Breaking the Silence

Owners speak out about their special bond with deaf dogs.

By | Posted: Sat Oct 28 00:00:00 PDT 2000

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The degree of deafness is clinically measured by the BAER (brain stem auditory evoked response) test, which uses computers to record electrical activity from the brain in response to sound stimulation. Although highly accurate, the test is expensive. Many dog owners depend more on behavioral cues, such as Spanky's response to the vacuum cleaner, and home tests, such as making a subtle noise behind the dog's back, to determine the extent of their pet's hearing loss.

Most deaf-dog owners communicate with their pets through some form of sign language, says Holly Newstead of Berkeley, California, executive director and co-founder of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund. "Members of our Internet mailing list are split on the issue. A lot of people use American Sign Language, many use standard obedience signs and some use a mixture. In addition, I think every single one of us has developed 'home signs,' which we make up and only our dogs understand."

Using sign language represents the only difference between living with a hearing and a deaf dog. Owners of deaf dogs don't go through large changes in lifestyle, like owners of blind dogs. We, do, however, offer a few tips for living with a deaf dog.

Signing is easy to master, says Becker. "If you know five to eight hand signs, you and your dog will get along fine. The standard obedience signs are Sit, Stay, Lie Down and Heel. You also want signs for No, Stop, Good and Come."

Becker and Spanky learned many signs with the help of a professional trainer, for whom a deaf dog was a first. "She used food rewards, which are important in training deaf dogs because you don't have the advantage of voice tone," says Becker. "Instead of saying Sit, she would sign the word, push Spanky's bottom down and give her a treat. By the fourth or fifth time, Spanky got it.

"During the first session, Spanky learned to sit, then lie down. The trainer was astounded that Spanky had learned so quickly. We did a few more individual sessions, then we put Spanky in her regular group class, where she finished second.

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