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Deaf Dane FAQ

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  • Why is my deaf Dane white?
  • Are all deaf Danes white?
  • Are white Danes Albinos?
  • Do deaf Danes startle easily, or snap at you when awoken?
  • Will deaf Danes also go blind?
  • Why are my deaf Danes eyes blue?
  • Do all deaf Danes have blue eyes?
  • Is it true deaf Danes are hard to train?
  • Can I let my deaf Dane run off leash if the area doesn't have a lot of traffic?
  • Do deaf Danes get along with other dogs?
  • Is it true you can never really trust a deaf Dane?
  • Do deaf Danes tend to fight with other dogs more?
  • Are deaf Danes always afraid because they can't hear?
  • My Dane is supposed to be deaf but he seems to hear things sometimes, why?
  • Is it hard to get a deaf Dane's attention?
  • Do deaf Danes live as long as "normal" Danes?
  • Does my deaf Dane need special food or unusual care?
  • Do I need to use special hand signs with a deaf Dane? Can I use ASL (human sign language)?
  • Should deaf Danes be Temperament Tested?
  • Bite Inhibition Article

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    Why is my deaf Dane white?

    There is a direct connection between your Dane's deafness and their color. The same genes that affect their color also affect their hearing and their vision. When people talk about "white" Danes they seldom mean a pure white Dane. Most "white" Danes have some patches of color, generally black and/or gray. However, it is possible for the patches to be almost any color a Dane can come in. You can have a dog with blue or fawn patches, or even brindle patches. The key is the dog will generally be mostly white.

    In the early embryo a collection of cells, called the neural crest cells, form. These will eventually differentiate to form parts of the nervous system and other things, including the melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment and coloring on a dog. The genes that affect the coloring can also therefore easily affect the other parts of the body that develop out of these neural crest cells, such as the ears and eyes. This is why there is always a concern when a "white" puppy is born, about it being deaf and/or blind.

    But not all deaf pups are "white," many have a lot of color. The rule of thumb is that the less color, the greater the risk of hearing and vision impairment. And generally, a lack a pigment around the head, and especially the ears, will also indicate a increased risk. But, as with all rules, there are exceptions. Danes can have a lot of color, even around the head and ears, and still be deaf and/or blind, and pure white Danes can hear and see just fine.
    For more on how deafness and color are genetically related in the great Dane, go here. 

    According to our understanding of the genetics at this time, there are two genes that affect the amount of color a Dane will have and can lead to deafness and vision problems, the M series gene (called the merle gene) and the S series gene (sometimes called the white spotting gene). Merle is a splotchy gray color pattern that generally overrides a base color such as black or blue. All harlequins carry at least one copy of the merle gene. The harlequin gene overrides the merle gene, turning the gray areas mostly white and generally producing a dog with black patches on a white background. However it is possible for some of the merle coloring to show through and to have a dog with black and gray patches on a white background. If a dog has two copies of the merle gene, the color will be washed out even more, generally resulting in a dog that is predominantly very pale gray or white in color.  And a harlequin with the double merle genes will almost always be "white" or severely "undermarked."

    The white spotting gene is much more complicated than the merle gene because there are several possible options with this gene. The merle gene is simply either on (M) or off (m). so a dog can only be mm (not merle, neither parent supplied a copy of the merle gene), Mm (has a single copy of the merle gene, only one parent supplied a copy), or MM (has a double copy of the merle gene, both parents supplied a copy of the gene). But the white spotting gene has more than an on/off option. The gene can be on (S) or it can be off (s), but it can also be off in several special ways including "Irish Spotting" (si), Piebald (sp). and Extreme White Spotting (sw). Between this complexity of the gene itself, plus other factors that can modify the gene's effect, it is very difficult to look at a dog with the white spotting gene and determine the specific genetics behind it. For more on the merle and white spotting genes and their effects, go here.

    If you want to know more about Great Dane genetics in general go here. And to see more example photos of various color patterns and info on the underlying genetics, go here.

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    Are all deaf Danes white?


