Actions speak louder than words: life with a deaf dog

A little over 6 years ago, our family decided to welcome a puppy into our home.  We did thorough research on which breed would be most compatible with our family situation and our lifestyle and selected one that we felt would be the best match for us. He was (still is) totally gorgeous, a handful of fluff with big, soulful, brown eyes.  Being responsible pet owners, we signed our puppy up for classes, so that we could have fun while we all learned together.  It became clear after just a short time, that our puppy was the challenged learner of the group.  If he was looking at you, he would respond, but if he was given verbal commands when he wasn’t looking in our direction, he would do whatever he wanted to do.  He’s an extremely good-natured dog and very affectionate, but naively we thought that when he didn’t respond he was simply being a rascal with selective hearing and if we persevered with recall and other commands we would soon have him eating out of the palms of our hands – literally!

After a good year of trying to work with him, we started to notice other things.  If he was sleeping in his dog bed, he would stay asleep until one of us gently woke him.  If we walked up behind him, he would be mildly startled if he was touched.  If we dropped something noisily he wouldn’t bat an eye.  The penny suddenly dropped into place, he wasn’t a disobedient pup, he was a deaf pup – a diagnosis that was confirmed during a subsequent visit to the veterinarian’s office.

Modified approaches

Having a deaf dog isn’t so different from having a dog without hearing challenges and we try to treat our dog the way we would treat any other dog. However, there are some additional things that we’ve found that we need to do and we modify our approach to dog care in certain situations.

The biggest thing for us is that we can’t take the chance of letting him off leash outside of our home environment. This is mainly because we couldn’t rely on him returning to us or responding to commands, especially if there were other dogs or (heaven forbid) a squirrel around. Fortunately, because he is a small lap dog he doesn’t need (or like) to run as much as some other breeds, so we tend to do long on-leash walks using a retractable leash to allow him a bit more scope for exploring.

We do take extra care not to startle him by approaching him unexpectedly.   Because of our dog’s disposition, he doesn’t react badly when startled, but this wouldn’t necessarily be true of all dogs and is something to bear in mind when working with other breeds or other temperaments.

Although he is very much a lap dog, he does like to dig, so we regularly check our fenced yard to ensure it has no escape routes. We know that if he got out, we probably wouldn’t get him back.

Instead of only using verbal commands, we also use hand signals too and try to be consistent in using these, so our dog knows what he needs to do.

Some people like to attach a bell to the collar when they leave the house.  Even though we always have him on a leash when we leave, we have experienced a leash breaking mid-walk. Having a bell on the collar allows you to hear your dog if he does manage to get off leash, even if you can’t see him immediately.

Taking a little extra time to give plenty of love and affection is important and a good stress reducer for us too.  We try to ensure that even though our dog experiences life without one of his senses, he doesn’t need to feel anxious or afraid, knows that he is loved, and lives a fulfilled and enjoyable dog life.

Unexpected benefits

There are some benefits to having a dog that can’t hear:

  • Loud noises don’t startle him.
  • He doesn’t bark when the doorbell or phone rings
  • He is not scared of fireworks.
  • If he’s not looking at them he’s not bothered by other dogs barking at him.


Actions certainly speak louder than words in our house.  Don’t get me wrong, we still talk to our dog all the time even though we know he can’t hear what we are saying.  For us life with a deaf dog is simply life with a dog – he’s the best little guy we could possibly have around. This week is National Deaf Dog Awareness week.  Even if your dog doesn’t have a congenital hearing problem like ours, you may find that your dog’s hearing deteriorates with age or because of infection.  Why not think about introducing hand signals into your daily routine before hearing loss starts?

If you share your life with a deaf dog, we’d love to hear your experiences.

Information given in this article is not a substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional.  Please consult a veterinarian for advice specific to your dog.