Deaf dogs can make good pets with training, love

Morgan Shumard and fiance Tim Self are experienced dog owners, but they weren’t entirely sure about Norton, a deaf 70-pound pit bull, after they fell in love with him on a website.

It’s not the breed. The couple in Burton, Mich., had lost a pit bull and were in search of another. It’s that Norton is completely deaf.

They were nervous about whether they could train him, and how he would fit in with their two other dogs, a mid-size English bull terrier and a Chihuahua. They were concerned he might be too skittish and nippy to mix with their young nieces.

They needn’t have worried.

A rescue group that saved Norton from euthanasia after he was left with a veterinarian taught him some basic sign language that his new family built on using treats and repetition: an “OK” sign placed on a forehead for “drop it” and a thumbs up for praise.

“In the beginning, when the dogs would all play fight, it would get rougher, and it was a big change from being able to communicate with a dog verbally,” Shumard said. “I was worried about him being startled or running all over the other dogs, but he’s very sweet, very tuned in.”

Six months after his adoption, 2-year-old Norton is the hit of the neighborhood. “He uses our other dogs to hear noises for him,” Shumard said. “When he’s asleep we tell Gracie, our bull terrier, to go wake him up, and we stomp to get his attention so he can feel the vibrations. I call him my one-in-a-million dog.”

The prevalence of hereditary deafness in dogs, which is the most frequent cause, isn’t known across breeds, but the likelihood increases with the presence of white pigmentation, either in patterns or solids, said Dr. George Strain, a professor of neuroscience at Louisiana State’s veterinary school in Baton Rouge.

About 90 breeds in all are most affected, he said. There’s also a strong correlation between deafness and blue eyes.

Dalmatians have the highest prevalence of deafness in the United States, Strain said. Based on hearing tests he conducted on 5,638 of the dogs, he found 7.8 percent (or 411) were deaf in both ears and 21.7 percent (or 1,226) were deaf in one ear.

“If a Dalmatian is in a pound, there’s a very good chance that he’s deaf,” Strain said.

The notion that deaf dogs have no hope for happy lives angers some owners and members of the human deaf community. A particular sore spot is a written recommendation from the Dalmatian Club of America that all bilaterally deaf Dalmatians ā€” those deaf in both ears ā€” be destroyed.

Scott Facey of the club’s hearing research committee defended the recommendation. “You have people trying to put human traits on an animal. That is not the case,” said Facey, a Dalmatian breeder in Springfield, Mass.

For every deaf Dalmatian success story, there are tragedies, he said, including deaf dogs that are overly aggressive, resist training, startle easily and act out due to separation anxiety when left alone for long periods.

“I have yet to personally meet a deaf Dalmatian that has not had some type of major trouble in its life,” said Facey, who has handled the breed for 30-plus years.

Like Facey, Strain supports euthanasia for bilaterally deaf dogs, though both acknowledged such dogs can make good pets in the right homes with the right training.

“It just takes a very dedicated person to do that,” Strain said. “Many people just don’t have that in them, to put that kind of effort in. If somebody is going to take on a bilaterally deaf dog, they need to do so with eyes open.”

The incidence of deafness in dogs overall from all causes is not known, Strain said. Other causes include old age, medical treatment with certain antibiotics and other drugs, and hearing damage from proximity to explosive noises, such as those experienced by hunting dogs.

Jared Saul didn’t set out to adopt a deaf pet. As co-founder of, he was no stranger to animal adoption when he went in search of a companion for his dog Sophie about two years ago. He fell in love with a larger mixed breed named Alan, who was deaf. He took Sophie for a visit and all three hit it off.

“It was a lot easier for him to adjust because there was another dog there,” said Saul, who lives near Tampa, Fla. “He has come to rely on her for cues about what’s going on. She’s not the most welcoming of other dogs but she knew to be patient with him.”

Detecting deafness in puppies is complicated, Strain said. The condition doesn’t develop for a few weeks after birth, and can be masked because stricken pups use littermates to figure out such things as when to nurse. Such cuing is why a multi-dog household can work better for a totally deaf canine, he said.

Sometimes, Facey said, totally deaf Dalmatian pups do stand out in a litter as overly aggressive and verbal, with a bark that sounds different.

To communicate, advocates for deaf dogs suggest stomping, hand gestures, and flashing lights on and off. Make your body movements big enough for the dog to see, and try to limit sign language to one hand. Make the gestures simple, distinctly different, and easy for you to remember ā€” and be consistent.

“They’re good at learning sign language because they focus more on visual input,” Strain said.

Trevor Cornpropst in Fredericksburg, Va., had no experience but his eyes wide open when he rescued an all-white, deaf and blind Great Dane puppy at 8 weeks old. He spent weeks sitting up with the pup he named Keller, in honor of Helen Keller, to comfort him as he settled in. Cornpropst wanted the puppy to feel secure without benefit of soothing coos, facial expressions and other body language.

That was back in 2007. Keller is now 120 pounds, healthy and happy, Cornpropst said. He communicates commands and comfort with taps in different locations on Keller’s head and body. He also makes sure not to move his furniture around or leave out obstacles that could hurt Keller, who benefited early on from the company of two other dogs in his new home.

“He has such an environmental awareness,” Cornpropst said. “He can run through the house at full speed, or the backyard, and not hit a thing. He can be upstairs and smell when somebody enters the house. It’s incredible. He did require more attention. Just love the animal and they’ll give it back.”



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