Wednesday, 4 July 2012

What the Deaf Puppy Taught Me

My parents got a little boston terrier girl, Bettina, a couple of months back. She came to them at seven weeks old. Soon they realized something wasn’t quite right, and a few weeks later she was diagnosed as probably completely deaf from birth. There was no question of returning her, but understandably my parents were a little upset, and concerned about the implications of her deafness.

Just kept on sleeping right through the bangs.

My intuition was that deafness in a dog is much less problematic than it may appear to us humans. Yes, the dog will probably never be able to be let off leash with as much freedom as a hearing dog: not only is recall difficult, but they can’t hear either the sounds of danger or our warning cries.

However, although their hearing is very acute, dogs don’t really use sound to communicate very much. Their hearing is mainly utilised to orient themselves and detect prey and dangers. Barks, growls and whines, although vocal, are always accompanied by expressions of the face and body. The vast bulk of canine communication takes place through the mediums of smell, touch and body language. Although it is impossible for us to understand their world of smells, we would benefit from paying a lot more attention to their use of the latter two.

I visited my parents for a week recently, and met Bettina for the fist time, aged four months. Indeed, my feeling about deaf dogs was confirmed. Not only was Bettina so easy to communicate with, and so fast to learn, but she also emphasized some important lessons for me about communicating with all dogs, deaf or hearing.

My mother still holds out some hope that Bettina can hear high-pitched sounds, and uses whistles when calling her together with the hand signals. Bettina is so attentive that it almost seems that she can hear us at times. I don’t think she can, and felt that accepting this was a relief and lesson in dog communication. I don’t think that one should stop talking to deaf dogs, mainly because of the reasons that I set out in my post about talking to dogs – as humans we need verbalizing to communicate, so talking shapes our body language. However, walking and playing with Bettina felt extraordinarily relaxing and calm, and our communication so intense, precisely because I accepted she couldn’t hear. Instead I completely focused on my non-verbal signals. It was somewhat of a revelation.

At four months Bettina knew signs for attention (tap on shoulder), good girl (clap hands), no (wagging finger), sit (fist with thumb up), fetch (motion of pointing hand towards the object), gentle come here (beckoning hand), decisive come here (hand slapping thigh), and recall on a lead (two gentle tugs). I also taught her lie down (fist pointing to floor). There is certainly nothing wrong with the little pup’s brain. Having worked with older rescue dogs for so long it was a joy to spend time with such a quick and keen learner.

Even the seemingly impossible recall when she was off leash was mitigated by her obviously compensating for her lack of sound location by frequently turning to look at us. There was only one moment when Bettina’s deafness frustrated me. When she was doing something naughty at a distance and I could not shout “ah-ah!” the way I do to my dogs. You had to be very quick to get to her, push her away from and wag your finger at her. However, as she was quick to respond to being corrected in this way, it made me think about how often verbal reprimands are so very ineffectual.

Deaf but destructive! 

I hear so many owners shouting at their dogs, to come here, to do this, to stop that. Almost always the shouts are repeated – because, of course, the dog isn’t likely to do something just because you shout louder, if they weren’t going to in the first place. Yes, a sharp “No!” or “Ah-ah!” can have the effect of getting their attention, but if it doesn’t almost immediately, it is unlikely the dog will comply.

With a deaf dog there is no point in shouting. Rather you have to show them what you want them to do or not do, using your body. You need to prod and point, and gently or firmly bump and push. You need to make your body speak, through posture and signs.

As I said, touch and body posture is a massive part of doggy communication. Observe dogs interacting, and you will notice how much they use it – they are always posturing, and shoving and prodding each other. Even when they are looking away, or sniffing nearby, they are talking to one another!

If you use your body it is remarkable how quickly and well dogs respond. Often I need to show my clients that their commands of “come” need to be accompanied by gestures and posture that makes the dog interested and willing to come back, and their commands of “wait” or “stop”, with a posture that makes it clear where the line is drawn.

Only days before going to visit my parents my friend was playing with her dog Frank and my Eddie. She was giving them treats for simple obedience commands. She told Frank to sit and he quickly complied. She told Eddie to lay down, but he just stared at her uncomprehendingly. She tried again – nothing. Eddie is usually very good at lying down for a treat, so I tried to figure out why he wasn’t this time. I quickly realized that her hand signal for “lie down” was subtly different from mine. She holds her arm out, palm facing the floor. I point at the floor. As soon as I told her to change the signal, Eddie promptly lied down. It was so obvious that he responds much more to the hand signal than the words he hears!

When training dogs it is therefore imperative to remember to use consistent gestures as well as commands. Playing and working with Bettina was a lesson in speaking without words, a way of speaking that is closer to the dogs’ own way. It was so clear that words are really not necessary to communicate effectively with dogs, and although they can help us humans get to grips with what we mean, if we rely on them we forget the most important tool for talking to dogs: our bodies. 

Play needs no words.

1 comment:

Finn said...

What a great story! We taught Finn gestures from the time we got her in case she loses her hearing one day. She has great recall on them! Have a great day!