There’s a pack of dogs running to us in the dog park. One of them, a dogo argentino, has a harness with a phosphorescent “I’m deaf” sign on it. Seeing him makes you wonder what it’s like to be the owner of a deaf dog. We talked with Bori Varga about her dog Carlos who shares his silent life with a German shepherd, 2 cats and six-month-old baby.
How did Carlos come into your life?
I’ve always wanted a dogo argentino but I didn’t want to buy. I’m for rescues. One day FEMA’s Dogo Rescue Facebook page posted a message that 4 of a breeder’s 8 puppies were born deaf and they were looking for owners. I fell in love with Carlos immediately but my husband was sceptical. I went online to look at videos on how you should communicate with a deaf dog. I found that it’s not all that different from a hearing dog. Seeing the videos, my husband reluctantly agreed to at least look at the puppy. Carlos went to him immediately as if he had known whose heart he had to win. We didn’t bring him home yet because he was too small but on the way home we were already talking about when we would come back for him. He was about 8-10 weeks old when we brought him home. I think we’re lucky to be his first and only family.
What degree is Carlos’ hearing impairment? Can he hear any sounds at all?
When he was little, the vet performed an audiometry test on him and established that he was 99% deaf. I think he may be able to detect some sounds because when I honk the horn at him in the driveway from a close range, he jerks his head up. I don’t know if he reacts to the vibration in the air or he really hears something.
How do you communicate with him?
Hand signals and touches, or a combination of the two. Unlike hearing impaired humans, there’s no standardized sign language for deaf dogs. Each owner uses their own communication method that has proven to be the most efficient for them. We created a sign language the way it was logical for us. For example, when I want to let him go, I clap him on the bottom twice. Although the signs are clear, I sometimes make a mistake and I happen to clap him by accident. Since he understands the sign, Carlos immediately walks away so he also teaches us to concentrate better.
Another training method is to use treats with a particular flavour and shape for particular exercises. For instance, he gets a different treat when I call him in or when I teach him to stay in place. As far as these training methods go, your imagination is the only limit. The idea is that you should switch your mind to a creative way of thinking.
Recently I got a vibrating collar for testing. It worked out so well that we’re going to add it to our home inventory.
What do you use it for?
At first, I was just practising with him at home. I switched the collar on at random moments and then motioned him to come to me and he got a treat. He learnt almost immediately that vibration meant a tasty treat; all he had to do was to go for it.
Walking him was always a difficult business before we had this collar. Even though we live next to a nature reserve and far from cars or crowds of people, I didn’t dare to walk him without a 7-8-metre leash for long. My parents and I live in a semi-detached house with a joint garden so our rescue German shepherd Belian shares his life with Carlos. We always take Belian to walk with us. I also used to tie the two dogs’ harnesses together. This way they were free to run around and Carlos had no choice but to come when I called Belian. I don’t need to do that anymore ever since we got the vibrating collar. Sometimes Carlos is so far away that I can hardly see him but all I need to do is to send a signal to his collar and he runs back to me.
How do the two dogs get along? Have they learned anything from each other?
Belian was always around whenever we were training Carlos so he learned the hand signals and started responding to them after a while. But it works the other way around, too. Carlos also copies and imitates Belian’s behaviour. Now that we let them run free, we can see how Carlos always keeps an eye on Belian and immediately follows his movement whenever Belian changes direction. Maybe he thinks there must be something interesting there if Belian wants to check it out.
Do you go to dog school, or do you just go hiking together?
Socialization is a key part of education, especially if your dog is deaf. As soon as Carlos got his vaccinations, we started looking into our options. Thanks to FEMA Dogo Rescue, we could complete a 6-month course with Carlos at a Vác dog school called Canispro Hungary Rehabilitation Centre free of charge. We were taught by a trainer who had a lot of experience with deaf dogs. This is how they helped the adoption of these puppies. The training was very useful. It helped us understand the concept that it’s not the dog that has to learn a new system. On the contrary, it’s the owner who has to change. He was born deaf so he never knew the world of sounds. He never used it as a communication channel but he did use everything else. That’s what we had to learn. During the training programme, we would regularly go to a supervised dog park, which has remained a joint activity for us ever since.
How does Carlos behave in the dog park?
Back when he was just a clumsy adolescent with raging hormones, he wanted to play with all dogs even if they didn’t appreciate it. His impairment was a problem because he couldn’t hear the first serious warning: growling. After that, dogs began to warn him by biting or nipping if he was too much. At times, I had to lift Carlos out of the situation by the harness handle.
