Every day when the school bus stops at the corner, Apollo is ready and waiting inside the front door. Joseph Barton knows the drill: After an affectionate hello and a snack, the two head for the fenced-in yard where the 4-year-old mixed-breed fetches as many tennis balls as Barton cares to throw. Once they’re tired, they head inside, pause for another snack, then Apollo takes up camp in Barton’s doorway while he does homework or listens to music.
Sounds like a regular afternoon for a boy and a dog, with just one exception: Apollo is totally deaf.
“We adopted him as a puppy. He was born deaf, left at the pound,” says Barton, now a freshman in high school. “You’d never know. We taught him hand signals for sit, down, high-five. I’ve learned sign language, and I made up some hand signals for him. He loves learning, he’s a great dog.”
Dogs with hearing impairments often linger too long at shelters, overlooked by potential adopters who fear the dog will require a lot of extra work or won’t be trainable. But a deaf dog is seldom at a disadvantage. Canines have such strong command of their senses, and are keen observers of their environment, they seem indifferent to their lack of sound.
Communicating without words
“Deaf dogs actually learn a lot faster than your average dog because they learn by watching and are not confused by our words,” says Robin Menard, founder and president of Special Needs Animal Rescue & Rehabilitation in Saint Martinville, LA. “Dogs are nonverbal and do not speak English, but we often forget that in communicating with our pets.”
Your deaf dog won’t hear the word “sit,” but he’ll quickly understand the hand signal you use and the rewarding treat he receives each time he assumes the position. Each dog’s learning ability is different, but with hand signals, you can teach your dog as many things as he’s willing to absorb.
All dogs are masters at figuring out the daily household patterns, as well as reading the emotions of their owners and their daily patterns. If you keep your days to a fairly predictable pattern, he’ll feel secure in the household routine. He’ll trot to the door when it’s walk time, and show up by the window when you’re due home from work, just like any other dog.
If yours is a multiple-dog household, your dog has even more opportunities to pick up signals.
“They do tend to follow the lead of other dogs in the home and watch them for clues of anything that maybe going on in their environment,” says Menard.
Keeping your deaf dog safe
Even if he’s a master at obedience, a deaf dog lives with certain dangers. If he’s not looking at you, he can’t hear your warnings. He won’t receive your “leave it!” warning before he gulps down that moldy cheese he found in the trash.
Pet-proofing is always important, but perhaps more so with a deaf companion. Be sure your trash, medicine cabinets, food bins, and garage are always well-secured. If your dog is a counter-surfer, be careful not to leave food unattended.
But even more dangerously, your deaf dog can’t hear the threat of oncoming traffic, or your warning yell if he’s about to wander into danger. Perhaps the most important safety measure is to never let him off-leash in an open area. Ideally, you should invest in a fenced-in area for your yard, so he has a safe place to explore.
“There are special vibrating collars you can purchase — no shock — to use for a recall for deaf dogs to ensure their safety outdoors. It could mean the difference of life and death for a dog who cannot hear,” says Menard.
It’s also wise to add a tag to his collar that indicates he is deaf, should he ever become separated from you.
Be sure your neighbors are aware of your dog’s hearing loss, so they don’t rely on a honk of a horn should they find him in their pathway.
Avoiding startling your deaf dog
Because your dog doesn’t hear the chatter of the family entering the living room, or the creak of the front door, he may exhibit a negative reaction when approached unexpectedly. This is often misinterpreted as aggressive behavior. But anyone –- deaf or with pitch-perfect hearing –- can become startled when someone unexpectedly materializes in front of them.
First, try to avoid situations where he can be startled. Approach your dog carefully, stomping your feet or flickering a light if he isn’t paying attention. Wait for him to acknowledge before you continue.
You can also set up your home to minimize unexpected encounters: Place his bed against a wall or in a corner, turn his food dish so he’s facing out rather facing the wall. Arrange your furniture in an open manner, minimizing blind spots.
Try to indulge in his own preferences. Deaf dogs tend to choose unusual spots for napping, such as in the middle of halls or doorways. Unless it’s a major inconvenience for you, allow him to rest where he chooses –- there’s probably a good reason for it. If yours is a black dog who is difficult to see in the dark, tuck a white bandana on him at night, so no one trips over him en route to the bathroom.
Be sure to supervise any young children, whose energy may tax even the most patient dog. Use this as a learning experience, helping children to foster compassion and understanding. Teach the children how to approach and interact with the dog — but don’t expect their full compliance. Always keep a watchful eye on the children and dog, and whenever you can’t, separate the two with child gates.
Don’t forget he’s still a dog
While you want to protect him, be careful not to hold your dog back from the fun in life. In some cases, he has an advantage over his hearing counterparts: A deaf dog is so adept at reading queues and following hand signals he may excel at training or organized sports. Why not seek his Canine Good Citizen award, learn and compete in a sport, or become a therapy or visiting dog? If your dog is up for the challenge, give it a try.
Outside of organized events, early and frequent socialization is as important to a deaf dog as it is to any dog. Around other dogs, you may not notice your dog’s hearing loss –- dogs have a way of communicating without words. Let him have fun at the doggie play group if he enjoys that, provided it’s fenced-in. As with any dog, remain vigilant when he’s playing in a group, and be ready to intervene at any signs of a scuffle.
It’s natural to think twice before adopting a deaf dog, or any dog with a handicap. But all it takes is a willingness to learn and adjust for the situation, as well as some extra patience. They may be deaf, but they’re still dogs, filled with love and happiness, waiting for the right person to share it with.
Dogs with disabilities are just as lovable as other dogs. Read a story about a blind dog who has his own seeing-eye dog. Here’s a story about a pair of two-legged dogs who work as therapy dogs. And here’s a recent update on Rosie, the inbred Chihuahua rescued from a backyard breeder.