    While there is a connection between a lack of pigmentation and hearing and vision problems, there is no hard and fast rule about the relationship between the two. There are pure white dogs that see and hear just fine, and dogs with lots of color who are deaf and/or blind. All you can really say is the risk of vision and hearing problems is higher in dogs that are white. As discussed above, the cells in an embryo that develop into the melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment, also develop into the nervous system, so what affects one, can easily affect the other.

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    Are white Danes Albinos?

    First off let's set the record straight about the "color" white. There is no such thing. White is simply the lack of pigment.

    And no, there is no such thing as an albino Dane, despite what some breed standards and books may indicate. At least there has never been a recorded case of a Dane with albinism. Albinism is not the same as simply being white. Albinism is caused by a specific gene, referred to as the C series  (actually there are two gene series that cause albinism in humans, the C series gene and the P series gene), An albino is by definition unable to produce tyrosinase, and it is this inability that leads to their lacking all pigmentation. There has never been a case of a tyrosinase negative Dane or any tyrosinase negative dog. Some other breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers, Pekingese, Saint Bernards, Samoyeds, and Pomeranians are referred to as "albinos" but  technically this is incorrect. However even if you want to call those dogs albinos, the actual genetic cause of the abnormal pigmentation in those breeds is not shared by Danes anyway. For more on the so-called albino dogs, go here. 
    These "albinos" are not white either. They range in coloration depending on exactly how the gene has affected their development. Click herehereand here to see some variations in "albino" Doberman coloring.

    Isn't albinism just like the merle trait? It can make dogs "white," right? So how can you possibly know whether a dog is an albino or a double merle?

    Many people confuse the merle trait with albinism. However, albinism is a recessive trait, while the merle is an incomplete dominant trait. This means that a dog who is heterozygous for the merle trait (heterozygous = one copy of the "merle" gene, and one copy of the "normal" gene) will appear merled, but will probably have none of the health complications of the trait. Therefore, it is possible to have the merle appearance
    while still avoiding the adverse effects associated with homozygous animals (homozygous = two copies of the "merle" gene), simply by breeding heterozygotes (merles) to normal dogs.

    In contrast to the merle trait, the albino appearance exists only in homozygous animals. The heterozygotes (carriers) will not have the albino appearance. So unlike the merle trait, albinistic appearance AND the adverse effects only occur together and only in the homozygous animals. Therefore, it is impossible to have the appearance while still avoiding the adverse effects associated with the albinism trait.

    Bottom line is lack of pigmentation is always a problem, the actual cause is not really all that important. No species does as well without pigmentation. When you see white, you are seeing problems in the offing. The only exception would be animals like the Polar Bear who appear white because of the make up of the fur. But these animals have pigment, generally the skin below that "white" fur is dark, and their noses and eyes will be dark or well pigmented. These are specialized adaptations for extreme cold weather environments and are not the same thing as the sort of white we are talking about when we discuss white Danes. A lack of pigmentation is not a survival oriented trait. If it were, the condition would not be as unusual in nature as it is.

    I know that several books have been published about deaf Danes where they called the Danes albinos, including one many people mistakenly think I had something to do with, called Amazing Gracie. But trust me, there are no albino Danes, deaf, white or otherwise. And yes I own a Dane named Gracie, and I own a deaf Dane, and my name is Marc, but I swear I had nothing to do with that book. :-)

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    Do deaf Danes startle easily, or snap at you when awoken?

    No more so than any Dane. Some do not like to be jostled when sleeping, others could care less. Mostly it has to do with how the dog was raised and whether it is used to sleeping with other dogs. Generally the ones who do startle will growl or snarl rather than snap. There are ways to work on this issue with your deaf Dane if they have this problem. It is certainly not a common problem with Danes, deaf or not. 

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    Will deaf Danes also go blind?

