Deafness in dogs can be present from birth, or it can appear at some point during a dog’s life.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about deafness in dogs.
Whether you think your dog may be deaf, or you’re considering adopting a deaf dog.
Causes of hearing loss in dogs
Some dogs are deaf from birth or from very early puppyhood. This is known as congenital deafness.
A dog may be born deaf due to genetics, or because his mother had an infection or was exposed to a toxin during pregnancy.
Dogs can also lose their hearing at some point during their lives due to a severe ear infection, an injury to the ear, or simply old age.
Loud noises, like gunshots, can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. Some medications may also carry the side effect of hearing loss.
White dogs deafness
Congenital deafness is most often caused by a lack of pigment in the skin of a dog’s inner ear.Unpigmented skin in the inner ear causes the nerve endings to atrophy by the time the puppy is a few weeks old.
This is why dogs with white or partially white coats have higher rates of congenital deafness. This is not something that Labrador owners have to consider, although if you have a Labrador cross then they might have the potential to acquire this gene.
Additional, this does not mean that only white dogs have congenital deafness. Colored dogs like Labs can be born deaf due to different genetic mutations, or for reasons covered in the above section.
It is also possible that a dog with colored hair on his outer ears can still have unpigmented skin in his inner ear.
How to tell if your dog is deaf
Only a veterinarian can determine with certainty whether your dog is deaf, but you can conclude that your dog is probably deaf based on certain observations.
If your dog does not respond when you call his name or make a noise, like blowing a whistle, clapping your hands, or squeaking a toy, he may be deaf.
To truly test your dog’s hearing, you should call his name or make a noise while he is facing away from you, or sleeping, at least 10 feet away. This is to ensure that your dog is not actually responding to your body movements, small vibrations, or air currents.
A dog that is deaf in both ears—bilaterally deaf—will not respond at all to auditory stimuli. A dog that is deaf in only one ear—unilaterally deaf—may respond to a sound that comes from his left side but not his right, depending on which ear is deaf.
If your dog looks in the wrong direction to see where a noise came from, he may be unilaterally deaf.
Do deaf dogs bark?
Deaf dogs do bark.
Some deaf dogs may bark significantly less than hearing dogs, but others may bark significantly more.
Prolonged barking sometimes occurs when dogs lose their hearing and are trying to compensate for the loss.
Diagnosing deafness in dogs
The only way to determine with 100 percent certainty that a dog is deaf is to perform a BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) test.
Unfortunately, the BAER test is expensive and not widely available, so many dog owners do not have the resources to have it done. But a veterinarian can still diagnose a dog as deaf simply by evaluating the dog’s response to noises.
How to train a deaf dog
Training a deaf dog requires supplementing verbal commands with hand signals.
You can use hand signals only, but speaking the command at the same time helps you remember the signs and better communicates the command to your dog.
You may not be aware of it, but you will make a very different facial expression when saying “no” than when saying “good boy.” Seeing the difference in your facial expressions will help your dog understand the meaning of the signs you are using.
To train a deaf dog, you will need to use creative methods of getting his attention. Some deaf dogs are still able to hear very high-pitched or low-pitched noises, so you may want to see whether your deaf dog responds to a dog whistle
If the dog whistle does not work, there are many other options. Stomping your feet is a good way to get a deaf dog’s attention, since they can feel the vibration in the floor or ground. You can also use a laser pointer or a flashlight.
If you have never trained a dog before, it’s a good idea to sign up for class with a professional trainer. A professional trainer will demonstrate how to how to give commands and give rewards when the dog obeys the command. It’s up to you to give the command as a sign in addition to giving it verbally.
With enough repetitions and rewards, your dog will start obeying your hand signals. Once your dog knows the most important, basic commands—sit, stay, down, come, heel, and no—you can move on to other commands and vocabulary words.
Hand signals for deaf dogs
To train a deaf dog, you can either use American Sign Language, or create your own signs to signify different commands. What’s important is that you use the signs consistently.
Dr. George Strain of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine recommends using these hand signals for deaf dogs.
The most basic ones are as follows:
Sit: Put your right index and middle finger on top of your left index and middle finger, and move your hands downward.
Stay: Hold your hand out with your palm facing your dog and move your hand slightly forward.
Down: Hold your hand out with your palm facing the floor and move your hand down.
Come: Hold your hand in front of you with your palm facing up and pull your hand towards your chest.
Heel: Pat your leg on the side that you want your dog to come to.
No: Bring your thumb, index and middle fingers together. You can precede this sign by wagging your finger.
These handy flash cards can help you to ake the most out of training a deaf dog.
