Is my dog just being obstinate – or could it be a hearing problem?
As with any ailment, your dog cannot tell you if he or she is having trouble hearing you, but failure to respond to commands could be the first sign of canine deafness.
However, since not responding to commands could also be a behavioral issue, you should look for other signs indicative of hearing loss in your pet. These would include: if your dog fails to react to sounds that he or she normally would have, such as a doorbell, or your car pulling up in the driveway.
In most cases, deafness in dogs is a heredity condition. There are certain dog breeds that are predisposed to hearing loss, these include:
- Border Collies
- English Setters
- Boston Terriers
In addition, dogs of a certain color could be predisposed to deafness. The gene that produces the merle coat has been linked to canine deafness. Beyond hereditary factors or defects that could result in a dog being born with congenital deafness – the other causes of deafness in dogs parallel those of hearing loss in humans. Simple old age, prolonged exposure to loud noises, ear injury or ear infection – can all result in hearing loss in dogs.
Also as in humans, dogs can be deaf in one or both ears. A canine that is deaf in both ears is called Bilaterally Deaf. A dog with hearing loss in only one ear is referred to as Unilaterally Deaf.
Veterinarians describe two types of canine deafness: conductive deafness and sensorineural deafness. In conductive deafness, sounds are not traveling, or “conducting” properly into the dog’s ear.
This is usually the result of ear infection, damage to the eardrum, or a blocked ear canal due to the build-up of fluids or other matter. If your vet can determine the cause of the conductive deafness, it may be resolved through surgical intervention, and/or medication and your pet’s hearing may return.
Sensorineural deafness involves neurological or other abnormalities of the inner ear resulting in total hearing loss. Hearing loss due to old age and most cases of congenital deafness in dogs involve sensorineural deafness and are irreversible.
Unless the dog is born deaf, canine deafness is usually a gradual condition. And since dogs have a remarkable ability to rely on their other keen senses when one is fading, you may not see any indication of deafness until your dog has experienced almost total or near-total hearing loss.
Again, since your dog cannot tell you that he cannot hear, and there can be other reasons why your pet is appearing not to listen, observation alone is usually not enough to determine canine deafness. Also, remember that a canine’s hearing is far more sensitive than a human’s.
A dog can hear in a range of about 67 Hz to 45 KHz. People, by comparison, can only hear sounds in the 20 Hz range. A dog’s other senses are equally more acute than human’s are, and any “at home” tests that you do to try to evaluate deafness, such as banging plates together or slamming doors can cause vibrations, or movement of air currents, that your dog can sense and react to.
A proper diagnosis of canine deafness can only be made by a veterinary professional. He or she will conduct an otic exam – visually inspect the ear for blockages, signs of infection or damage, and do some other physical and observational tests to determine if your dog has hearing loss.
The only conclusive diagnostic test to establish if a dog is deaf is a test called the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response, or BAER test. It is a simple “in-office” procedure that is completely painless and only takes about 10 – 15 minutes. The vet uses specialized earplugs or foam pads to send a clicking sound directly into the dog’s ears.
A diagnostic computer will then measure the brain’s electrical activity in response to the sounds. Not all practitioners offer the test, and it can be expensive, but it is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of canine deafness. A complete list of facilities that offer the test nationwide is available at www.lsu.edu/deafness/baersite.htm
Living With Your Deaf Dog
The good news is, living with a deaf dog does not have to be a great challenge. A dog owner need not be overly concerned about his or her own dog going deaf, or even adopting a dog that is known to be deaf. Simple lifestyle adjustments can have a deaf canine living a happy and safe life.
Dogs can easily be trained to respond to hand signals or other visual cues. Some trainers of deaf dogs even use flashlights. Training your dog to respond to hand or visual commands is just like your initial training to voice commands – it will require patience, praise, and love.
The dog owner will likely need a little retraining as well – since the customary verbal rewards of praise such as “good doggy” will no longer apply. You will have to get used to physical praise such as pats and treats. Any time your pet responds correctly to your non-verbal commands, reward him or her immediately. Whatever form of non-verbal praise you choose to give, make sure that it is clear, and given as soon as the right response is elicited from your pet.
In time, you both will be reacting to and with each other as before. However, the safety of your deaf dog will be a concern. Never let him or her off leash to run free. He or she will not be able to hear car horns, dogs barking, or other hazards, and may be too far away from you to react to your hand signals.
Never let anyone try to awaken your deaf dog by touch alone – this can cause a startled reaction, and he or she could bite. Always stomp loudly on the floor as you approach the dog, to cause vibrations he can feel and will know someone is there before he is touched.
Your vet or animal trainer can be instrumental in giving you other lifestyle advice and training tips on living a happy, healthy life with your deaf canine.