The most common form of canine deafness is by far, age related. Hearing loss in older dogs usually happens gradually and often even the most attentive pet parent may not become aware of it until the dog is partially to almost completely deaf.
My Own Experience
My dog Toni, who lived to the ripe old age of 18, was always deathly afraid of thunderstorms. (Well, every dog I’ve ever owned or fostered always was, and who can blame them? Without the human knowledge of what a thunderstorm actually IS, it must sound to them like the world as they know it is splitting apart!)
Anyway, Toni and I took our Riverwalk runs every weekend, along with a bunch of other local folks walking and running their canine beauties on the trail. She didn’t need much supervising on the leash as she was well attuned to my commands which consisted of ‘stay over’, ‘wait’, and ‘O.K.’
As she got up in years, she began seemingly ignoring me and my verbal directions. I gave her leeway, thinking as old as she was, she deserved to do her own thing as long as everyone on the trail stayed safe.
Then one Riverwalk day, a sudden full-blown thunderstorm descended upon us. I expected Toni to try to bolt, all cognitive familiarity replaced by fear, instinctive survival and flight. I was fully prepared to snatch her up, wrap her in my overlong sweatshirt (she weighed 26 lbs.), and make our way back to the pickup truck.
Imagine my complete surprise when Toni didn’t even break stride. She’d always been a ‘water dog’, loved swimming and playing in the rain. As she continued running happily along beside me despite the rain and rolling thunder, it dawned on me that my beloved little girl hadn’t been ignoring me or having behavioral issues. She was losing her hearing. (I had also recalled seeing her acting startled when being woken from a nap but I’d thought that was due to a much deeper sleep because of her age.)
I had made the same mistake that many people make with regard to hearing loss in their senior dogs. I was interpreting Toni’s dwindling auditory sense with behavioral ‘selective hearing’, thinking she only heard what she ‘wanted’ to hear. I should have known better! To help us both cope with the situation, I decided to do what I do best…research.
How And When Does Hearing Loss In Older Dogs Occur?
Canine deafness can have a number of different causes; But in this article we are referring to hearing loss in older dogs, or age-related hearing loss (ARHL). This condition most commonly occurs due to natural geriatric nerve degeneration. Canine ARHL starts by interfering with your dog’s perception of middle to high frequency sounds. As it gradually progresses however, it can affect the whole range of sound frequencies, resulting in complete deafness.
Age-related hearing loss for most dogs begins somewhere around the latter “trimester” of life. So if a dog’s lifespan where to be say, 15 years, the effects of ARHL would start around the 11th year.
What Are The Signs Of Hearing Loss In My Dog?
Due to my experience with Toni, I would say that if you ever think your dog is sometimes ‘ignoring’ you, this can definitely be a telltale sign of partial hearing loss. I had also noticed that she sometimes didn’t come when I called her but again, I thought she was only heeding my calls when she wanted to. Other indications of hearing loss include:
- A lack of response to a knock at the door or a ringing doorbell
- You call her name but if she’s not looking directly at you, she doesn’t respond
- You startle her when you walk up behind her or enter a room
- She doesn’t respond to a squeaky toy, the electric can opener, or a rattle of the treat bag
- Thunderstorms and fireworks don’t bother her much anymore
- It’s difficult to wake her from a nap and when you do, she acts startled
If you do suspect that your precious senior pooch is experiencing hearing loss, it’s a good idea to take her for a vet visit. You want the good doctor to properly diagnose it as ARHL, or a naturally occurring geriatric nerve degeneration. You also want the veterinarian to rule out any more serious underlying causes such as an ear infection or a damaged ear drum. Many vets also have the means to measure the degree of deafness in your pet.
Hearing loss in older dogs due to auditory nerve deterioration is permanent; that is, there is no restoring it. While there are hearing aids available for dogs, they are seldom used successfully. They do not restore the dog’s hearing to its former quality or level, and dogs do not tolerate wearing them well. They are also expensive (costing $3,000 to $5,000).
Coping With Your Dog’s ARHL (Age Related Hearing Loss)
So what are some things you can do to offset the partial or total hearing loss of your canine Bestie? How can you ensure that you will still be able to communicate with her and she will understand your meaning even if she can’t hear you?
- Safety First! You’ll have to be more vigilant with your hearing-impaired pet both at home and when you’re out-and-about. If you’re expecting company or cars approaching your home and driveway, make sure she is inside or confined in a fenced yard. Stories of deaf dogs being injured or killed in front of their own homes are all too common. Likewise, if you are on a walk where exposure to vehicles, cyclists, skateboarders, or other animals is likely, a leash is mandatory.
- Along the same lines, make sure every person your dog comes into contact with is aware of her hearing loss. Your veterinarian likely already knows but pet sitters, dog walkers, groomers, as well as friends and all family members (including and especially children) should be made aware. They will need to take care when approaching or handling your dog to avoid startling and alarming her.
- Train her with hand signals. This may seem to you like a difficult thing to accomplish, but it isn’t really. Most dogs are pros when it comes to reading body language. (She’s actually been reading your body language for years!) All you need to do is assign hand signals to commands like Down, Come, Sit, Stay, Watch Me, and Good Girl, or any other messages you use to communicate with your dog on a regular basis. When I first started training Toni, I did it in a confined area of our backyard to avoid distractions. I started with ‘Watch Me’ and put my open hands, facing forward, on either side of my face. When she looked at me with attention, I gave her a treat and waved my hands up and down for ‘Good Girl!’ I used fairly common hand gestures for come, sit, stay and down. With positive reinforcements from Training Reward Treats and my obvious happiness with her progress, it wasn’t long before she could go through the whole repertoire with ease and accuracy. I think she saw the whole thing as a game and it was fun for me too!
- Use flashing light and vibration signals. Your auditorily-challenged canine can still feel vibrations and see flashing light. On nights when it got dark early and Toni wanted to stay outside in our rather large fenced in backyard, I’d blink the backyard light on and off 3 times, then bring out her supper bowl. Or you can use a flashlight in the same manner. Your dog can also feel vibrations in the floor, so you can alert her to your arriving home or entering the room by stomping your feet. Throughout Toni’s whole life, I’d sit at the piano and play and she’d lay on the carpet behind me and listen. After I realized she was hearing impaired, she’d still do it, and I knew she could feel the piano vibrations through the floor.
- Switch from a dog collar to a harness on your walks or jogs. Since Toni couldn’t hear my verbal instructions on the river trail anymore, switching from a collar to a dog harness helped us greatly. I didn’t want to tug sharply on her collar, and with a harness, she was able to feel the direction I was gently pulling the leash with her upper body, so auditory commands weren’t even necessary anymore. DEAF DOG makes a non-pull dog harness with leash for large to X-tra large dogs with the words “Deaf Dog” printed on them for all to see. They also make a small to medium dog vest harness and leash proclaiming “Deaf Dog” to all strangers your precious pet may meet.
Hearing Loss In Older Dogs Is Quite Manageable!
So now that you are hopefully a bit more educated about your faithful friend’s loss of hearing, you can begin to appreciate that while certain modifications and training are necessary for safety, your dog’s deafness doesn’t have to affect your daily lives all that much. In fact in the case of Toni and me, it brought us even closer, which I didn’t think was possible!
It’s a very sad fact, but many deaf dogs end up in shelters or pounds, their only ‘crime’ being old age and hearing loss. Although these dogs are somewhat handicapped, they are very much capable of being trained, being loved and of loving you back. If, at any time you are thinking of adopting a dog, please do not let deafness deter you from caring for a loving pet.
In the comment section below, please leave any comments, questions, or any experiences with doggie deafness you’d like to share! Thanks!