    While the genes that cause deafness can also affect vision, and most deaf Danes do have eye abnormalities, blindness or serious vision problems are not all that common in deaf Danes. Just as with hearing Danes, some deaf Danes are born blind, or with degenerative vision problems that will lead to blindness eventually. But the vast majority see just fine and will not loose their sight as they grow up. If you get a deaf Dane puppy that can see well, the chances of it going blind are no worse generally than with a hearing Dane, but it pays to have a vet examine your deaf Dane puppy's eyes and vision and let you know if there is any chance of their vision degenerating as they grow up. If you are adopting an adult Deaf Dane that can see, the risk of their vision degenerating is no worse than for any Dane. Your rescue should be able to tell you if they think there is a potential problem, and you should always take a new dog to your vet for a full check up as soon as you get them. Your vet will be able to tell you if there are any potential problems looming.

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    Why are my deaf Dane's eyes blue?

    Again, our current understanding is that this is tied to the same genes that cause the lack of pigment and the hearing and vision problems. Blue eyes in this case are not blue because of a blue eye gene, but because of a lack of pigment.

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    Do all deaf Danes have blue eyes?

    No. Some have two brown eyes. Some have one blue and one brown. Our own deaf girl, Delilah is like this. She also has defects in both eyes. She sees just fine, however. While there is a connection between the blue eyes, white Danes, deafness, and blindness, the two are not tied together. You can have a hearing dog with blue eyes and a deaf dog with brown eyes.

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    Is it true deaf Danes are hard to train?

    We asked Tenchi, the semi-official deaf Dane spokesdog to answer this one, but he said he had a lot of reading to catch up on and was too busy to answer silly questions like that. He said answering questions like that was the sort of thing humans were for. So here is our best answer:

    Absolutely not. In fact most deaf dog owners report their deaffies learn faster and more easily than their hearing counterparts . Our experience is that they learn just as easily and quickly as any other Dane. We have found that the reason most people find their deaf Danes learn more easily and faster is because visual communication is a more natural format for dogs than auditory, so it is easier for a dog to learn a hand sign than it is a spoken command. This ties in with current scientific findings that indicate dogs communicate with one another in large part with visual cues and signals.

    The old myths about deaf dogs being pig headed and difficult to train are just not true. The problem was with the trainer, not with the dog being deaf. Of course any deaf dog will follow the general trends of his breed. If you get a deaf dog from a breed that is difficult for most owners to train, your likely going to find the same is true of your deaf dog. Danes are generally easy to train and that is just as true for deaf Danes as hearing Danes.

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    Can I let my deaf Dane run off leash if the area doesn't have a lot of traffic?

    Well of course you can, but you probably shouldn't. :-)

    Just as with any dog, you can train a deaf Dane to come when called (you just have to find a way to call them, such as with a vibrating collar), as well as not to wander away, but there is always a risk with any dog that is not leashed, that they may become confused, frightened, or just decide today is the day they want to take off. We know from first hand experience. Our position is it just isn't a good idea and is not something worth risking. In fact we make it part of the contract that you not let them off leash unless they are in a confined area. If you feel you must do this, you will need to train your dog to a higher level than most people do. But do not get complacent just because your dog recalls well in training. The real world can throw you some real curve balls, and that 100% reliable recall dog may just take off on you out there one day. Usually at the worst possible time. Add to that the loose and stray dogs that can suddenly come charging at your dog, and the whole idea just becomes too risky.

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    Do deaf Danes get along with other dogs?

    Just as much as any Dane, at least if they are properly socialized as puppies and are used to being around other dogs. This is part of the reason we run our rescue the way we do. We want all our dogs to get used to being with other dogs. We generally have a bunch of Danes running free in our house. While not all of the dogs will be fast friends, they tend to get along just fine.

    This doesn't mean they are going to instantly befriend every strange dog that comes up to them, nor should they. That is just not the way dogs are, and to expect that is like expecting a politician to tell the truth. You might get what you want now and then, but mostly it's a risky thing.

    It all depends on the other dog. If the dog is polite and respectful and behaves well, things will generally be fine. If the dog is rude, stupid or aggressive, well, any dog will protect itself, that has nothing to do with being deaf. And you really can't blame a dog that was minding its own business and had to defend itself against some dog that came running at it. As an owner of a very large and powerful dog, you will bear the lion's share of the responsibility for seeing to it that meetings with strange dogs do not get out of hand. And most often it will be the owners of the rudest and least socially acceptable dogs that will scream the loudest when your Dane snarls or snaps to defend itself. So be prepared.

