Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Claire Learns a New Language - In Defense of Deaf Dogs

I’m taking another zag this week because I recently overheard someone discussing whether or not to adopt a deaf dog. Having some experience in this area, I was shocked and saddened by some of the things that were said, and so I did my own research. Sure enough, there are actually breed-specific websites that promote putting down deaf dogs, because they say they have no value. To which I say “Nonsense!" Now, while I can see the logic in having a deaf dog spayed or neutered, I personally know the true value of a deaf dog.

World, meet Claire. Claire was a “Sprocker,” which is a Springer spaniel/cocker spaniel mix. We have no idea if anyone actually uses that moniker for this particular mix, but we thought it was pretty witty.

(Please excuse the quality of these photos, as they were taken pre-digital camera. Truth be known, I still prefer film and I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, but film doesn’t seem to speak computer as well. Or maybe it’s me.)

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Claire was a Wonder Dog. Faster than a speeding whiptail lizard, strong enough to hold down an 8-ft. couch, and able to leap right into your heart with a mere wiggle of her barely-there tail. (Please, no comments about tail-docking. It was that way when she adopted us.)

When Claire was about 14, we began to think she had developed selective hearing, because she wasn’t responding to us as she normally did. We would call her name and sometimes she would come and sometimes she wouldn’t. She also had a habit of wiggling her rear end (we called it “back field in motion”) at an alarming speed anytime anyone talked to her, and that too was sometimes happening and sometimes not. Finally, it began to dawn on us that maybe she was losing her hearing, a not uncommon thing in mature critters, two- and four-legged. So, we did our own rudimentary hearing tests by coming up behind her and clapping our hands, calling her name, and even blowing a whistle. No response.

Thinking that maybe she had an ear infection or other condition that might be causing temporary deafness, we took her to the vet for a proper exam. The good news was she didn’t have an infection or any other symptoms of disease. The bad news was she didn’t have an infection or any other condition that would cause temporary deafness. She was pronounced healthy but severely hearing-impaired.

I attacked this problem the same way I attack most things. Head-on. I started doing research on the Internet about deafness in dogs and read everything I could get my hands on. I also found several books at the library. And, boy, did I suddenly feel like an idiot. Seems dogs can and do learn sign language. Well, duh, of course they do. She already knew several hand signals – for sit, lay down, stay, quiet, etc. All we had to do was come up with new signs and teach them to her. That seems to astonish a lot of people, but you have to remember dogs don’t speak English (or any other human language) either, and all you have to do is use the same word and/or sign consistently for the same thing. I was still a little skeptical because, after all, she was 14, and this would be like doing puppy training all over again.

Since I wasn’t familiar with sign language, I needed some help coming up with signs. I found a website which had the American Sign Language alphabet and signs for a lot of common words. I started with signs for things that she liked – one for “cookie” and one for “hungry.” It took about two days for those signs to get firmly imprinted in her wonderful little canine brain. Then, I came up with signs for “go to bed,” “Daddy’s home,” “ride in the car,” “walk,” and so on. She learned this new language at a speed that amazed me, and I had known her for a long time. Of course, I think it also helped that she was such a people-pleaser and had a very sensitive and loving nature. And, crazy as this sounds, sometimes I believed she was reading my mind. I could just think about going for walk, never saying a word, moving a muscle, or making any kind of sign, and she would go into her happy dance and try to herd me towards the door.

Of course, you have to be aware of dangerous situations your dog might get into because of their hearing impairment. For example, you should never allow your dog to be off-leash anytime they are outside, because they will not be able to hear you calling them back from the street or other impending disaster. You also want to approach them slowly if coming up behind them, so as not to startle or scare them. Make sure any visitors to your home are aware they should only approach your dog from the front and never touch them when they are asleep.

Here’s one example of creative training you might use for getting the dog back inside at night after they have been out in the yard doing their business. Have one person go out with the dog on a leash, while you stand just inside the back door with a flashlight and treats. When you’re ready for the dog to come back inside, shine the flashlight where the dog can see it, and instruct your training partner to bring the dog back into the house, where you are waiting with yummy treats in hand. It won’t take long for them to associate the flashlight with the treat, and they’ll come running.

Will you have to devote more time to a deaf dog? Sure, in the beginning, but it’s certainly not any more difficult than the training you would do normally. And there is plenty of help out there. I joined a group at Yahoo where I could get advice and exchange ideas and training techniques with other people who have deaf dogs. I highly recommend joining this group, whether you have a deaf dog or are thinking of adopting one.

The only downside of Claire’s deafness was her slight insecurity about her new situation. She was used to sounding the alarm when a sound struck her as not quite right. She was my protector and defender and, when my husband was in Kuwait, she even captured a couple of birds in the back yard and deposited them at my feet. Her intent was clear. She knew Daddy was gone, and she took her job quite seriously, right down to making sure I had food to eat. I was less than thrilled with this behavior, but I couldn’t bring myself to scold her for it. Not that it would have done much good anyway.

While Claire had always been a bit of a mama’s girl, she became Velcro-dog after she lost her hearing. I was now her ears, and she depended on me to protect her as she had protected me all those years. I was honored to return the favor. I also noticed she seemed to be looking at my face more closely than before. It soon became clear that she was checking my facial expressions and body language and taking her cues from them. So, Claire became my constant companion and shadow, and she continued to thrive and be the same happy, loving dog she had always been. She also continued to “chuff” at strange men we encountered on our walks. Good girl.

Claire was with us for another three years. Kidney failure took her at the ripe old age of 17. One of the most difficult days of my life. I miss her every single day.

Being deaf did not made Claire any less devoted or loving or intelligent. Just the opposite. I now know just how intelligent she truly was and how close a bond you can form with a four-legged irrepressible sunbeam in fuzzy dog clothing. And just how many of us do you think will be able to learn a new language at the age of 98?