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Deaf Dog Myths

 - from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Main Entry: myth
Pronunciation: 'mith
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek mythos
Date: 1830
1 a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : PARABLE, ALLEGORY
2 a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society <seduced by the American myth of individualism -- Orde Coombs> b : an unfounded or false notion
3 : a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
4 : the whole body of myths
Myths and Misinformation Regarding Deaf Dogs
The "Startled-Aggressive Dog" Myth
The "Deaf Dogs Should Never Live With Children" Myth
The "More-Likely-To-Be-Hit-By-A-Car" Myth
The "Need A Hearing Dog" Myth
The "Time Bomb" Myth
The "Incredible Challenge To Train" Myth
The "Few Special Owners, Few Special Dogs" Myth

Myths and Misinformation Regarding Deaf Dogs

Based on the original text by Leslie Judkins

Many negative warnings and stories surrounding deaf dogs have a myth-like quality. Handed down from person to person, they are dutifully recited each time the subject of the deaf dog is raised. One by one, we will expose these myths to the harsh light of fact, facts drawn from the actual experiences of those who share their lives with a deaf dog.

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The "Startled-Aggressive Dog" Myth

Old English Sheepdog Sketch Deprived of the ability to hear, the deaf dog spends each day jumping out of his skin, startled by everything that crosses it's path. If you walk up behind a deaf dog, it startles. If you touch it when it's not looking at you, it startles. If you wake it when it's sleeping, it startles. Over time, these constantly startled dogs develop fearful, aggressive personalities. They will bite when startled, or attack for no reason.

Perhaps no other myth has caused more damage than this one. Its apparent logic is what makes it so seductive. It seems to make sense, and is therefore seldom questioned. This myth assumes that "being startled" is a permanent condition, that the deaf dog is perpetually startled, and that he will always respond by becoming fearful and aggressive. But the actual experience of deaf dog owners tells a different story.

The truth is that deaf dogs adapt to their hearing loss, and become comfortable with their surroundings. In the same way a hearing dog can be startled by a loud noise, a deaf dog can be startled by an unexpected touch. Owners report that their dogs' responses to being touched unexpectedly range from a "YIKES" response, where the dog may jump, to a "huh?" response, where the dog simply turns and looks. Some may be momentarily disoriented when awakened, but few become aggressive or bite in response.

Further, a deaf dog can be desensitized to the startle effect of being touched unexpectedly or awakened from sleep. One owner calls this "working on sneaking up behaviors." This is done by first walking up behind the dog when he isn't looking; touch the dog, then immediately pop a treat in the dog's mouth when he turns around. The dog quickly associates good things (i.e., the treat) with being touched unexpectedly, and learns to respond happily. This exercise would not be possible if all deaf dogs responded to unexpected touch by biting their owners! Not all deaf dogs require this type of conditioning, but it is helpful for the more sensitive ones.

A deaf dog can also be conditioned to wake easily in response to a gentle touch. Start slowly by first placing your hand in front of the sleeping dog's nose, allowing him to smell that you are near. Next lightly touch the dog on the shoulder or back, pretend you are trying to touch only one or two hairs with your fingertips. Then gently stroke the dog with two fingertips, then with your entire hand. Most deaf dogs will awaken during some part of this exercise. When they open their eyes, their owner's smiling face and perhaps even a treat rewards them. In a matter of weeks, the dog becomes accustomed to waking up when the owner places a hand in front of his nose, or lightly touches his shoulder or back. Waking up becomes a gentle, positive experience.

Terrier Sketch Deaf dog owners do take special measures to alert the dog to their presence before walking up to, or touching the dog. Many will wave their hands in the air, flip a light switch on and off, lightly blow on the back of the dog, or toss a ball or small stone near him. Or they simply wait until the dog turns toward them. The care that owners exercise in waking, or walking up behind a deaf dog is not born from a fear of being attacked or bitten. Rather, it is an act of compassion, which acknowledges the special needs of the dog. Deaf dog owners don't work to create a dog that will never be startled, but to condition the dog and teach it to respond in a positive manner to unexpected events. The end result is a well-adjusted, happy dog.

But what happens before the deaf dog is conditioned to respond positively to situations where it is startled? Will it bite or attack? Deaf dog owners adamantly tell us that this is not the case. Prior to any desensitization exercises, a deaf dog will respond to be being startled in the same way a hearing dog would--he is momentarily distraught. His age, breed and previous life experiences will influence his reaction. Then the moment passes, and he returns to his normal "pre-startled" state.

