Nothing moves faster than the head of a dog whose name has just been called. Call out Phoebe's name when she's in the room, and her head whips round, her ears lift, her eyes boggle, and her general state of alertness goes from zero to 60 in a nanosecond. Phoebe sure knows her name. Luckily, too, she can hear.
What if she couldn't? I've never had a deaf pet, but I can see that it would change a few things. A reader of this blog, Laura, wrote to me saying she was about to take on a deaf albino cat (deafness is common among white cats), and wondered if I could start a discussion on the subject. So here it is, and thanks to blog readers who helped me out with their experiences.
The first thing I've picked up - and, really, I'm not surprised - is the need to remember that a deaf cat is still a cat, a deaf dog is still a dog. Pet species are incredibly resilient and resourceful, and can take a lot of setbacks or changes in their stride. There's no less fun or fulfilment for you in having a deaf pet than in having one that can hear - and life is just as rewarding for the pet.
But deafness does change some things - for you. Owners of deaf pets work out ways of getting their pet's attention: turning on a porch light, using a torch or a laser pointer (keeping it clear of eyes), tapping a wall or the floor, using a Halti-type collar on a dog or even a vibrating collar.
Exercising and training a dog is a bit different. If Phoebe were deaf, I wouldn't be able to call her to attention, but would have to work out some big gestures that she could see from far off (especially the one that means "come") and some smaller ones close to. Dogs are brilliant at picking up human body language, and our dogs have both been trained with gestures linked to the words: "roll over" is accompanied by a rotating forefinger, "down" goes with a down-pointing finger, and the toilet command goes with a gesture that, well, is hard for me to describe in writing.
So subtract the word, and the action will still function as the command. Train it consistently, and your dog will understand your own private sign language. In fact, the bond between you and your dog might be stronger, the more closely it has to follow your movements.
Trainers of a deaf dog often have to think even harder about their actions and make sure they don't send confusing signals. One point that interested me was that people typically lean toward their dog when asking it to come, which looks to the dog like a "go away" gesture.
The next big issue is safety. Some owners of deaf cats try to keep their pets house-based, away from roads and driveways. Fences, gates and vigilance all grow in importance. Keeping a deaf dog leashed unless it's in a fenced area makes sense.
These things are all worth thinking about, because deafness is one of those things that can emerge or develop as your pet ages. I think it's worthwhile to be aware of signs of hearing loss in your pet, and of some ways of testing its hearing - it might be treatable. There's a lot of information on the internet on the subject (the usual warnings about caution and double-sourcing apply), and one I admire is Priscilla Ross's caninedeafness.com, which tackles causes, treatments and training in an encouraging and reassuring way.
But it's also a help for people in Laura's position to hear from people who have been through it themselves, learning tricks and cautions as they went. So share your experiences in the comments!
To finish, though, I have to pass on to you the story of Charlie the deaf Australian Cattle Dog. Blog reader Sarah, who's deaf herself, got Charlie from a breeder who wanted a good home for the deaf pup. Sarah communicates with all her dogs using sign language; each dog has its own sign-name so it knows when it's being talked to - Charlie's is "Chocolate". He gets anxious on his own, so Sarah has another dog to keep him company - Footy the Border Collie. Sarah, Charlie and Footy, may you have many happy years together.
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