Are Deaf Dogs and Blind Dogs just like other Dogs?

Do dogs that are deaf and/or blind have specific behavioural traits? New research sets out to investigate – and finds they are very similar to dogs with normal hearing and vision.

A beautiful, blind, black-and-white senior dog
Photo: Amy Rene

By Zazie Todd, PhD

No one knows exactly how many dogs have hearing or vision problems. Congenital deafness and/or blindness occur in several breeds. In some cases this is related to coat colours – for example the double merle gene in Australian Shepherds is linked to deafness and blindness – and at other times not, as with inherited cataracts in many breeds.

Very little is known about how dogs with inherited or acquired vision or hearing disorders behave, which was the motivation for this study by Valeri Farmer-Dougan et al (in press) of Ilinois State University.

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The results showed many similarities between dogs with a hearing or vision impairment (HVI) and those without. This shows that HVI dogs can make good family pets. In fact, the non-HVI dogs were rated as more aggressive and more excitable than those with HVI. There were also some differences in specific behaviours: non-HVI dogs were more likely to chase rabbits, and to eat faeces or roll in it, whereas the HVI dogs were more likely to bark too much, lick a lot, or chew unsuitable objects.

The scientists say,
“The increased chewing, excessive barking and increased self-licking reported in the HVI dogs may be due to differences in sensory input compared to non-HVI dogs. Indeed, all the excesses in behaviour appear to be self-stimulatory in nature.” 
Because they asked owners about any other health issues, they do not think health is the cause of this difference. Instead, they think the dogs are making up for the lack of input from their ears or eyes with behaviours that engage their other senses. 

This suggests that owners of dogs with hearing or vision problems should make an explicit effort to make sure their dog has enough sensory input. Farmer-Duggan et al suggest enrichment with toys, including vibrating toys, Kongs, and chew toys, as well as training sessions to engage the dog’s brain. Many such dogs can also attend agility, flyball, obedience or even dog dance classes.

A double-merle white Australian Shepherd dog (deaf and blind)
Photo: Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock
The HVI dogs were more likely to have had formal training, perhaps because their owners thought they would need it more, or perhaps because their owners were more likely to think training is important in general. The lower levels of aggression and excitability in this group could be due to this training, and this is something that future research can investigate.

Owners of HVI dogs made adjustments to their training, for example in using more hand signs and physical prompts for deaf dogs. 

The survey was completed by the owners of 461 dogs. The hearing-impaired and vision-impaired dogs (HVI) were considered as one group since there were no differences between them. 98 dogs were deaf or had a hearing impairment, 32 dogs were blind or partially-sighted, and 53 dogs were both deaf and blind (183 dogs in total). The remainder were a comparison group of dogs without such impairments. 

The survey asked owners to complete the C-BARQ, a widely-used tool to assess the behavioural traits of dogs. In addition, there were questions about the breed, training methods used, and information about any disabilities the dog had.

There are implications for vets, who should be aware of potential problems with chewing, licking and barking in deaf and/or blind dogs. But the results are also encouraging because they do not support the idea that such dogs exhibit problem behaviours in general. 

Blind and deaf dogs are excluded from many rally and obedience programs (with notable exceptions). The authors say, “Given that no evidence was found for increased aggression, it seems that HVI dogs could successfully participate in these additional socialization opportunities. Opening up these opportunities would increase the available activities for HVI dogs. Increased opportunities for training and competition increase the general health and well-being of all dogs.”

The authors conclude that,
“Through cooperative partnerships between veterinarians, behaviorists and owners, HVI dogs can, indeed, be excellent and well-loved companion dogs.” 
These results will be especially helpful to owners and potential owners of dogs with hearing or vision impairments. The Canine Inherited Disorders Database has further information on congenital blindness and deafness in dogs.

Do you know a dog with a hearing or vision impairment?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
You might also like: Easy ways to provide enrichment for your dog and what is positive reinforcement in dog training?

Farmer-Dougan, V., Quick, A., Harper, K., Schmidt, K., & Campbell, D. (2014). Behavior of Hearing or Vision Impaired and Normal Hearing and Vision Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris): Not the same but not that different Journal of Veterinary Behavior

This article can be read in Italian (translated by Elena Grassi).

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  1. Our dog Tino developed glaucoma at age nine and was completely blind. Most people didn't know it until we told him. I'm proud to say he never, ever let it stand in his way and he continued to do all the things he did before he went blind.

  2. The study was right on with respect to HVI dogs. When I first introduced my HVI dog to my local dog club, there were many skeptics. Many bought into the old myth that these dogs were untrainable and aggressive. After watching me work with my dog, they changed their opinions of HVI dogs. HVI dogs make wonderful family pets and ARE capable of competing along side those dogs which do possess hearing and vision.

  3. My Ran was born deaf and dumped at a shelter just four days after her first owners had it confirmed by their vet that she was deaf. That was on her three-month check-up and I adopted her before she turned four months. I haven't trained her to the extent that some deaf dogs get trained, but she responds to hand signals (I use my own signals - the same ones I have always used in conjunction with verbal commands for all my dogs). Most people have no idea she's deaf until I tell them. My senior dog, Suki, has lost most of her hearing with age and thanks to my combined hand and verbal commands over her lifetime, she's adjusted without any issues to hand signals.

    I'm a volunteer rescue transport driver and had my own rescue for a while, so I have had quite a bit of exposure to HVI dogs and can say that from my experience, they are very much like any hearing, seeing dog. Dogs are extremely resilient and adaptable in general, and this goes for HVI dogs especially.

  4. I have a boston terrier who was born deaf.. she has had no professional training. I personally would take another Deaf dog over a hearing dog anyday :) she has absolutely no aggression what so ever, A strange dog can take a bone right out of her mouth without complaint. She LOVES children and can be left alone with any type of animal from the smallest Kitten to a hamster without worry. She has never chewed, however she licks 10 times more then any hearing dog I have ever own.

  5. My dog Belle just had surgery to remove the total insides of her ears. She is ten. She had Palyops (?) that comelpetely filled her ear cannels and broke through her ear drums. She has an extreme bacteria infection. We have only had her home a week. It breaks my heart. So we are just getting started on this journey. For now doing what needs to be done for her to heal. Then all that needs afterwards.

  6. I have a blind from birth Chesapeake Bay Retriever. He came to my home as a foster and I adopted him at 6 months of age. He is now 3 and is absolutely amazing. The article is right on about him barking more and being more obsessive about licking and chewing. He constantly needs chew approved toys, if not I lose a remote control or something else. However Radar does participate in weekly obedience classes, he does some agility, goes to doggie daycare, swims, hikes, retrieves. The only thing I have found is that he doesn't like to jump on things like into the car or onto the bed. He also has some stress induced seizures that we are trying to control with anxiety meds. I would love to hear/learn more about your research and participate in future studies.


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