In October of 1997, the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF) began conducting a survey of deaf dog owners. Among other things, the survey asked about aggression and situations where the dogs had been accidentally startled. DDEAF will make these survey results known when they are tabulated. The preliminary results show what Lindsay Patten, founder of the Deaf Dogs Mailing List has known for years "…very few of us are having problems with our deaf dogs, other than the typical dog problems all dog owners face, like housebreaking, chewing or digging." To participate in this survey, please see our Survey page.

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The "Deaf Dogs Should Never Live With Children" Myth

Deaf dogs should never be placed in homes with children. They will startle and bite, they will become aggressive, and they will be hard to train, so they have no place in a home with children.

This myth seems to include many of the other deaf dog myths (talked about elsewhere on this page). In truth, if a deaf dog is well socialized to human children, it is as safe to have in a home with children as any other dog. What is more important is the dog's history, its personality and any breed characteristics that affect how the dog reacts to small, quick-moving, and unpredictable humans.

If you are considering getting a dog and you know children will be a vital part of the dog's life, then do the research from the point of view of finding the best match for your situation. Consider all the same factors you would if you were to get a hearing dog:

  • Size - what will fit in your home? A small cuddly lap dog or a giant foot warmer on the rug? (And don't forget, just because a dog is small does not mean it will be easy. One of the busiest breeds around is a Jack Russell Terrier.)
  • Breed characteristics - retriever, terrier, watch dog, herding, etc.? And within each grouping, what are the characteristics of the individual breeds? (Although Australian Cattle Dogs, Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Australian Shepherds, Cardigan Welsh Corgis, German Shepherds, and Old English Sheepdogs are all considered "herding" dogs, they are very different from each other.)
  • Level of activity - always on the go, lots of action but rests briefly between retrieves, willing to go when you are but sleeps the rest of the time, sleeps most of the time but wakes up for tummy rubs?
  • Trainability - have to work to get his attention, needs lots of repetition to learn, loves to learn but needs suitable motivation (like a steak), eager to learn and is one step ahead of you, trains self to do all kinds of things you thought even your human children would never do? "Intelligent" dogs are not necessarily "easy" dogs. They learn quickly, and become bored just as quickly. They need someone committed to keeping their brains busy (because if you don't, they will find their own fun, and you may not like what they come up with).
  • Reactivity to stimulus - rarely reacts to anything (even earthquakes), notices passage of large trucks and freight trains, fascinated by all passers-by but keeps quiet, wigs out at a moth fluttering near a window?
  • Vocal activity - barks to alert household to intruding bees, barks when it's dinner time, likes to hold conversations with toys, converses in three languages (dog, cat and human), talks back when perhaps unjustly accused of tipping over the waste bin?
  • Coat type - long, short, double layers, wire haired, smooth coat, curly, long flowing locks? What kind of time and care is involved (just having a short coat does not automatically mean it's "easy care")?
  • Temperament - placid, easygoing, active, energetic, reserved, needs a job, speedbump in the hallway?
  • Personality - unique quirks of an individual dog?

Deaf dogs come in many sizes, shapes and colors. They are dogs first, representatives of their breed or mix second, and individuals third. All of the factors listed above should weigh more heavily in your decision to get a dog than whether the dog is deaf.

Terrier Sketch

The question could actually be turned around: I want to get a dog, but will my children fit in with my plan? Can they treat the dog gently and fairly at all times? Will they respect that it is not a human in a fur coat? WiIl they treat it like a living being and not a toy? Will the children play with and train the dog? Can I trust them to keep the same rules for safety and good manners that I teach the dog? Will they bond with it and be a good companion? Am I willing to supervise all interactions between the dog and very young children until they grow up enough to be trusted around the dog? These questions are just as important as any about the dog you want to bring home.

The right deaf dog in a home with children can teach them a lot about dealing with someone who doesn't have the same abilities that they do. Motivated children usually make wonderful dog trainers (better than the adults in many cases).

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The "More-Likely-To-Be-Hit-By-A-Car" Myth

Because a deaf dog cannot hear an approaching car, a honking horn, or his owner's verbal command, he is more likely to be hit by a car, and killed, than a hearing dog.

Basset Hound Sketch This myth implies that the majority of dog owners allow their dogs to roam, unsupervised, without a leash. While this may be true for the dog living on a 20-acre farm, it is certainly not true for the city-dwelling/suburban dog. In fact, most cities have leash law prohibiting such activity.

It also implies that the hearing dog has a survival advantage because it can hear the approaching car, and easily move out of its way. But dogs are not born knowing that the sound of an approaching car, or honking horn, is synonymous with pain and possible death.

