Many senior dogs suffer from hearing impairment as they age and become less responsive to you and the world around them. Your ability to communicate with your dog becomes hampered when he can’t hear what you have to say, which can be frustrating for you and stressful for your dog. But there are steps you can take to help your senior dog cope with hearing loss.
Hearing Loss: Causes and Symptoms
There are many causes of hearing loss in dogs, but for elderly dogs, the cause is often degenerative changes in the nerves found inside the ear. This is similar to the hearing loss seen in older people. The changes will likely be gradual, so symptoms will creep up slowly, and you may not notice right away.
As your dog loses his hearing, you might find him “ignoring” your cues, such as not sitting when asked or failing to come when you call him. Or he may seem confused by his surroundings or by your requests. He might become unresponsive to sounds that used to excite him, like the squeak of his toy or the rattle of your car keys, and fail to turn to you when you call his name. You might also find that he sleeps more deeply and is not disturbed by loud noises that he would have responded to in the past. If you see these symptoms, it's imperative to take your dog to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and to rule out other causes.
Managing Hearing Loss
Now that verbal communication with your dog is more challenging, teaching hand signals will allow you to communicate visually instead. If your dog can still partially hear, add hand signals to verbal cues he already knows by giving the hand gesture before saying the cue. After enough repetitions, your dog will learn to respond to the hand signal alone. To teach new cues, simply teach the hand signal from the beginning. If you currently use a marker to train new behaviors, like a clicker or word like “yes,” you will need to substitute a non-auditory marker such as a hand gesture, for example a thumbs-up.
Be sure to include hand gestures for behaviors related to safety, for example for “come,” so you can maintain control of your dog, even if he can’t hear you. Another way to help your dog come when called is an emergency whistle. Emergency whistles are very loud, and a dog with some hearing loss may still respond. Train your dog to come when he hears the whistle by offering him a super delicious treat every time you blow the whistle. You might want to practice this outside, where the loud sound will be less of an assault on your own ears.
Sometimes the trick with a hearing-impaired dog is simply getting his attention. After all, he can only respond to your hand signals if he can see you. To get your dog to turn toward you, you can make a strong vibration by stamping your foot on the ground. You can also wave your hand in front of his face or train him that a light touch on the back or neck is a cue to turn toward you. Another option is a vibration collar. These are not shock collars, but are designed to gently vibrate when you press a remote control. With proper training, your dog will learn to look at you or come to you when he feels the vibration.
Although deaf dogs can feel vibrations and smell/see their surroundings, they may become frightened by sudden approaches or unexpected petting, particularly when they are disturbed from sleep. Approach your dog with heavy footsteps, so the vibrations will alert him to your presence. And be sure to help him feel comfortable with unexpected touching by desensitizing him. For example, touch your dog gently on the back and immediately offer him a food reward.
It’s also important to take precautions outside your home. Don’t let your hearing-challenged dog off leash because he may not be able to hear traffic or other dangers. Cyclists and people on the sidewalk may also take him by surprise if he can’t see them coming, so be on the lookout to move him out of the way, if need be. Consider keeping dog-dog interactions limited to familiar dogs and in places where you can supervise.
If your senior dog has suffered some hearing loss, he may be losing his eyesight, as well. Practice patience if he seems to be ignoring your requests. It’s not that he’s being stubborn, he likely can’t hear or see what you’re asking. Maintain a positive attitude and communicate with him in ways he can understand. With these simple and practical alterations, you can be sure your hearing-impaired dog enjoys his senior years in a safe and fulfilled way.