Owning a Hearing Impaired Dog by Dr. David Sands

Owning a hearing-impaired dog immediately rules out sound-signalling and voice instructions for training. Methods linked with additional primary senses, including smell, touch, taste and sight become important for a different approach to communication.

The pros and cons of owning a deaf dog
Rachel, one of my favourite clients, is a professional dog-walker. She already owns a rescue dog called ‘Selma’. This dog, a five-year-old neutered terrier/collie crossbreed, has been a successful adoption for the past three years and she has wanted to obtain a second dog for some time.

When Owen was 15 weeks old, a friend of hers at Fly-Ball (Blackpool) was asked to foster him as she already owned a deaf dog. The re-homing officer at The Dogs Trust knew that Owen needed someone with experience to provide basic training prior to re-homing. Rachel was introduced to Owen tow days later and within a week he was with her on a trial session, a situation she requested because she needed to know how Selma would cope with a ‘special needs’ dog. Her confidence about re-homing a second dog had been shaken, because a recently fostered dog had begun to bite out at her on a daily basis and was subsequently euthanised. Thankfully, Selma and Owen immediately socialised. Rachel soon realised that a deaf dog was almost a physically normal dog needing slight adjustments to his training plan, because of his lack of hearing ability.

In no real order of positives, Rachel is extremely pleased that Owen has none of the following unwanted behaviours or conditions that she has experienced with rescue dogs in the past including ‘noise phobias’, guarding the door (barking at the door bell or a knock at the door), postman-syndrome issues, reactive-barking at any of the neighbours’ dogs, howling or barking in reaction to telephone/TV/music noises or barking during the night as she crashes around going to the loo! The main issues Rachel has asked for my assistance on have been distance recall-difficulties and attracting his attention when visual contact has been lost. This means guidance for accurately correcting bad behaviour at a distance and perhaps a not too obvious issue, battling other people’s prejudices about her dog.

A client’s great expectations
Rachel wanted Owen to go off-lead as soon as possible and as she explained, even more so than a hearing dog, because she wanted him to learn the concept of walking in a ‘social group’ with other dogs without having his confidence eroded. She had been informed by her ‘deaf dog mentor’ that dogs like Owen often lack confidence to wander too far and regularly check back to see that they are still safely linked with their owner. This proved true as Owen could be seen cautiously staying close to her, never more than a few metres away and her continually needing to establish that her other dog, Selma was close by. Rachel bought the cat bells straight away so that if Owen disappeared into the foliage she wouldn’t over-react and start scrambling through brambles to find him. As an sound signal, the bells proved themselves to be invaluable, because not only does she remain calm if Owen goes off to explore into the woods or down an over grown river bank, but even as he bounces here and there as she is walking, Rachel can hear exactly where he is at most times.

Owen has an ID tag that reads ‘I’M DEAF’ rather than the usual family name, because Rachel is convinced that if he ever goes missing and is found people will exercise some common sense. Rachel also obtained an embroidered bandanna that reads ‘I’M DEAF’ – again in the hope that when he encounters other dog owners on walks they will try to be more forgiving with their body language and hopefully understand why Rachel does not whistle or call him back!

Rachel informs me that Owen travels well in her car and mostly sleeps. He does not appear disturbed by the motion or moving scenery or to be concerned by people passing, approaching or entering the car. She believes this is probably because he has been desensitised, together with her work experience as a dog walker and her interest in Fly-Ball as a hobby. Rachel developed a hand signal for entering and leaving the car.

Don’t fear the reflection
One current aspect of his development that concerned Rachel, is that Owen is quick to present fear-based hyperactivity when visually disturbed by reflections. We have established a distraction method using a favourite tennis ball to change this behaviour. She also suggests that Owen does not have what she calls an ‘off button’. He enjoys a long walk, a play-session, training, food and yet still has the energy to throw his toys around for an hour after she is exhausted. Rachel believes that Owen doesn’t hear the difference between the exciting times (wind blowing/river running/dogs barking on walks) and the calm relaxing times (TV or book reading) so may not settle as quickly as normal dogs. My view is that as a working breed not ‘tasked’ Owen has the potential to seek out displaced behaviour and is easily over-stimulated. Taking into account his impairment and that he is quickly aroused, my advice has been to give him regular time-out sessions in a crate and this system should change this presentation.

Developing a happy relationship
Owning a dog that is not interested in ‘sounds’ means Rachel searches for visually stimulating toys. She ignores squeakers or rattlers and looks for interactive items that are textural and unusual in form. She encourages Owen to be tennis ball-focused so that his attention is on her or Selma when they come across distractions such as people picnicking, other dogs playing games and livestock. Retrieving a ball provides extra physical exercise and Fly-Ball sessions are waiting for the dog when he reaches 12 months.

Owen has been taken to a few local training classes, but she found trainers are not experienced with deaf dogs. They do understand that she wants to socialise Owen into dog-oriented environments so that she can work on his attention-focus when there are other distractions. She has reported that during group training sessions Owen can be the most attentive dog in the room, because once he is looking at her, all the other normal distractions (barking/talking/clicking) are not an issue.

In my few observational sessions with Owen it has become obvious that he learns from the other dog, Selma. Rachel notes too that he follows her cue of ‘when to get interactive’ or when to charge to the bottom of the garden (on the refuge collection day), when to recall and when to ‘walk on’. On my first photographic session, when Rachel had the dog for a trial period, I could see that Owen watches Selma’s body language when she was chasing balls. Rachel now informs me that this behaviour can sometimes have a negative effect in terms of faulty-learning. Owen has begun to focus similar behaviour on other dogs encountered on walks when they are being played with and getting his attention in these situations has become difficult. The unwanted behaviour of selective-hearing seen in dogs that challenge ‘recall’ has become ‘selective-eye contact’ in Owen. Selma’s contribution in training Owen is that her excellent recall helps to bring them both back to her.

I asked a vet colleague, Michael Clarke MRCVS, about standard test for deafness in dogs and he replied:

Hi David, basically in practice there isn’t much we can do, we rely on what owners tell us and stuff like dropping keys on the floor and seeing if we get a response! We always examine the ear too, but usually there is not a lot to see. There are some electronic hearing testing centres, I don’t exactly know how they work and there are very few, I think only 2, in the UK

Dr David Sands would like to thank Rachel Smith for discussions and information provided on Owen for these articles. My services were provided free to her hopefully in order to understand and improve behavioural treatment for hearing-impaired dogs. Rachel has informed me that it is not possible to obtain third party insurance for a deaf dog like Owen. It is said that such insurance may become a legal compulsory requirement for dog owners in the future and it is not obvious how this obstacle will be overcome.

List of visual commands and cues:

‘Clicker marker’ or ‘good boy’ – thumbs up/broad smile

‘Come’ – arms out wide, tap chest, arms out wide again

‘Send away’ – throw arm out from knee (horizontally) in direction he is required to go

‘Sit’ – lift hand from horizontal to vertical, palm facing body

‘Down’ – hand flat on floor

‘Game over’ – crossed hands at the chest, moving one over the other in a sideways movement.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of David Sands for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Animal Behaviour

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