Deaf dogs can be marvelously adaptable and inventive. “Dogs are good at using their other senses,” says Williams. “My deaf dog knew where every cat in the neighborhood was. When we walked, he would scan from side to side, taking in everything.”
Like Edgar has had to do, Williams’ deaf dog accepted his condition and got on with life. “Dogs don’t have the self-pity that a lot of people have,” she says.
Seattle-area dog trainer Diane Rich, who has worked with numerous deaf dogs over the past 25 years, points out the importance of developing other modes of communication regardless of whether your dog is deaf or has tip-top hearing. She teaches people to use a combination of body language, hand signals and auditory cues. That way, if the dog loses hearing in old age, he won’t feel quite as isolated. “People want to keep up communication with an older dog,” says Rich. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to learn how to communicate differently, not just verbally.” She also recommends teaching all puppies a “watch” command in addition to the usual commands. Hold some alluring food near the dog’s nose and slowly bring it to your eye level, maintaining eye contact with the dog. Say “Watch” or “Look.” Work on “fading the lure,” and eventually, you’ll be able to just point to your eye and have the dog’s full attention. “Dogs use an array of body language already,” says Rich. “People need to be able to use their own body language to communicate with their dog.”
While many people teach their dogs American Sign Language, any hand signal will do, as long as you’re consistent. “There’s no ceiling to how many words or signs a dog can learn,” says Rich. “They can learn as long as they have a pulse and you have motivation and patience. If you make training fun, they’re going to love learning, and it’s going to cement your bond.” She points out that it’s not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: sometimes it’s easier to train older dogs because they have longer attention spans.
Further, she recommends taking a matter-of-fact approach to your deaf dog’s disability. “Dogs aren’t saddled with ego,” she says. “If we pity them, we can create a situation where the dog may either shut down or act out because they think they did something wrong to make us feel bad. If you act like the disability isn’t a big deal, dogs will respond like it’s not a big deal.”
And so Edgar and I continue together into (in my case) middle age and (in his case) senescence. Taking care of him is a lot of work, but the truth is that I am no bargain either. He is very accepting of the ways in which I am not perfect, and, in turn, I am accepting of his increasing physical limitations. Every day, we practice the hand signals we learned in puppy class 15 years ago, which he still remembers: come, sit, stay, down, good boy. I smile a lot and pat him while giving the “thumbs up” sign when he does something well. I continue to tell him my jokes and he continues to give me a blank look, just like he always has. On every birthday, I bark and howl and yelp when people sing the Happy Birthday song, in honor of the joy his “singing” has given me over the years.
Though he requires a lot of extra care for all his special needs, it is care I am happy to provide in gratitude for the happiness he has brought me. In short, even though he has lost his hearing, arthritis has slowed him down, he sleeps most of the day and cannot participate fully in all of our old antics, he is still my best friend, and encroaching old age will never change that. Because — as every creaky, long-in-the-tooth, middle-aged woman and failing, deaf, 15-year old dog know — love is blind.