Radar's Story

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Living with a deaf white Boxer

THE BOY

One of the first things I did when we agreed to take the tiny white puppy with the brindle eye patch, was do research on deafness in dogs. Any predominantly white dog is at a higher risk of being deaf than their coloured counterparts, due to the lack of pigment in their coats. White isn't a colour, per se, it's a lack of pigment. I knew this when I told Monique that I wanted the pup. Mark, however wasn't convinced that he wanted the pup, should he be deaf. He raised the concern that when we have skinbabies (as opposed to the furry kind), he thought a deaf dog would be more prone to biting out of fear when it's given a fright. This, I learnt, is one of the most widely believed myths about deaf dogs. A deaf dog is no more likely to bite than a hearing dog. They do not startle easily, and if that is a concern, there are ways to desensitize them from the time they're puppies.

At first when I told people we were getting another puppy, they were excited, but their excitement turned to "but surely you don't want a deaf dog?" and "why would you want a dog that can't hear?" when I told them about white dogs and deafness. I didn't even bother trying to explain, but after a while I realised that people really know nothing about deaf dogs, and I needed to create awareness of them.

By about 5 or 6 weeks of age, it was clear that he could not hear. When the going gets tough … the tough do RESEARCH! So, back to the internet I went and I joined the yahoo deaf dogs mailing list. On introducing myself and Radar, I got perhaps the best advice that I could ever get. I was told "your puppy is a Boxer first, personality second, and deaf last. The only difference training a deaf dog is that you speak with your hands."

Something I found out very quickly with Radar, is that he doesn't know he's deaf. He's just a normal puppy - one that tends to get rather vocal due to not being able to hear himself - but in every other way he's the same as our other Boxer, Tati. I always talk to him when I give him signs, because deaf dogs are a lot more intuitive than hearing dogs and get a lot of information from your body language. At first, Mark laughed at me when I spoke to Radar - but now he talks to Radar as much as I do. (And when asked if he thinks we made a mistake by taking Radar, he just replies "don't be silly!")

TRAINING

Radar's training started with puppy socialisation class when he was two days shy of 9 weeks old. We did some research on signs to use, and made signs for sit, down, stay, no, toilet and come – all of which he learnt within the first two weeks of being home. During the 6-week long puppy class, I made my debut as a human treat dispenser. His puppy class was a breeze and he was often the 'nerd' because he would concentrate so well and wasn't distracted by noises around him. Nobody in his class could believe that he was deaf.

Next was Beginner Obedience. This was a bit more challenging, because his other senses are so sharp due to his deafness. His sense of smell, and his peripheral vision are the two most remarkable things, but also prove a bit of a pain when I'm trying to keep his attention to do heelwork and all he wants to do is sniff the grass. I'm very grateful for a patient trainer that has helped us with him (just for the record – she has no previous deaf dog experience, just a willingness to try new ways of doing things), as well as Monique with all her Boxer expertise.

The night before Radar's beginner Obedience test, I took him out to do some training and he was just fabulous. His attention was perfectly on me. But come the morning of the test he just refused to give me his attention, resulting in him passing his test, but having to do a bridging heelwork course before his CGC course. I was very sad, more than anything else, because I know what he is capable of and I don't want people to treat him any differently to a hearing dog because really, there is no difference.

This is where we are now, and due to the amazing progress he's made, his instructor said she's sure that he could do his CGC test even though he's doing the bridging course because we have been practising everything included in the CGC curriculum. So far he knows nearly 30 hand signals, and those are only limited by my sign language skills!

Enter Monique :) For the past few weeks she has given up her time on the weekend to help with Radar's training. I was the one that needed training, and he needed to be de-sensitized to people and other dogs (when he sees other dogs, all he wants to do is play. He has never met anyone that wasn't a friend and this, although good, isn't so good when he has to exercise self-control and not approach other dogs), and Monique offered her services to help us.

Since starting work with Monique, he really has come far. I take him out at least once a day, usually in the morning, for a short training session and we've been having more good days, with fewer not-so-good ones in between. Training any dog is tough and you really have to be consistent. If there's something I've learnt about training a dog, it's that success comes when you're more stubborn than the dog!