    This is why we do not like off-leash dog parks. The whole idea of them is wrong and is based on the owner's needs and behaviors, not the dog's. Strange dogs do not just run up to one another and instantly make friends. In fact, in the dog world, a strange dog risks injury and even death if it comes into another pack's territory. To ask a bunch of strange dogs to all meet in a park and be friends is just wrong headed. Especially since most dog owners refuse to learn anything about dog behavior or etiquette and expect dogs to act like little furry humans. A dog that runs straight up to another and paws at it trying to get it to play
    (you know, your average Golden Retriever), is rude and behaving badly. But most dog owners fail to see anything wrong with this behavior. On the other hand they will condemn the dog that snarls back when this happens, even though that is polite dog behavior. The growls are polite warnings in the dog world, telling the dog it has done something rude and needs to back off. For more on this topic, check out this article.
    Also check out my Bite Inhibiton article

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    Is it true you can never really trust a deaf Dane?

    Oh Lord, how this ever got started is beyond me. You can trust a deaf Dane just as much as any Dane. I'll put my trust in a deaf Dane over hearing dogs of several other breeds. A deaf Dane is a Dane first and foremost. They will act and behave just like any other Dane. If you trust dogs in general, you can trust a deaf Dane. If you trust Danes in general, you can trust a deaf Dane. Of course you have to look at each dog as an individual, and there are deaf Danes that may be untrustworthy, just as there are hearing Danes that are untrustworthy. But deafness has nothing to do with it. Forget anything you have heard that implies a deaf Dane will somehow be different than a hearing Dane, because it just is not so.

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    Do deaf Danes tend to fight with other dogs more?


    As puppies, their socialization period may have involved more snapping, biting and snarling, but that wasn't really fighting.

    Because they do not hear the cries and warning snarls of their playmates, and they are too young to have learned to read body language and facial expressions, a deaf puppy will tend to get into more "arguments" with its playmates than a hearing puppy. The process of socialization and learning bite inhibition takes a bit longer and is more tumultuous with a deaf puppy than a hearing puppy. This is one of the few areas where owning a deaf Dane will be different than owning a hearing Dane. But the deaf Dane is not more likely to fight or be more aggressive. As I have said elsewhere, how they are raised will have more to do with this than whether they are deaf or not.

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    Are deaf Danes always afraid because they can't hear?

    This is another one of those myths that just won't die. This is absolutely untrue. They have no idea they are any different than any other dog. They have always been deaf and don't know that there is any other way to be. They assume all dogs, people, and animals are just like them, though they may eventually learn that there are some dogs who seem to react to stuff they don't catch. They are not scared because to them there is nothing unusual or scary about how they are. A dog can tell more about the world around them with their nose than we can with all 5 of our senses. Being deaf does not affect them much at all. Do you walk around all the time scared because you don't have x-ray vision? Of course not. Unless you're a big comic book reader, you probably never even think about not
    having x-ray vision. Same for a deaf dog and sound. It simply is not part of the world as they know it.

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    My Dane is supposed to be deaf but he seems to hear things sometimes, why?

    Oh this is one of those questions we get asked all the time, this and "is he really deaf?"

    Your deaf Dane may have some hearing. If you care and think it is important, you can test this yourself. Or you can get the definitive test, the BAER test, done. Here's what we do to test the dogs we get in rescue. When they are asleep, we stand out of sight and blow on a referee's whistle. If they wake up, they can hear something. How they react will tell us how much they hear and if it is in one or both ears. If they sleep through it, they are deaf as far as we are concerned. You can not use a clap or other plosive or percussion sound, as they may feel that, either through the floor, or through the air.

    Most often when someone thinks their deaf Dane can hear, what is really going on is the dog is picking up on some other cue. They feel the vibrations, or the wind currents, or a smell, or something we do not sense. Or they see something. Whatever the specifics, they are generally not hearing anything, they are picking up on some other cue.

