Adventuring with a Deaf Dog

Adventuring with a Deaf Dog

Does a dog still bark at the mail-person if they can't hear him? The answer is still 'yup!', from a deaf dog's owner! Christa adopted Mango from Hearts for Paws Rescue after she fell in love with the hearing-impaired pup after a short time fostering her.

Christa and her partner Nick have an adult dog named Cinco they adopted from Hearts for Paws, and were looking for a buddy for him. They had the opportunity to foster Mango and her hearing sister, Papaya, until she found her forever home. Christa says, "Mango’s deafness was disclosed by the rescue. I knew that we would be patient with her training and committed to giving her the best home possible."

Christa happened to major in Deaf Studies for her undergraduate degree so she has a foundation in American Sign Language (ASL), but she didn't have any experience with deaf dogs. "Being an ASL signer and dog lover, I had been open to the idea of adopting a deaf dog."

Because Christa has a background in sign language, it came naturally for her to teach Mango sign language! She used a mixture of ASL and 'home signs' to teach the pup basic commands. Home signs are gestures that are not used in ASL, but they have incorporated for logistical reasons with a dog. For example, the ASL sign for “sit” typically requires two hands to produce. When holding a leash or treat, it's much easier to use one hand to sign, so they have modified the sit gesture to a letter B hand-shape (in ASL) with palm oriented in.

The most commonly used sign for Mango is the visual “clicker.” This sign is produced by beginning with a fist and flashing a five hand-shape. This hand-shape marks that she has done a good job and is typically followed by a treat. Other common signs for Mango are "Sit", “Outside?”, “Come here”, “Stay”, “Hungry - want food?”, “Yes! Good girl!”.

Christa says that "It's not difficult to teach a dog sign language, and you do not need to be fluent in a signed language to train a dog effectively." However, "deaf dogs are different than hearing dogs because they rely on visual cues instead of auditory cues. If your deaf dog is not looking at you, they are not “listening.” One of the most important aspects of training a deaf dog, and something we continue to work on with Mango, is establishing consistent eye contact through positive reinforcement training"

Another difference between having a hearing dog and a deaf dog is that Mango likely won't ever be able to be off-leash because she wouldn't be able to hear her owners calling for her. "Our hearing dog, Cinco, is allowed off-leash since he has great recall and understands not to stray too far. For Mango’s safety we keep her on a leash when we are in an area that is not fenced."

One thing that surprised Christa about Mango was how soundly she can sleep! Mango doesn't hear noises that would wake up a hearing dog. Christa says this was particularly nice when she was a puppy as she could get a lot of work done around the house while she was taking her naps.

When asked about their biggest training challenge with Mango, Christa responded that it is working on her reactivity to lights and reflections. Since deaf dogs rely heavily on sight, they can be more sensitive to lights than hearing dogs. If Mango sees a light reflection (off a watch or phone), she becomes anxious and tries to chase the light. In this situation, the phone or watch is removed, and Mango is redirected to play with a toy.

For a hearing or deaf dog, it is super important to never play with lights or laser pointers. The dog will never be able to catch the light and this can lead to canine compulsive disorder.

Mango displays the same anxiety with car headlights when they are on walks. Christa and Nick prefer to walk her on trails or during the day when it is less likely that cars will have their headlights on. "If a car passes with the headlights on and she is calm, she gets lots of praise and treats. If she reacts anxiously we quickly move to a familiar area where she can return to a calm state," Christa says.

Deafness can occur in any dogs, but an interesting fact about deaf dogs is that they are often white in color. The gene that can cause genetic deafness affects how the inner ear hairs that allow a dog to hear develop. The same gene is also responsible for the lack of pigment in the dog’s coat.

Dogs of all abilities deserve the best home, and we always encourage folks to choose adoption (especially special needs dogs!). Christa says, "If you are considering adopting a deaf dog, that is something to celebrate! Deafness is often considered to be a disability, making it more difficult for deaf dogs to get adopted. Deaf dogs make great companions for those who are patient and committed to training."

It is important to be willing to seek help with a positive reinforcement trainer if you are having trouble training your deaf dog. If you cannot find a trainer in your area, some online resources that Christa says she has found helpful are Deaf Dogs Rock and deaf dog trainer Terrie Hayward. If you are able to, consider fostering the deaf dog before committing to adopting to ensure that you are a good fit for each other. "Welcoming a deaf dog to your family is a delight, and sure to bring joy to your life!", Christa says.

Thank you so much, Christa and Mango, for sharing your adoption story and experience with a differently abled dog.

Christa and Nick are our Pawjam makers as well! Mango and Cinco help them out in the kitchen mixing and pouring the special sauce for all of our awesome customers. Check out Pawjam to keep your pup's nose and toes healthy »

All pics are courtesy of @nicholas_wray.