Dog hearing loss treatment
There is no treatment for canine deafness, whether it is congenital, or acquired due to old age or trauma to the inner ear.
If your dog’s hearing loss is caused by an ear infection, there is a possibility that his hearing will return after the infection is treated. But if an ear infection causes death of the cochlear nerve cells, the resulting deafness is not reversible.
Hearing aids for dogs
Veterinarians can make dog hearing aids, but they will not be effective for dogs who are congenitally deaf. Hearing aids cannot restore a dog’s hearing. They can only amplify sounds to a point at which they can be heard by deaf dogs with some limited hearing ability.
The problem with hearing aids for dogs, though, is that many dogs simply do not like wearing them. When a veterinarian at Auburn University tried giving deaf dogs hearing aids, he found that many dogs did not tolerate the foam plugs that held the hearing aids in their ears.
Caring for a deaf dog
Deaf dogs adapt quite well to their deafness, but they may need extra care in certain aspects of life.
Many deaf dogs have exaggerated startle responses when they are woken up, or when they are touched and cannot see the person touching them.
You can train an exaggerated startle response out of your dog with continuous positive rewards. Start by lightly touching your dog when he is not looking at you. When he turns around, give him a treat. Do this repeatedly so he learns to associate being touched with getting a reward.
You can also train your dog to wake up with no startle response. When your dog is sleeping, place your hand right in front of his nose, so he can smell you. Then touch his shoulder or back with an extremely light hand. After several light strokes, he should wake up.
If you repeat this process over and over again, your dog should learn to wake up gently when you put your hand in front of his nose, or lightly touch his back. For extra positive reinforcement, you can give a treat when he wakes up.
Deaf dogs also may become anxious if they wake up or turn around to find that you have left the room without them noticing. To avoid this reaction, stomp your feet or use your laser pointer to get your dog’s attention before you leave a room. He may not come with you, but he will probably feel more secure knowing where you’ve gone.
Deaf dog collar
A deaf dog collar that says “I am deaf” is a good way to communicate to others that your dog has special needs, in case you and your dog are ever separated.
These collars allow good samaritans and veterinarians to better care for your pet until you get him back.
You can even get a deaf dog leash to match.
Some dog owners will put vibrating dollars on their deaf dogs in order to communicate with them.
A vibrating collar is a good way of getting your deaf dog’s attention when he is not looking at you, but it isn’t necessary.
The biggest drawback to a vibrating collar is that is weighs significantly more than a regular dog collar. Weighing between 2.3 and 7.8 oz, a vibrating collar is too heavy for many small dogs and puppies.
Many deaf dogs do just fine without vibrating collars, but if you would like to try one, you can look at the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund’s page on training with vibrating collars.
Deaf dog harness
If you want more security when walking your dog, you may opt for a harness rather than a collar.
Some dogs have a tendency to slip out of their collars, especially when they are still being trained to heel.
Both deaf and hearing dogs can exhibit this behavior.
But slipping the leash can be more dangerous for a deaf dog, because he cannot hear you calling him, and he cannot hear the sound of impending danger, such as a car engine.
For this reason, you may choose a harness for extra security. A harness that says “I am deaf” can communicate your dog’s special needs.
Deaf dog toys
A deaf dog will happily play with any toy that a hearing dog will play with, even if he can’t hear it squeaking. But if you want your dog’s toys to be more special, look for toys that have different scents.
Some toys come pre-scented, but you can also make your own scented dog toys simply by soaking tennis balls in different broths.
Toys that have compartments where you can stuff treats are also fun for deaf dogs, as are those with varying textures.
Deaf dog rescue
Thinking about adopting a deaf dog? There are many organizations devoted to deaf dog adoption.
Deaf Dogs Rescue of America takes in stray and abandoned deaf dogs, trains them and finds homes for them.
Deaf Dogs Rock is a non-profit organization dedicated to the health and wellbeing of deaf dogs, and they have their own rescue page.
Pets with Disabilities takes in and finds homes for all disabled companion animals, and they have many deaf dogs in need of loving owners.
Deafness In Dogs
Deafness in dogs can be scary to consider. But don’t worry.
If your dog is deaf, or you are concerned that he might be, then I hope you will be reassured to know that he can still live a full and happy life.
With the appropriate training and a few alterations to your normal care routines, you can keep your dog’s life just as fun, and your bond as strong as it ever was.
References & Further Reading
- Strain, G. M Louisiana State University Comparative Biomedical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803
- Strain, G. M. Information on Deafness, Prevalence, Causes & Management For Owners, Breeders and Researchers
- Strain, G.M. Overview of Deafness. School of Veterinary Medicine. Louisiana State University.