Experience has shown that ANY dog wandering off leash, in close proximity to cars, is at risk. Even the best-trained hearing dog may run into a car's path if he's chasing a cat or a squirrel. Because of this uncertainty, many dog owners do not allow their dogs off leash unless they are in an enclosed area. It is a cardinal rule of deaf dog ownership to NEVER allow the dog to roam off leash. A small percentage of rural deaf dog owners do allow their dogs off leash in certain circumstances, but they are the exception. Most deaf dog owners simply never take the chance.

But what about accidents? What if you drop the leash on your daily walk or your dog squeezes through an open door? It should be noted that not all dogs bolt the minute they are free. The following exercise can condition any dog not to run if the leash is loose and dragging. While walking your dog, let go of everything except the handle of the leash. Let the rest of the leash go slack and drag on the ground. If the dog tries to bolt, he receives a correction when he reaches the end of the leash. Eventually, he will pay no attention if the leash goes slack and drags on the ground.

A deaf dog can also be easily trained to sit and wait before being release to walk through a door. One of the best ways to reinforce this is not to take the dog for a walk unless he sits and allows you to put on his leash. The dog quickly learns "no sit, no leash, no walk." Deaf dog owners have also reported success in using a vibrating collar as a signal for the dog to come.

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The "Need A Hearing Dog" Myth

Because a deaf dog does not hear everything happening around him/her, a hearing dog is essential. All deaf dogs would benefit from living with a hearing dog to function as their "ears."

The place where this myth does the most damage is when a deaf dog is looking for a new home. Rescues (and sometimes breeders) will often make it a requirement to have a "hearing dog" already living in the home. People who are thinking of adopting a deaf dog are put off by the idea of having to adopt two dogs, instead of just the one they were interested in. Sometimes vets will recommend to new owners to get a second dog.

Bichon Frise Sketch

The truth here is that deaf dogs do not need a hearing companion as a guide. They are no different from any other dog in this regard. They do perfectly well as an only dog, as part of a larger family, or with only other deaf dogs. There is no valid reason that a deaf dog cannot be placed as an only dog in a home. The personality of the individual dog is what will determine whether or not a second dog is desirable (and there is no reason why their companion cannot be another deaf dog). It is certainly not a necessity.

Many deaf dogs are adopted with a hearing dog already in the home. The deaf dog seems to follow the hearing dog, and appears to be depending on it. In actuality, the deaf dog is simply following the lead of the dog who already "knows the routine." In families where the deaf dog came first, they've noticed that the hearing dog follows the deaf one. In families with 2 or more deaf dogs (and no hearing ones), the new dog still follows the lead of the older one. Dogs are social animals, and will tend to hang out together when away from home. This does not mean that the hearing one is looking out for the deaf one, it's just one "family" member keeping track of the other (the deaf dog is as likely to "help out" the hearing one as the other way around).

Most dogs love having a playmate and will be very happy to have someone to run and wrestle with. Dogs (for the most part) do not discriminate on the basis of color, size, sex, length of tail, size of ears, height, weight, number of legs, color of eyes, or any of the other myriad of variations in the dog phenotype. They really don't care if either or none of them can hear. Remember, a dog born deaf doesn't know he's missing anything! He has no frame of reference to know what hearing is. He may think his hearing playmate is more observant than he is, but many times a deaf dog's vision and sense of smell will more than makes up for what his ears miss.

If you are hoping to teach one dog to retrieve the other, you might want to know that many deaf dogs have been trained to go get their dogs, cats, or people on command. A deaf dog is just as likely to notice that their deaf playmate has been called in as they are their hearing one. There is nothing wrong with using a hearing dog to find the deaf one when they are out of your sight, but that should be no excuse for not training your deaf dog to keep in touch with you.

The bottom line should be, know yourself and your dog. Don't put limitations on what your dog can do by portraying him or her as "dependent" on another dog. If adding to the "family" is something that you would both enjoy, then do it. If not, just enjoy each other and don't worry about it. Don't feel that you must have a hearing dog as a companion to your deaf dog to be happy. Having two (or more) dogs increases both the fun and the work, and it's not fair to the second dog to adopt him only to be your first dog's ears.

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The "Time Bomb" Myth

Even if your deaf dog currently shows no signs of aggressive behavior, he will suddenly become aggressive when he reaches 3 years of age. The deaf dog is an accident waiting to happen.

