Life with a Deaf Dog
By Amber Marie Westwood
Facing the reality of living with a deaf dog is not the easiest task, but I truly was not expecting my love affair with Siren to be as deep and as fulfilling as it is. I would by no means ever wish a sudden and unexpected deaf dog on anyone… however, there is absolutely nothing like the bond you form with a "deafie" once you establish a connection. And I'd take on the challenge of another immediately…well, maybe once she's on the other side of adolescence!
Photo courtesy Amber Marie Westwood
I met Siren on the 6th August 2022. After falling deeply in love with the breed with my first boy, Pixel, I couldn't wait to have another Cardigan in my house. I travelled over 8 hours to finally meet her, and I was excited to start our journey together. Our adventure back home through the wild Welsh mountains in Snowdonia showed me no reason to be concerned. She even slept soundly through most of the trip.
At home however, we had a loud - and I mean loud - first night. This puppy cried in the most ear piercing of protests until we had her crate *just* right. Over the next few days, she wasn't quite what I was expecting. She was picky, distant, in her own world, very difficult to engage, excite or get her attention. After a week, she had mastered sit, stand, lie down and paw…. but still hadn't learned her own name. I was baffled. She was clearly smart, food motivated, and was learning quickly like a sponge… but never ever reacted when I called her name, or squeaked a toy in her direction. I passed it off with any reasonable excuse, overstimulation, understimulation, being a girl, personality, even autism.
A few other things I noticed… when Siren was asleep, honestly it was like she was dead. Nothing, and I mean nothing would wake her up short of an earthquake. It was eerie, creepy and heart stopping, especially when she finally did wake as she would look so, so, frightened. A week into her life here with me, she hadn't heard or noticed my husband come downstairs until she literally turned around and saw him. That morning, after clapping, shouting and whistling and seeing absolutely no reaction, I finally took Siren to the vets with the theory that she was profoundly deaf, or that there was something majorly wrong.
The vets clanged the loudest glass jar lid around the echoey room, whilst me and my hearing dog Pixel winced in the corner. Siren meanwhile, was oblivious. They sent me home with the confirmation that she was unfortunately bilaterally deaf and the mantra "you'll be fine.".
The moment I got home, in between sporadic sobbing sessions, I began to change how I communicated. I tapped, I waved, I gestured, I stamped, I exaggerated my facial expressions, and I got rewarded in the most amazing way. Siren simply came to life. It was as if her entire life had been in black and white, and I was finally showing her colour. I could talk! The reason why she had learned sit, down and other tricks was because I always used a hand signal alongside the word. She had just been unaware of the verbal aspect of it!
Not long after, I attended a workshop where dog trainers needed demo dogs to learn how to speak deaf dog. Over that weekend, my little volunteer, 18 week old Siren, was handled by various trainers who had never met or taught a deaf dog before, let alone a Cardigan. I learned so much that weekend. I met Ezra, our teacher's deaf American Bulldog, and I saw the potential of a thriving life with Siren that I had previously put away in a drawer, never to look at again.
I quickly discovered the pros of a deaf dog! Firework night or New Year's eve was a breeze. She'll never hear or react to the postman or doorbell. I can mention the words walk, dinner and outside without winding her up. No need to introduce roadworks, power tools, the vacuum, or screaming children to get her used to them. And, thankfully, she'll never really guard bark at the fence.
The most valuable of things however, is one I can never truly explain. The only person that can speak fluent Siren… is me. It's definitely a double edged sword. This does mean that most people don't attempt to communicate with her, even after I show them how. It's not innate or intuitive. It means that I will need to hand over an illustrated manual the size of the Yellow Pages when I eventually trust someone with her care for a weekend.
However, there's the positive side of things. We are developing our language every day, she watches our hands closely for anything she recognises. We don't just use BSL(British Sign Language), we invent faces, signs, dances, movements and touches that have the most intimate and private of meanings to her. We are the most important people in her life, not just because we're her family, but because we are the only ones that are fluent in Siren. This creates the most unbelievable bond. Coupled with the fact I studied Applied Languages at university, it's honestly a dream come true. We have my own secret code that no one else can speak.
Since working out that Siren can understand a lot more than just simple signs, we've thrown ourselves at every opportunity to learn! We travel two hours every week to attend her favourite Trick Training class. She already knows "Bang!", Roll Over, Wave, 'Cop Cop', Bow, Back Up, Speak and Whisper… soon, she'll be dropping a basketball through a hoop, riding a skateboard and even making my sandwiches! Well... maybe not that last one!
I have learned over the months that not everything has to be hand signals, we can do anything nonverbal. We dig our foot on the ground to encourage her to wee, we stroke her right ear to mean 'let go' whilst playing tug, I clap her on the flank when she's unhooked from her lead or unfastened her collar as a tactile release, and even simple visual cues like me kneeling down means we're about to have a training session. She recognises patterns ten times faster than my hearing dog, meaning that training is a lot quicker once we've worked out a method and can repeat it consistently. And without the distraction and confusion of words, it means that my attention is precious. She values it because the moment I kneel down and give her eye contact, she knows it is Siren's time to shine.
She reads context and has definitely adapted to life with us very well. She has her own mannerisms which mystify us until they make complete sense. She sleeps and rests in very specific spots in the house, waiting for the vibrations to trickle through the walls and floors to know that I'm moving. She prefers hard floors to soft carpet and concrete rather than soggy mud for this same reason. She watches shadows and senses air pressure and temperature changes, so notices when doors are opened or closed. She can even recognise Pixel's bark through the floor. She relies on him heavily for cues on when to move or that something is happening, and sometimes even beats him to the occasion!
We also have observed that she prefers to have a safe space, either her crate, an open cupboard, a table or a hidey hole. She wants to feel safe when she enjoys a chew, or sleeps, and chooses to doze under or against something rather than in the open. Being unaware of the world around her whilst she is asleep, must be the most vulnerable time for her, and she is easily spooked. This soon led to the sign "safe", to let her know that nothing has changed since she was awake and it's safe to continue sleeping.
I have to regularly remind myself that Siren is a Cardigan first. She has all the normal breed abilities, difficulties and traits, but it's combined with the fact that she cannot hear. She still herds me and my ankles, and she still has that "maybe in a minute" attitude, she still barks at nothing, anything and everything - just not because of noises. She is not limited by her deafness; she simply needs different management. Together, as a team, we can do anything a hearing dog can, it just needs to be translated first. She is the love of my life, and I wouldn't have her any other way, silly ears and all.
So what's next? We are now actively working towards helping identify the Whitehead gene which is what we believe is the culprit behind her deafness. This will mean that one day we hope to be able to test parents for the allele and recognise when there is a potential for hearing loss within the litter. And this March, Siren will be joining the Discover Dogs section at Crufts to show everyone just how amazing the breed is, and to demonstrate how deafness is definitely not a life sentence or limitation! So come and say hi - and if you'd like to - wave your best "jazz hands" at her, that's how we say hello!