He was just a few months old when he saw a young German shepherd puppy crouching in the corner. While the other dogs were running around and playing with each other, this little bitch was so afraid she hardly moved at all. Carlos noticed her and started courting her, licking and luring her carefully until he could get the puppy out of her fear. From then on, they were always walking together, completely in tune with one another. They’ve been best friends to this day. I believe his deafness may actually have helped him not to be distracted by the playing dogs and focus on the puppy with all his senses.
Lidia and Carlos
Carlos learnt that he can relax and play but he always keeps an eye on us, he makes sure we stay in his sight. He didn’t learn this attention and care in the dog school; it’s the fruit of our work together. We have simply developed a bond and we know what we can expect from each other.
How do people react to your dog having a hearing impairment?
It still comes as a surprise how people, seeing the “I’m deaf” sign, often ask me: “Why is it written on your dog?” even though we used the word “deaf” which is much more common than “hearing impaired”. By the way, the first reaction from everybody is always: “poor dog”. And I always tell them he doesn’t feel pain, he was just born this way. So this world is complete for him as it is. He never lost a sense that he had before. I’m proud that people can’t tell from his behaviour that he’s deaf because he acts as part of the team, he’s into anything and he’s very obedient, too. He loves people very much; he appreciates their touches and petting. He has his favourite “humans” in the dog park, he always collects their caresses. By the way, we always go to the park in the harness with the “I’m deaf” label because there are often new people who don’t know about his hearing impairment.
How difficult is it to train a hearing-impaired dog?
His deafness doesn’t really mean any difficulty. There were some problems at the beginning but only some things that may as well happen to a hearing puppy, too. We walked him on a short leash so we could quickly and easily warn him if he wasn’t doing something right. On the other hand, it was more difficult to handle him back home in the flat, for example when he chewed on shoes. We’ve always had to keep an eye on what he was doing and if we could catch him in the act, we quickly ran to him and signalled him to stop.
What I’m especially proud of is how quickly he understood even as a puppy that the cat food is not there for him and he can’t gobble it up even if it stays in the bowl all day. I trained him by putting a full bowl on the ground and tapping him on the nose when he tried to touch it.
So you have cats, too. How does he get on with them?
Very well! Beside Belian being there for him from the first moment, he has also had to share everything with two cats ever since he arrived in our family.
The boss of the house is one of the cats who keeps the order at home. When he’s had enough of Carlos, he slaps him carefully without using his claws. He knows it’s quite enough to put his friend in his place. I believe both cats understand that touching is the most important form of communication for Carlos so they are more careful with him. Actually, touching is so important for him that he likes leaning against people’s legs. I let him do it even when I’m dressed to go out. This is how he expresses his affection. I won’t stop him.
Do you think there’s something positive about your dog being deaf?
I believe there are certain positive aspects about it. For example, he can sleep like a baby even in the loudest noise. In contrast, Belian is always frightened by storms or firecrackers. Carlos never has this problem. He never hears when my six-months-old baby cries, I think he would consider it a benefit if he knew the difference.
When do you want to get Carlos used to the baby?
I already let him go to my son. We did our best to train Carlos for the baby even during my pregnancy. When we took the baby home, we controlled Carlos with hand signals and approached him slowly with the baby in our arms and we let them sniff him. Half a year has passed and now Carlos often licks my son’s hand while the baby laughs aloud. I’m sure Carlos and Pete will be best friends forever.
How much exercise does he need? Have you tried doing any canine sports with him?
My baby is still very young so I can’t really start any intensive sports with him. Back when I was pregnant we tried cycling together with him running on a leash. We both had to focus real hard to coordinate our movements but he did an excellent job. He never wanted to cut in front of me and he never lagged behind.
Fortunately our garden is big enough so he and Belian can tire each other out during the day. We still take them to walk every day and we are frequent visitors in the dog park, too. We go hiking at the weekends. We never leave him at home alone. No matter where we go hiking or on holiday, he always comes with us.
What’s your advice to those who are considering adopting a deaf dog?
I suggest they should watch videos on how to live with a deaf dog. If they are willing to put in the effort and learn to communicate with a dog through a different channel, they shouldn’t hesitate.
Carlos was born deaf so I have no idea what it’s like to adopt a dog that lost its hearing later in life. These dogs may be insecure and timid. But I think if dogs are treated as family members and get all the support they need from their “pack”, they can be really happy regardless of any physical impairment.
We soon learnt how to use hand signals instead of our voice. We needed a little time to get used to it but it wasn’t difficult. There are no fights, no frustration. There are no real downsides to having a deaf dog. We are happy to have found Carlos.