The most common form of deafness in dogs is age-related hearing loss (ARHL). Most dogs experience some degree of ARHL, beginning sometime during their “third trimester” of life. ARHL begins by impairing perception of middle to high frequency sounds, but encompasses the entire range of sound frequencies as it progresses.
I suspect that most people don’t recognize their dog’s hearing loss until it is almost, if not fully, complete. They may mistakenly interpret their dog’s partial hearing loss as a behavioral issue, sometimes referred to as “selective hearing.”
Unfortunately, there are no standard strategies that restore hearing in dogs with ARHL. A 2010 study reported on three Beagles with age-related deafness who received middle ear implants. The results were equivocal and, to my knowledge, further investigation of this technology has not been pursued. Canine hearing aids have been tried, but are not right for every dog.
How you can help your dog with hearing loss?
Observing your beloved dog become less responsive because of hearing loss can evoke a laundry list of emotions such as sadness, frustration, and discouragement. While there may not be a good way to restore your dog’s hearing, here are eight things you can do to make a positive difference for both you and your dog.
1. Check in with your veterinarian
Verify that the only cause of your dog’s hearing loss is ARHL. Ear canal disease, such as a growth, foreign body, or infection, superimposed on ARHL may transition a dog from partial to complete deafness. Treatment of the ear canal disease may restore an acceptable level of hearing.
2. Train your dog with hand signals
When your dog experiences significant hearing loss, your ability to communicate with him via hand signals will create greater safety for your dog and more support for the emotional bond you share.
Dogs quite naturally communicate via body language, so they tend to quickly learn the meaning of hand gestures. Ideally, training with hand signals in conjunction with verbal cues should begin in puppy kindergarten class. Someday, your youngster will become a senior with hearing loss, and those hand signals that were learned will be super handy (pun intended).
By the way, the popular adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is a bunch of bunk. If your older dog hasn’t been taught to respond to hand signals, begin the training process as soon as possible. Most senior dogs are very capable of learning these new cues.
3. Use nontraditional signals
In addition to hand signals, find other ways to get your dog’s attention. Examples include actions that create vibrations (clapping hands, stomping on the floor, knocking cans together), use of a flashlight, release of an appealing scent (appealing to the dog, that is), and use of a storm or disaster whistle. Figure out what works best with your dog. Provide a positive reward (favorite snack, belly rub, game of tug of war) when you begin training your best buddy to respond to these new cues.
4. Avoid startling your dog
Approach and/or touch your dog when you are within his field of vision. If you need to wake him from sleep, touch him gently in the same place (the shoulder area is ideal). You can also put your hand in front of his nose as your smell may rouse him, particularly if it resembles the odor of a favorite treat. Remind visitors to avoid touching your best buddy when he is sleeping. All of these tactics tend to prevent startle reactions.
5. Increase your vigilance
This applies to the home front as well as out in the world. A fenced in yard becomes a must. Be sure your dog is on leash or confined when cars pull in and out at your home. Every veterinarian can tell you stories of older, hearing-impaired dogs who were run over in their own driveways.
Leashes are mandatory when your dog has exposure to cars, joggers, bikers, skateboarders and other potential hazards. Make sure that every member of your dog’s support team (veterinary staff, dog sitter, groomer, dog walker, doggie day care provider) knows about his hearing loss. Admittedly, even when I know that my patient is deaf, I still tend to talk to him in my usual fashion. Force of habit, I guess. Given our close contact, I like to think that my patient feels more secure sensing vibrations coming from my body.
6. Enrich your dog’s “smelling life”
Dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell. I recently heard dog trainer, Turid Rugaas explain that, when a dog enters a new situation, the dog’s eyes create the first impression, but it’s the nose that fills in the details. Olfactory stimulation is known to impact canine behavior, as demonstrated by Lynne Graham, Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper in a study published on Applied Animal Behaviour. By providing a richer smelling life for your dog, you may help fill in some of his sensory gaps caused by the hearing loss.
7. Attach an, “I am deaf” tag to your dog’s collar
This way, if your dog becomes lost and then found, the good Samaritan involved will understand why your dog is not normally responsive.
8. Give yourself a pep talk
Patience is a virtue when interacting with your aging dog. Yes, it’s easy to feel frustration, sadness and impatience, but keep in mind, your older dog is still capable of picking up on your emotions. Take a few deep breaths and give yourself a pep talk to help restore a sense of patience and compassion.
There are some silver linings to consider. As your level of care for your hearing-impaired older dog increases, your relationship may become closer than it has ever been. Additionally all of that quaking, quivering, and anxiety caused by loud noises (thunder, gunshot noises, firecrackers) has likely become a thing of the past. Lastly, remind yourself that, with your loving care, your hearing-impaired dog remains very capable of enjoying an excellent quality of life.
By Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM, DACVIM
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian — they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your companions.