About five years ago, my beloved dog and best friend, Brady, started acting a little different. When he was young, he would get so excited when I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk. He would cock his head to the side and open his eyes so wide, I thought they may pop out of his head. I’m definitely guilty of saying the word “walk” with no intention of actually taking him for a walk just so I could chuckle at his goofy expression. He always brightened my day. As he got older, I noticed I had to say the word “walk” a little louder for him to respond. He stopped greeting me at the door because he hadn’t heard me pull up in the driveway. I would have to touch him (or cook something) for him to wake up and it always startled him a little bit. Brady was losing his hearing.
Conveniently, I’d just become licensed as a Hearing Aid Specialist. My dad (a 40-year Audiologist) and I opened our practice, Albemarle Audiology, in Elizabeth City, NC. This has given me the flexibility to research and develop a hearing aid specifically for dogs. Using the resources available to me, for which I am very grateful, I’ve been able to re-purpose human hearing aids to custom fit in almost any dog’s ear, no matter how big or small. So far, I have fit seven dogs with hearing aids, including Brady, who I was in the process of fitting when he crossed the Rainbow Bridge. He was 13 years old and was battling several health issues. I received the dreaded phone call from my Veterinarian advising me to go ahead and prepare myself. Brady was euthanized a week later, peacefully, with his sweet, little head laying on my arm. I’ll never forget holding him for what seemed like hours after he was gone and sobbing into his soft, familiar fur, thanking him for helping me find a purpose in this life.
I’ve had successes and I’ve had even more failures and I can tell you in this blog some of what I’ve learned from both. I’m not an Audiologist, I’m not a Veterinarian, and I’m not a Scientist but I am an avid animal lover and an observant person. I’ve broken up deaf dogs into two groups. There are the dogs that are born with hearing loss (congenitally deaf), which are typically white, piebald, or merle/double merle. I often refer to these dogs as the “white dogs”. Congenital deafness is more prevalent in some breeds than others. Then, there are the dogs that have lost their hearing due to age, noise exposure, certain medications, or some other medical issue. Dogs of any breed or color can lose their hearing but some breeds and colors are more susceptible than others.
Both groups of dogs contain potential candidates for hearing aids but not all dogs with hearing loss will benefit from hearing aids. So far, I have determined candidacy for hearing aids by trial and error. I interview the owner and do simple tests that give me an idea of how much amplification the dog will need. There are several Audiologists around the country that perform BAER tests (brainstem auditory evoked response) on dogs. This is the same test Audiologists perform on young children and it gives more quantitative results. BAER testing is ideal, however it’s also expensive. The equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s not always the most practical approach. I hope to one day have the ability to perform BAER tests on dogs (and other animals!) in my own clinic with a network of providers around the country.
The process of fitting a dog with hearing aids is very similar to fitting a human. Once the dog is evaluated and it is determined that they are a candidate for hearing aids, impressions are taken of the dog’s ears to have the hearing aids manufactured. An impression is a custom mold of the ear canal made by injecting a material (usually silicone) into the dog’s ear to capture the exact size and shape to reproduce the most comfortable and secure hearing aid. Some dogs will tolerate the impression process without sedation and others will need a light sedation to create impressions. The impressions are then sent to a hearing aid manufacturer to be made into custom hearing aids.
The next step is to program the hearing aids to the desired settings. Once they are programmed, it’s time to put them on the dog. This part takes some patience and practice. Most dogs are very adaptable and resilient in new situations (us humans could learn a lot from them!) but they will still need a period of time to accept and get used to the hearing aids. The best way to help your dog get used to his new hearing aids is to have him wear them as much as possible. In my experience, most dogs will paw at them at first but they will eventually give up and go about their life once they realize they can’t get them out of their ears. It is usually around this time that the dog will start to respond to sounds that he doesn’t respond to without the hearing aids. I fit my sister’s senior Schnauzer, Birdie, recently. We could tell right off the bat that she was hearing better when she started wagging her little nub-tail at the sound of my sister’s voice. That one was a tearjerker!
That brings me to my final thought. The dogs that I have had the most success with, thus far, are senior dogs that have lost their hearing (most likely) due to age. What about the white dogs? I have a deaf “white dog”, Zoe, who I adopted from the Merit Pit Bull Foundation two years ago after she had been returned to the local animal shelter THREE (3) times. She was born deaf and, from what I can tell, she is profoundly deaf. She is the proud owner of the first pair of hearing aids ever made for a dog by Siemens Hearing Instruments, one of the most reputable hearing aid manufacturers in the world. She was the first dog I fit with hearing aids and, although I have not been able to figure out a successful fit for her, I am not giving up hope for her and the rest of the white dogs just yet. If there is one thing I’ve learned on my quest to help dogs hear, I’ve learned that if there is a will, there is a way and I refuse to believe that anything is impossible.