Deaf Dogs Don't Bark and Other Myths Debunked

by Bernard Lima-Chavez

(reprinted with the author's permission)

The Myths & The Facts About Deaf Dog Behavior As explained by Animal Behaviorist Dr. Valeri Farmer-Dougan, PhD, who runs a Canine Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at Illinois State University. HERE ARE 10 MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT DEAF DOGS AS CONFIRMED BY SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY.

  • Myth: Deaf dogs are more aggressive than hearing dogs.

  • Fact: Analysis of the data proves that congenitally (born) deaf or blind dogs are significantly less likely to display aggression than their hear or seeing counterparts! We’re talking 20% less! This data is important and should be memorized by deaf dog pet parents and advocates everywhere. This one statistic can actually change perceptions and the lives of deaf dogs everywhere. The next time someone tells you that deaf dogs are more aggressive and dangerous, share this fact and take charge of that conversation.

  • Myth: The only way to train a deaf dog is with hand signs.

  • Fact: False. Though using hand signs to train and communicate with a deaf dog is very common, one alternative is to communicate with physical prompts or “touch training”. In fact, according to Dr. Farmer-Dougan’s research findings, touch training is used almost as frequently by deaf dog pet parents as hand signs. Dr. Farmer-Dougan herself utilizes touch training, though not exclusively. Touch training involves touching the dog on different parts of the body or in different ways (1 tap, 2 taps, a short directional pet, etc.) to communicate different commands. One example she shared was teaching a deaf dog that a rub along the chin means to “come”.

  • Myth: Deaf dogs are more likely to experience separation anxiety.

  • Fact: No significant differences in frequency of separation anxiety was noted between deaf and hearing dogs, however my conversation with Dr. Farmer-Dougan revealed some interesting differences in the reason for separation anxiety between deaf dogs and hearing dogs. Dr. Farmer-Dougan theorizes that the reasons for separation anxiety in deaf and hearing dogs is different. She believes that the primary cause of anxiety for deaf dogs is waking up or looking up from a really interesting dust bunny he’s playing with and realizing that his person has disappeared, whether that’s into a different room or from the house altogether. She has noted that, in these circumstances, the deaf dog will go hunt for his person and, once found, will frequently return to what he was doing and relax. A hearing dog with separation anxiety, she suggests, is more related to being left alone. For deaf dogs, it’s more of a case of “Where are you?” causing stress rather than, “Why am I alone?”. Her recommendation for preventing “separation” anxiety in deaf dogs is simple: when you leave the room or the house, notify your deaf dog that you’re leaving. When this simple and additional communication occurs, she finds that deaf dogs do not exhibit behavior similar to separation anxiety. Of course, every dog is different, but this is a good rule of thumb.

  • Myth: Deaf dogs don’t bark.

  • Fact: False. Oh boy, is this false! In fact, excessive barking was reported by deaf dog pet parents much more frequently in comparison to hearing dogs. This increase in excessive barking, along with other repetitive behaviors such as excessive licking of self and others, spinning and the chewing of inappropriate objects, are viewed as examples of self-stimulatory behaviors that deaf dogs are more prone to engage in. Interestingly, other unwanted behaviors, such as chasing rabbits and cats, and rolling in and eating of feces occurred less frequently in deaf dogs than in hearing dogs. So, our deaf dogs may lick our faces more frequently but at least it’s less likely that he’s just eaten his own poop!

  • Myth: All deaf dogs are easily startled.

  • Fact: True and False. Deaf dogs, depending on his or her individual personality and his personal life experiences may be more prone to startling when touched. The circumstances of being touched also plays a big factor into any startling behavior. That said, any dog- hearing, deaf or blind- can startle. Also, startling behavior can be unlearned. Careful desensitization to startle responses can significantly reduce or eliminate this unwanted behavior.

  • Myth: Talking or using your voice to communicate with a deaf dog is pointless.

  • Fact: False! False! False! When humans speak, our body language and our facial expressions change, communicating a whole lot more information to our deaf dogs.

  • Myth: Dogs born deaf are the result of irresponsible breeders.

  • Fact: True & False! Many but not all congenitally deaf dogs are deaf because of improper breeding. A very common example is breeding two merle dogs together. The merle gene is a gene that can produce beautiful, healthy hearing and sighted puppies. However, when a merle dog is bred to another merle, 25% of the puppies are likely to be born deaf, blind or both. The other most frequent cause of congenital deafness in dogs is related to a lack of pigmentation of the skin, not the coat. A significant lack of skin pigmentation causes nerve endings in the inner ear to atrophy soon after birth. When this happens, the puppy is left completely or partially deaf in one or both ears. Since puppies ears don’t open up for the first weeks of life, these dogs frequently never hear.

  • Myth: Deaf dogs are more bonded to their human than hearing dogs.

  • Fact: True. Dr. Farmer-Dougan’s research reveals that a deaf dog exhibits a higher degree of attachment, physical and otherwise, to their human caretaker. This supports the anecdotal experience of deaf dog pet parents who frequently refer to our deafies as “velcro dogs”.

  • Myth: Deaf dogs bark funny.

  • Fact: True. OMD! is this true! In evaluating the bark of deaf dogs, especially during play, Dr. Farmer-Dougan, et al. found that a deaf dog’s bark is a combination of excitement and frustration. As deaf dogs are less adept at picking up and learning social cues from other dogs (another interesting finding!) and because their deafness affects their ability to adjust the way in which they bark, deaf dogs tend to have a funny sounding bark. If a deaf dog does have any residual hearing, it tends to be isolated to higher pitched sounds. Taken together, deaf dogs do tend to have a unique bark! Spend some time with several deaf dogs and you’ll quickly learning “the telltale sound”.

  • Myth: Hearing dogs adapt their behavior to accommodate a deaf dog.

  • Fact: False. Dr. Farmer-Dougan, et al do believe that hearing dogs can tell that something is different about a deaf dog, but have found that they typically do not adapt their behavior to accommodate this difference. Dr. Farmer-Dougan and her team are looking for ways to teach hearing dogs adaptation techniques when interacting with deaf dogs.

Dr. Farmer-Dougan is an incredibly smart, passionate scientist and animal lover committed to understanding both the cognitive and behavioral similarities and differences between deaf dogs and hearing dogs- and then using this data to help advocate on behalf of deaf dogs.

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