The Woof Isn't Silent: Wo/Man's Deaf Best Friend

Posted by: Staff Writer on June 11, 2013

A stealthy robot vacuum twirls around Suz Ledet's hardwood floors, absorbing the ever-shedding white fur of her two Boxers: Marlee and Lucky Lucy. Pigmentation is first of two clues that they are unique: White hair is often associated with deafness in dogs.  

To say that Lucky Lucy is the black sheep of her family is ironically true: She was born eight years ago as the only white deaf dog out of a litter of nine (the others are black). She is so named because of her reverse black spots, similar to a Dalmatian.

FUN FACT: It's safe to guess that nearly 31 of Cruella de Villa's 101 Dalmations don't hear her evil cackling, because 30 percent of Dalmatians are deaf. Other breeds where deafness is common include bull terriers, English setters, Aussie cattle dogs, and whippets.

The second, more overt clue: Both Marlee and Lucky Lucy respond to signs like SIT, NO, STAY, COME, FOOD, GOOD DOG, and a few more. Because they are so visually attuned, they love looking out the window and are prone to shredding closed drapes and blinds that shroud their view of the outer world.

Last March, Ledet welcomed another Deaf dog into their home: Marlee, a feisty 3-year-old who shares the same name as the Deaf role model we all love: Children of a Lesser God actress Marlee Matlin. Training Deaf dogs at the onset is a lot of work, Ledet admits. But they undoubtedly became wo/man's best friend.

Deaf dogs: Pets of a Lesser God?

Unlike dogs who are sold by specialty breeders for top dollar, deaf dogs find loving homes through social media, Internet listings, friends, and family connections ... if they're lucky. Both Marlee and Lucky Lucy were "free to a good home."

"No one really wants a Deaf dog," Ledet described the mainstream attitude toward these oft-misunderstood creatures. "You don't usually see them in dog shows."

It stems in part from dogs' cultural roles as protectors (hence, "BEWARE OF THE DOG" signs). Like pediatricians who think deaf babies need to be fixed, some veterinarians view a dog's deafness as a clinical problem: "Before you fall for that pretty white dog or cat, don't forget to check its hearing," warned veterinarian Pete Wedderburn in the Telegraph.

It's unfortunate, Ledet adds, because they are just as loving and intelligent ... with the bonus empathy factor of deaf owner-deaf dog relationship. But just as with deaf and hard of hearing humans, public education and exposure goes a long way.

For starters, the myth that deaf dogs are aggressive? So not true, she countered: "When my son was three, he used to pull Lucky Lucky's ears and play rough with her. She is a gentle soul, and never bit him."

Even within the Deaf Community itself, the notion of deaf dogs is a novelty. Just ask Rachel Berman Blythe, Deaf author and creator of the e-book Zoey Goes, which is about a Deaf dog.  She has made presentations at the Washington School for the Deaf (WA), Rocky Mountain Deaf School (CO), Deaf Counseling, Advocacy & Referral Agency (CA) and California School of Deaf Fremont (CA).

"I've only met one or two students who already have Deaf dogs of their own, so hopefully my travels and presentations will continue to raise awareness about Deaf dogs and inspire them to adopt them as they are most unwanted," said Blythe.

Little d, or Big D: Doggy Deaf Culture examined in "Zoey Goes ... Where?"

In the human Deaf Community, many people debate about the capitalization (or lack thereof) of the word "deaf" (check out our "Are You a Little d or a Big D?" quiz).

So does the same distinction apply to dogs? 

"Without language, there is no culture," said Blythe. "Zoey uses ASL to understand the world, hence the reason I capitalized the D in Deaf dog as being the member of a culture that communicates in ASL," said Blythe.

Illustrated by Seattle artist Jena Floyd and narrated in Blythe's writing and video-captured sign language, the book chronicles a Deaf Dog owner (Fir) who takes his Deaf dog (Zoey) to the dog park. Their interactions with hearing people, hearing dogs, and Gallaudet peers is a lesson in Deaf Culture as well as ASL vocabulary.

