By Diana Bocco
Aging can bring many changes to the life of a senior dog—and one of those changes is a decline in or loss of hearing. Deafness in senior dogs is often irreversible, unless caused by something like excessive buildup of waxy substances or ear infections that can be treated, according to Dr. Simon T. Kornberg, a board-certified veterinary neurologist who routinely diagnoses deaf dogs using electrodiagnostics (BAER) technology.
While seeing your dog lose his hearing can be difficult and sad for many pet parents, there are ways to deal with it so your dog's quality of life doesn't suffer. Keep in mind that dogs can adapt to hearing loss better than humans. It often comes on gradually, so they have time to adapt their other senses to compensate.
Signs of Hearing Loss in Dogs
Hearing loss connected to aging is often subtle and many pet parents miss the early signs, which include things like not coming when called and lack of response sounds they used to respond to, such as doorbells, whistles, or TV sounds. "Other signs which I find are good indicators of hearing loss are dogs that are difficult to wake up, or startle easily when they are touched,” Kornberg says.
Still, Kornberg points out that hearing loss can be difficult to assess in dogs until it is in the latter stages, as they tend to compensate so well. "Excessive barking or anxiety can be cues to hearing loss," he says. "And excessive and deep sleeping and lack of usual alertness are also major indications."
How Hearing Loss Affects Dogs
The good news is that dogs, unlike humans, generally adapt well to the loss of a sense. "They have no preconceived notions of their limitations and can often adapt to the extent that we only see subtle cues of a loss of hearing," Kornberg explains.
Although it's difficult to know how dogs feel about hearing loss (since they can't tell us), Kornberg points out that behavioral changes have been associated with sudden hearing loss in dogs. "This may be indicative of anxiety," Kornberg says. "Dogs who never had hearing in the first place do not suffer from this anxiety, as they have no reference to know what they are lacking. But in acquired hearing loss, there is now a disconnect in how they perceive things both in their environment and what we want from them, and this can definitely lead to some level of anxiety."
Kornberg says senior dogs may undergo a period of transition where they must learn to adapt to hearing loss and where feelings of anxiety might be more pronounced. During this time, your dog can benefit from support and reassurance.
For example, Kornberg recommends practicing using flashing lights or vibration cues such as tapping and clapping, and focusing on getting your pet comfortable to being touched spontaneously by rewarding him or her with treats. "An experienced trainer or a behaviorist can definitely provide some insight into 'retraining' your pet and reducing anxiety," Kornberg says. "Also, lots of people shy away from giving anti-anxiety medications to their pets, but like humans, dogs can sometimes benefit from these medications during the adjustment period."
Finding Other Ways to Communicate With Your Deaf Dog
Figuring out alternative ways to connect with your dog can feel challenging. Fortunately, there are options out there if you're willing to invest some time and effort in creating new avenues for communication.
Perhaps the best tools available for deaf dogs are vibration collars. These aren't the same as shock collars, as vibration collars simply produce a shaking similar to what you would feel from your phone going off in your pocket. "You essentially use a very low-level vibration as a cue to teach your deaf dog to look at you," says Kayla Fratt, a certified dog trainer with Cognitive K9 and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. "This is done much like teaching a hearing dog to respond to her name."
The idea behind a vibration collar is that every time you press the button on the remote control and the collar vibrates, your dog should come back to you. "It’s important to always pair the vibration with a treat so your dog is always excited to feel it and come running back," Fratt says. And always do a lot of practicing in your living room before you head somewhere else with a lot of distractions, like the dog park.
Another great communication tool is sign language, as dogs often pick up on clear and consistent hand signals better than voice cues, according to Fratt. "In fact, many hearing dogs respond well to sign language cues such as sit, lie down, and stay, and you can use those same signs with your deaf dog," she says.
Sign language isn't difficult to teach, but it does require practice and you need to be consistent and clear. "For example, don’t use a sweeping upward palm for ‘sit’ half the time and a raised fist the other times," Fratt says. And although she points out that sign language might be easier to teach if you start training with your dog while she can still hear (so you can help her along with voice cues as she learns what the signs mean), any dog can learn it at any stage.
Safety Precautions for Deaf Dogs
It's a good idea to always keep deaf dogs leashed to make sure they are safe. "You can let them drag the leash behind them for easy recapture," Fratt says. "Even if your dog is very well-trained using a vibration collar, remember that such a collar can fail."
Fratt also recommends attaching bells or lights to the collar so you can see where your dog is at all times. "Ensuring that your dog is microchipped, friendly, and well-trained is a good way to ensure that she’ll end up back at your side if you lose track of her," she says.