LIVING WITH RADAR

Living with a deaf dog is no different to a hearing dog (there I go repeating myself… but its true!). If he wants something, he tells me. He is very well behaved and an absolute sweetheart to live with. Something I learnt is that wherever I am in the house, he wants to be. If I'm sitting in the study, he will curl up under the desk with his head on my foot so that he will know if I move away. He is my little white shadow that follows me wherever I go and should I "disappear" he will search the house for me ending in him curled up on my foot (even if I'm standing washing dishes) in order to "paw-tect" me. He barks like normal (I think he really likes the feel of the vibration it makes) and is always kept "in the know" by Tati. If anything exciting happens, she goes and calls him (licks his face or bites his leg until he wakes up) and then he's in on the action! However, deaf dogs don't need a hearing dog to be their ears, some actually prefer to be an only dog.

HEALTH ISSUES (What health issues??)

Please don't be fooled by people who say that white dogs are more prone to health issues than their coloured friends. There is no scientific evidence that white dogs are in any way inferior, and going by the experience that people I know have had firsthand, there is equal chance of a coloured pup having health issues (other than deafness), as a white one.

There is one precaution that owners of white dogs must take, however, and that is with their skin. Due to the lack of pigment (as I mentioned earlier) there is a risk of the dog getting sunburnt, and as in humans, too much sunburn can eventually lead to skin cancer.

The lighter side of this is that it is super easy to prevent sunburn. Every morning (apart from really dreary cold days) we spray "water babies SPF40" sunscreen on all the bits of him that aren't covered in a thick layer of fur, like the backs of his legs, his tummy, the tops of his ears and the bridge of his squishy nose. This literally takes less than two minutes and we have turned it into a game – he loves it.

PHYSIOLOGY OF DEAFNESS

All the readers out there that love facts and scientific explanations, this is for you. Because I'm a very factual person too, this was one of the first things I researched. Genetically, there is no one gene that is responsible for deafness in dogs. It really is a big genetic gamble whether or not a dog does end up deaf. Please note that here I'm talking about congenital deafness i.e. the pup is deaf by age 5 weeks. Should you have a white pup and you are worried about deafness, if it hasn't happened by 5 weeks, then it most likely won't happen unless it's caused by external factors, or old age.

Right, so the facts I'm telling you now are all fruits of the work of a Dr George M Strain from LSU school of Veterinary medicine. While I find him quite uh, let's just say that he's not my favourite person (he advocates the euthanasia of bilaterally deaf dogs), he seems to be the only person who has studied the physiology of dog deafness, although he has not done any studies on deaf dog behaviour.

Moving right along, then, what actually happens is that when a congenitally deaf dog is born, it can hear fine. During the first few days or weeks of the pup's life (usually by 3 weeks of age) the blood supply to the cochlear gets less and less, resulting in the hair cells (used to feel vibration) of the cochlear dying. It isn't known exactly why the blood supply gets cut off, but Dr Strain's hypothesis is that the melanocytes are somehow suppressed by the gene responsible for white in the coat, resulting in either unilateral (only one ear) or bilateral (both ears) deafness.

A unilaterally deaf dog will probably never even be detected, unless BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) testing is done. The only problem these dogs will have is localising a sound that they hear.

A deaf dog should not, however, be used for breeding purposes. Even if a dog is only unilaterally deaf, their puppies have three times the chance of being deaf.

A FEW (more) FACTS

The breed most affected by deafness is Dalmatians. Approximately 8% of the breed is bilaterally deaf, with 21% being unilaterally deaf. In Boxers, no conclusive studies have been done, but according to a few articles I have read about smaller studies, the figure seems to sit at about 15% chance of a white boxer being deaf as opposed to the 3% chance that a coloured boxer has of being deaf, which is not considered scientifically to be a very high number (taking into account that it's only a percentage of the breed that's actually white).

Breeds that do have a high rate of deafness, other than Dalmatians, are Bull Terriers, English Setters, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, English Cocker Spaniels and Catahoula Leopard dogs although ALL breeds have some small chance of deafness.

RADAR'S QUIRKS

I spoke earlier about Radar's peripheral vision that's so good and usually I can get his attention by waving an arm - yet his naughtiness shows when he's busy doing something he shouldn't (like trying to chew on the wall) and I try to get his attention, he ignores me. Very seldom does this happen, but sometimes he's just not interested in listening and when I try to "tell" him something he turns his head away as if to say "I can't hear you!"

In conclusion (for now, anyway) I can really say that he has brought us TONS more joy than challenges! Whenever we meet new people and they hear of his deafness, they say "oh shame" and my reply is always "no – shame would've been if he'd been put down because of his deafness. He doesn't know he's deaf - he's just a happy, energetic Boxer pup!".

Verity-Anne Doktor 2006


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