Monday, September 30, 2013

Life after a pet's hearing loss can be less daunting when you both learn new communication skills

One chilly pre-dawn morning this past year, I quietly padded past the dog bed where I can usually find Gretchen either lightly snoozing, as she appeared to be that day or already sitting up, looking around quietly. She's always been easy to rouse, either by my simply walking by or with a quiet whisper asking if she'd like to go outside.

That morning, nothing.

My heart sank, as at 12, I was all too aware then that my time with her is limited.

I tried again, and nothing.

I reached down and softly touched her shoulder, and she woke up with a start.

What I should have realized was that she couldn't hear me, but I dismissed it as her being sound asleep. Gretchen failed to hear me again later that day as I called to her later as I was cutting up an apple to eat, as she will always come to beg for a piece. I called to her, then puzzled, I observed her as I loudly clapped my hands, then whistled.

Not even a look in my direction.

She had seemed to have lost her hearing so quickly, and of course a visit with the vet was in order. She was due to go back for a recheck after being treated for a urinary tract infection, and upon conferring with her doctor, my suspicions were confirmed: the antibiotic that Gretchen had been prescribed to treat her infection had likely caused her hearing loss. As was expected, her hearing did return, but for the few weeks that sense was gone, it was a game changer.

Gretchen has always been an engaged dog who listens well, and I was all too aware of how much she had relied on that sense to function day to day, not to mention how much we relied on it together to communicate in different ways.

I often wondered how disorienting that might be to her, to suddenly have that sense disappear.

Her sense of hearing was one thing that I capitalized on to train her as a puppy, of course. However, her training wasn't limited to simple verbal commands. I'm grateful to say that I I insisted on including hand signals along with each verbal command (sit, stay, come). Even when praising her, I would clap my hands. I have been mercilessly teased by family because of my natural tendency to not be able to talk without moving my hands, so this came quite naturally to me, I think.

I'm quite certain that over the years, she's picked up on my non-verbal communication too.

In those weeks when that one crucial sense wasn't available to her, we were able to fall back on those established and recognizable hand signals and body language, thankfully.

Those few weeks weren't without an adjustment period and a few gaffes on my part, though Gretchen seemed to fall into our new routine with ease.

A dog who has always been reliable off leash in the yard and in public, Gretchen could be easily called back without issue. But without the ability to hear me call out to her, I needed to be more aware of her whereabouts and mindful of staying out with her so that I could get her attention in other ways. On more than one occasion, I found myself forgetting and needing to go to her to get her attention. Old habits die hard!

Here are some other tips in teaching and incorporating hand signals to communicate with a pet, should the need arise due to age or, in Gretchen's case, a medically-induced cause.

First and foremost, a visit with the vet is necessary to rule out any medical issues.

It's important to remember that a hearing-impaired dog needs to focus on her handler to see visual commands that correspond to the verbal ones, for example, "sit" and "down." So, it's essential that you have a “look at me” cue or signal that gets your dog’s attention. This tells her to look at you. Then, a desired behavior can be performed by being prompted by a visual command.

To do this, prompt her to look at you in response to the "look at me" cue: give a stimulus, a gentle pull on the leash, a light touch on her shoulder or even move a treat out in front of her nose and up toward your face. As soon as she makes eye contact, mark with a “good job!” signal, such as a thumbs up, or like I do with clapping hands and follow, (or mark it) with a treat.

(The goal is to get your pooch to make eye contact when you give the first cue, like the shoulder touch or gentle leash tug, without any further prompting from you.)

Once your pet gets the hang of it, you can phase out giving the treat. Do this by moving your empty hand, still shaped like it has a treat inside it, up toward your face. Praise your pooch for making eye contact. Eventually, you'll be able to fade out the hand signal by moving your hand near your face.

You'll want to continue focusing on the wanted behavior with the “good job!” signal and a reward, or immediately ask your dog to do another behavior, such as a sit, when she looks at you.

Commands your furry pal previously learned on a verbal signal will need to be retaught with new visual or physical cue. This can be facilitated more easily if your pet still has some hearing, and is called transferring or replacing the cue. Click here for more on that.

Consistency is the key, so you'll want to be succinct, use the same signal each time you work on that desired behavior and ensure that everyone in the family (and caregivers!) are using the same signals.

As with anything else, these skills become better with practice for those on either end of the leash, and by establishing another way to communicate, you and your pet will find life easier to navigate after their hearing loss.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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