Action Plan: Helping our Deaf Senior Dog

Pet care & safety
Senior dogs with hearing loss.

We’d noticed Lyger’s hearing starting to diminish a bit, particularly in the months since a cancer surgery, but my husband and I were both a bit stunned recently when we realized that he’s now almost completely deaf. I’d just stepped out the front door and came back in through the back door to find Lyger lying in the front foyer, staring at the door, waiting for me. Nothing unusual about that with a dog as devoted as he is. It was when my husband said to him, “she’s here, buddy,” and he didn’t respond that we both took pause. Hubby repeated it with some concern in his voice. I called to him again and again, but it wasn’t until I said it loud enough that even I noticed a vibration in the house that he responded by scrambling to his feet and trotting over to me with a wag. He was as surprised to see me as we were to realize that his 13 years were finally starting to show.

That same night, as he did one of his usual things, I said my standard “good boy” and felt the tears well up as I realized he couldn’t hear me. How sad to be a dog who lives for the approval of his people without being able to hear an “atta boy.” Right then, I decided we needed an action plan.

Non-verbal Communication

My dog has always been able to tell me when he's hungry, has to go out, or needs some petting without speech, so I wanted to devise a consistent set of hand signals to help him. They’d need to be simple for our family and easy for his old eyes to see. Here is what we’ve developed, in part based on the baby sign language we’ve been teaching our human kid:

  • thumbs up = good boy!

  • a pat on the thigh = follow me

  • an appropriated sign for “diaper” = “Let’s go outside.” (a logical jump, no?)

  • pointing to the floor = down

  • one hand up = stay

  • an appropriated sign for “all done” = “release” or “free”

At least he still has a bit of hearing left so that he can hear the commands as we’re teaching him these signs. If your dog is starting to show signs of hearing loss, it might benefit you to start with your own signals now.

Vibrating Collars

In addition to hand signals, vibrating collars can be used like a pager, telling your dog that you are calling for him. A few of these collars also have an optional tone feature. Why does a deaf dog need a tone feature? That part is actually for you. If you want to locate your deaf dog, the tone serves as a beacon. As a side note, some vibrating collars also have static or shock device options. Consult with your trainer about the use of shock collars or make sure your collar’s shock option can be disabled.

Safety When Living with Deaf Dogs

In days past, it was thought that deaf dogs should not be around children or other animals, as they might be more prone to biting when startled. Most professionals agree that this should not be a deterrent from pairing deaf dogs with families. (If anything, Lyger should be grateful he doesn’t have to hear whining and crying.) However, that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for other household members to be rude and wake up a deaf animal abruptly. Lyger gets startled if we walk up behind him too quietly, no matter what he’s doing, but it’s not hard to give him a heads up:

  •  Turn on the light before you enter the same room as a deaf dog.

  • Do what you can to make more vibrations: heavy steps, a knock on the wall

  • Lyger often sees my shadow coming from behind him, letting him know I’m near. I just give him a second to notice it.

  • Wearing your perfume or a scent on your legs can not only provide advanced notice of your arrival, but might also help your dog find you.

Adding a Second Dog

If all else fails, get a second dog. (Practical advice if I’ve ever given it.) If we call Kayden, tell him to go outside, or tell him it’s dinner time, he goes and does that thing, usually with a lot of stomping and wiggling. In most cases, Lyger notices his movements or footsteps and follows suit. However, Lyger’s deafness may have been noticed sooner if it weren’t for Kayden’s enthusiasm to follow commands.

In most ways, life with a hearing impaired dog won’t be too different. If anything, it’s been motivation for me to stop and take a few moments to snuggle him when Lyger’s looking a bit puzzled or if he’s being especially good and needs a little reinforcement. Any excuse for more snuggles isn’t entirely a bad thing.