and many also have blue eyes. This color variation results from an extreme manifestation of the merle gene or the piebald gene, which can create desirable coat patterns. Dogs genetically deaf from the merle gene also may have eye problems or blindness. Genetics is complicated, and deafness can result from multiple genes interacting, so predicting which dogs may be born deaf is nearly impossible. Congenital deafness is most common in Dalmatians but can occur in more than 100 other breeds, including the English setter, English cocker spaniel, bull terrier, Australian shepherd, and Catahoula leopard dog. Dogs of any breed also can be born deaf because of toxin exposure, drugs, or infections before or shortly after birth. Adult dogs can acquire deafness later in life because of chronic ear infections, drugs causing ear cell toxicity, injury, or aging.
Training Deaf Dogs
Deafness does not affect your dog’s learning ability, but training does require a different strategy. Hiring a trainer experienced with deaf dogs can help you understand what works for your pet. A few general principles can guide your training:
- Teach your dog to pay attention — Attention is key to training any dog, but getting a deaf dog’s attention can be more challenging. Use a waving hand gesture to get your dog to watch you, and give them treats when they make eye contact. Practice this often so your dog learns to look at you before they do anything.
- Devise a way to show praise — Some people with deaf dogs use a “hand flash” signal to say “good job.” Pair this with lots of physical praise and treats so your dog quickly learns what this means.
- Teach your dog hand signals — Your dog can’t hear you give commands, so use distinct hand cues to direct them. Your cues don’t have to be the same as anyone else’s as long as your dog understands and you stay consistent.
- Invest in training aids — If getting your dog’s attention is difficult or you need to get their attention off-leash, you can use a vibrating training collar. Use the vibration as you would a hand signal—pair it with an expected action such as “come”—and give your pet treats and praise as rewards. You also can use flashing lights to get their attention at night.
- Get creative — Most importantly, get creative and go with the flow. Like any hearing dog, your dog will respond to different training styles differently. Find what works for them and go with it. Avoid punishment-based training and keep each session positive.
Deaf Dog Safety Concerns
Your deaf dog can’t hear oncoming traffic, vocalizations from other dogs, or you yelling frantically when a safety hazard is present. Training and training aids to get your dog’s attention are important so you can call them away from danger. Placing a collar or harness on your dog that identifies them as deaf can help other dog owners understand not to startle them. Outside of your home, keep your dog in a fenced area or on a leash at all times.
Some dogs, deaf or not, startle easily and may be more likely to bite when awakened quickly. Gently wake your dog—and teach others to do the same—by creating vibrations nearby. You can lightly shake their bed or bang on the furniture next to them. You can practice touching them to get their attention and giving them treats right away when they’re awake. All dogs benefit from desensitizing touch by pairing treats with touching their ears, feet, and mouth.
If you acquire a deaf puppy, ensure they’re well-socialized with other dogs, pets, people, and novel items or situations. They need to be well-adjusted, just like a hearing puppy, and will benefit from learning body language and non-verbal communication from other dogs early on. Consider daycare or play dates to make this process easier, and read up on puppy socialization here.
Deaf Dog Advantages
Did you know that up to two-thirds of American dogs are afraid of loud noises? Noise aversion can be debilitating for these dogs and cause extreme anxiety and prolonged distress. Holidays with fireworks, thunderstorms, construction noise, smoke alarms, and many other loud sounds can make these dogs panic repeatedly and reduce their quality of life. Deaf dogs can still develop fears and phobias but won’t associate noise with a scary event. As a result, you don’t have to worry on July 4th or comfort your dog when it storms.
Some owners of deaf dogs find that they form close bonds with their families and look to them for guidance. The extra training can also deepen your bond, so expect your deaf dog to provide unconditional love and satisfying companionship.
Are you interested in sharing your life with a deaf dog or contributing to the deaf dog rescue community? Visit the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website to find resources, learn more about how you can help, and discover how a deaf dog can bring happiness into your home.