It's unclear how this myth evolved, but evolve it did. It is ludicrous to believe that your loving family pet will suddenly become aggressive on its third birthday. A quick look at canine development also suggests that this theory is inaccurate. All dogs go through an "adolescent period" which can start as early as 5 months (in small breeds), and last as long as 3 years (in larger breeds). Canine adolescence is marked by such behavior as refusing to perform previously learned commands, forgetting housebreaking, excessive chewing, and generally being a bit of a brat. Most dogs are through the worst of their adolescence by 2 years of age, but some dogs will remain in this phase for an additional year. A dog that is 3+ years of age, has generally outgrown most of the annoying habits of the adolescent, and is usually a joy to live with!

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The "Incredible Challenge To Train" Myth

The deaf dog is an incredible challenge to raise and train because they cannot respond to verbal commands. They can be trained to respond to hand signals, but because the dog can only see the signals if it is looking at you, deaf dogs must be kept under strict control at all times.

Weimaraner Sketch Dogs are postural creatures, tuned into the world of body language. In training any dog, visual signals are more effective than voice commands. A voice command is an additional aid, not a mandatory requirement. People talk, dogs don't. Though we all know this, we tend to forget the full implications of this statement. We place importance on our tone of voice and the words we use when speaking to our dogs. We seldom realize the additional messages communicated by our bodies, and the way those messages are interpreted by our dogs.

Dogs do not rely heavily on the spoken word. They use their bodies to communicate intent, dominance, submission, and a wide variety of emotions. True, they may growl, bark or whine, but these are an additional, or secondary, means of communication. A dog may bark while playing, or while chasing a cat over the fence. His body languages, and subsequent actions, are needed to interpret the true meaning of his bark. Our dogs are always "reading" us, and place a higher value on our body language than the words we speak.

Nor are dogs born with an innate understanding of the steady stream of babble we direct at them daily. Over time, a hearing dog learns to associate words with events and, eventually, these words become meaningful to the dog. A deaf dog is just as capable of making these associations, albeit he will be learning based on visual cues.

Challenge is in the eye of the beholder. The trainer of a deaf dog will have to learn techniques designed for a visually oriented dog. This is not a difficult task, but if the trainer cannot make this adjustment, he will fail. Surely, this is not the fault of the deaf dog. Resources abound to assist the deaf dog trainer in this process. All that is required is a willingness to learn.

It's also wrong to assume that if a deaf dog isn't looking at his owner, he's unreachable and out of control. Many dogs pick up movement and signals with their peripheral vision. Well trained deaf dogs make eye contact with their owners on a regular basis, keeping track of them, repeatedly checking in. As the deaf dog matures and his training progresses, getting his attention becomes less and less of an issue.

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The "Few Special Owners, Few Special Dogs" Myth

A few special owners have deaf dogs that are functioning well, but they are an exception. For every anecdotal success story, there is another one of disaster and heartache. Depending on the source, this has been a 3:1 (heartache to success story) - or even 10:1 - ratio. These owners would not recommend the knowing adoption of a deaf dog to anyone.
Pointer Sketch

The standing position of DDEAF is that "on any given day, we can produce a thousand unique success stories - so put up or shut up." Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is clear that there are thousands of deaf dog owners all over the world - many of these families with more than one deaf dog in the family. The Deafdogs List has around 900 members (as of July, 2002) and an uncounted number of former members (but easily 4 to 5 times that number). There are also several hundred people listed on the Deaf Dogs Atlas, many of whom have never been on the Deafdogs list. Many people in both groups have more than one deaf dog. The Kushti Dalmatian Club in the UK has successfully placed more than 300 deaf dogs. (They are no longer "in business," but do respond to E-mails.) Visit the Found A Home! area of our adoption pages to see how many deaf dogs have been placed while listed with us.

Many different people find themselves with deaf dogs. Some of them adopt (or buy) a dog, and find out after the fact that their dog is deaf. Some people adopt deaf dogs, even if they haven't had one before (because they want that dog, and are willing to learn what it takes to live with him or her). Others will deliberately look for a deaf dog, either because they have had one before, or because they want to give a home to a dog who needs it. If the only home that a deaf dog could be placed in was an "experienced" one, none of them would ever get homes. Experience isn't needed (everyone has to have their "first"), commitment to the dog is most important.

Deaf dogs make wonderful pets and family members. They are no more difficult to raise or train than their hearing counterparts. DDEAF maintains an adoption page on our website, and we actively encourage the responsible placement of deaf dogs into loving homes. Deaf dog owners regularly encourage other responsible pet owners to consider adopting a deaf dog when looking for a new member of the family. Few of these people would consider themselves "special" - they're just ordinary people who love their dogs and who are willing to communicate with their dogs using sign language and body language rather than words. DDEAF is available to offer any help or support that the owner of a deaf dog could possibly want.

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