In real life, Blythe and her husband Chris have a hearing Flat Coat Retriever named Winston. Though Winston is neither deaf nor Deaf, he is bilingual. You might also go as far as to call him a DODA (Dog of Deaf Adults), if there was such a label.

"I say bilingual because he understands both vocal words and signs," Blythe said. "Dogs naturally depend on vision more than hearing, which explains why hand signals are commonly used."

Positive reinforcement is a language of its own: Winston gets treats or praise when he responds correctly to a signed command.

Chasing the red dot

As for the laser pointer Fir uses to get Zoey's attention at the dog park, Blythe emphasized that it's not actually a common communication tool between owners and Deaf dogs.

"As a matter of fact, it is not recommended ... it can hurt the dogs' eyes if accidentally pointed directly at them," Blythe said. "I used the laser pointer in the book to create a 'conflict' and let readers develop critical thinking on the appropriate use of the laser pointer."

Deaf dogs are so visual that a pointer isn't always necessary to get their attention. Lucky Lucy once trotted out of Ledet's front gate and wandered off alone. But she looked back to see, from blocks away, Ledet's arms frantically waving at her to come home.

And come home, the loyal Deaf dog promptly did.

"Velcro dogs": Man's most loyal best friend

On the flip side, Jody Barrong-Williams uses a laser pointer during doggy play time.

She is Deaf, and has grown up with hearing dogs all of her life (as well as a deaf cat). But it wasn't until last October that she adopted her first Deaf dog: Mr. Smee, a Jack Russell Terrier that she and her husband found via DeafDogsRock.com.

"The ability and huge expectation that a dog will come when you call for him" is one thing she took for granted, she said. "I always voiced with my hearing dogs ... I never knew there was an alternative."

The biggest difference? "Deaf dogs are really 'Velcro dogs' - they're so attentive to you! He follows us almost everywhere we go in the house, or if he's tired, he must 'still see us' from the couch."

Neighbors are astounded when they find out that the well-behaved Wishbone-lookalike is Deaf. "My mother-in-law was amazed that a deaf dog can be trained because she didn't quite understand how you could command a dog without a voice," said Barrong-Williams, who lives in Maryland. "She says Smee is one of the smartest dogs she's ever seen."

Indeed, Smee, Lucky Lucy, Winston, and the fictional Zoey all share some of the same signed vocabulary. Smee also understands HIGH FIVE, TWIRL, ROLL OVER, and FIND YOUR TREAT (UNDER A CUP).

Deaf owner, Deaf dog: The ties that do and don't bind them

White fur or not, all dogs share a universal attribute: They all usually bark. In other words, there's no 'deaf bark' equivalent to the human 'deaf accent.'

"I asked Simon (my hearing son) what our dogs' barks sound like, and he said it sounds just like a hearing dog's bark," said Ledet.

But there may be such a thing as canine audism ... or bark-ism. The availability of an unusual product may surprise even owners of deaf dogs: BTE (Behind the Ear) hearing aids for d/Deaf dogs.

FUN FACT: Dog and human hearing aids are the same. The difference is the molds, which as custom-made by veterinarians to fit the dog's ear canal. This won't work for dogs born with a pigment-associated hearing loss - but may be usable if it's other causes like aging, toxicity, and injury. 

Some owners fit their dogs with cochlear prostheses or cochlear implants. Like those of deaf humans, these stimulating electrodes are surgically inserted into one of the coils of the cochlea nerves.

 

EDITORIAL NOTE

Rolling your eyes yet? Then you're reading our minds: deafREVIEW thinks hearing devices are as necessary for dogs as bicycles are for goldfish. "Pets are very different from humans because they have no emotionally driven thought processes that can disempower them," CanineDeafness.com reminds owners. "By treating your dog with love and patience, s/he will quicky adapt ... by relying more on their other senses."

Also, why not empower the human Deaf Community by showing the world just how smart, loving, and linguistically capable Deaf dogs can be?

If you've got an itch to experience the joys of bonding with these special pets, check out sites like DeafDogsRock.comPetsWithDisabilities.org for adoption listings. Also, stay tuned this month for the second book in the "Zoey Goes" series. All of the e-books are available for $4.99 each, and can be downloaded via an iPad.

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