It's estimated that up to 10% of English Setters are born unilaterally or bilaterally deaf. It's a congenital defect associated with the piebald gene that gives setters their pretty spots. Unpigmented (pink) skin produces white hair. If there is unpigmented skin in the inner ear, the nerve endings atrophy and die off in the first few weeks of the puppy's life, resulting in deafness. Please note that you cannot tell the color of hairs in the inner ear by looking at any visible part of the dog's ears (including the hair around the ear canal). Although some dogs with white hair on their ears may be deaf, many deaf dogs have colored ears as well.
Some breeders may cull their litters to eliminate any deaf puppies or they may adopt them out to pet homes on a spay-neuter contract. As the popularity of the breed increases, we see more deaf setters in rescue since not all pups are BAER tested before sale. Outside of an obvious physical defect, deaf setters are just your normal everyday setters. They do have a better excuse for not listening than most dogs, but they live in our houses, sleep on our beds, play with our children, and ride in our cars. They go for walks, get birdy and point like hearing setters (only maybe more intensely because they are so focused on the bird and can't hear distractions), bark at squirrels (yes, they do bark), and at the end of the day, they collapse in front of the TV with the rest of the family. They share our lives and are our companions and friends. You should never expect less of a deaf setter than you would of a hearing setter.
Deaf setters can be trained just like hearing dogs except you use hand signals instead of verbal commands. The biggest difference between working with hearing dogs versus deaf dogs is that you need to think outside of the box. So to get their attention, you stomp on the floor or wave your arms instead of calling their name. Then sign a command. When they're outside, flip the light switch or wave your arms some more. Deaf dogs pick up on your body language in a different way. But if you think about it, dogs communicate with each other primarily through body language, and most hearing dogs will even respond better to signs than verbal commands for that reason.
Deaf dogs are every bit as loving as hearing dogs. The payoff for your extra efforts is that most deaf dogs become very focused on their people. They don't like you out of eyesight for very long and will shadow you everywhere. Oh wait ... most hearing setters do that too.
There are many other amusing benefits to having a deaf dog, such as:
- When you open a crinkly snack bag, your dog doesn't notice until the smell reaches him.
- Your dog ignores the vacuum or thinks it's a great play toy.
- You can sing off key and your dog doesn't howl.
- You can talk on the phone and still talk to your dog without a break in the conversation.
- You can enter your house with an armload of groceries and unload them before your dog greets you.
- You can sneak to the bathroom in the middle of the night and your dog doesn't wake up.
- You can look forward to July 4th and New Year's Eve because the noise doesn't bother the dog.
- Your dog sleeps through the doorbell so your visitors think he's very well behaved.
- Your dog ignores the other barking dogs on neighborhood walks.
While deaf setters are just like hearing dogs in many ways, every care should be taken to keep them safe. Deaf setters should never be off leash in an unsecured area. ACES often has deaf setters available for adoption. We adopt deaf dogs only to homes with a physical fence. The height of the fence required is dependent upon the individual dog.
For more information about deaf dogs in general, visit the Deaf Dogs Education Action Fund (DDEAF).