    Dogs are masters at this. We do not generally even realize how good they are at this. But then we get a deaf dog and they are reacting to things, and we assume they are hearing something, because we are unable to pick up on the cues they are catching. Bottom line, test if you want, but don't sweat it. Whether your dog can hear or not is just not all that important to them, and it shouldn't really matter to you either.

    We take our deaf dog Delilah out to event all the time, and people are always arguing with us, certain that Delilah heard something. Most of the time we just tell folks they are mistaken and that it was a coincidence or something. Every now and then we prove our point. She is deaf, stone deaf. She also has responded appropriately to verbal commands more times than we can remember. And even once barked at the doorbell.

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    Is it hard to get a deaf Dane's attention?

    No, not really.

    We have found that deaf Danes generally are better at paying attention to their owners than hearing Danes. This is because they can't rely on their hearing to locate the owner and identify what the owner is up to. So they have to literally keep an eye on their owners. This makes them naturally more focused on and attentive to their owners. And it is easy to reinforce this by simply giving out treats, rewards, and attention. There are two basic ways to go about this, and you can use either one or both. First is to give them a food treat anytime they look at you. They will very shortly be looking at you all the time, trust me. The other way is to simply randomly offer food treats anytime the dog is in eyesight, displaying the treat for 5 seconds.
    If the dog happens to look over while the treat is being displayed, they can have the treat. If they do not look your way during those 5 seconds, make a point of getting their attention and then putting the treat away while they watch. Fairly quickly they will be getting more treats than they miss, and focusing on you a lot. With both methods you want to eventually replace the treats with your praise and attention. However, we have never had to resort to training any deaf Dane to pay attention to us. Mostly we wish they would pay a little less attention. :-)

    Of course their are times, when they are outside playing in a group for instance, when they will not look at you all that much, and may even willfully ignore you. Their ignoring you is just normal dog behavior, and can be trained out. And their failure to look your way is seldom more than a minor inconvenience. At night the answer is easy, flash a light of some sort. They will come running to see what's up. If you give them a treat, you will reinforce their coming when the light is flashed and soon you will be able to use a flashing light to call them in. However this won't work during the day. You have several options available for daytime recalls. You can A)go out and get in their line of sight, B)use a vibrating collar, C)toss a tennis ball (or other soft item) out into their line of sight, or D) wait until they happen to look your way. We variously use A, C, and D. We have found the vibrating collar more hassle than it is worth. However, if you live on acreage you might find it useful.

    In the house they are almost always looking at you every few seconds. If they aren't or if they are asleep you can stomp your foot and most often they will feel the vibration and look at you to see what's up.

    Getting a deaf Dane's attention is not a problem, and if it is, it has nothing to do with their being deaf. Selective hearing is something all dogs suffer from, even deaf ones. In fact some deaf Danes learn to look away when they do not want to listen to you.

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    Do deaf Danes live as long as "normal" Danes?


    There is no reason why a healthy deaf Dane will not live as long as a healthy hearing Dane. And generally our experience is deaf Danes are generally as healthy as hearing Danes. No one has really tracked their longevity or health problems statistically, and I supposed there could be a slightly higher risk of illness or injury, but we have never noticed any such thing, nor have any of the deaf Dane owners we've spoken to.  I am certain that where you live and what you feed your Dane has a much greater affect on their health and longevity than their being deaf does.

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    Does my deaf Dane need special food or unusual care?

    No, not any more than any Dane would.

    Danes are a special breed and they have some special requirements. For example you should never feed a Dane puppy food, not even when they are puppies, not even the so called large breed puppy foods on the market. What a Dane puppy needs is a super-premium, high quality food. And even as an adult, this is what a Dane needs. No cheap supermarket dog foods for a Dane, deaf or otherwise. Plan to spend about $30 or more for a 40 lb. bag of food. And an adult Dane will go through about one bag a month.

    What we look for in a dog food:
    We look for a food with no by-products, only natural preservatives, multiple high grade protein sources, probiotics, enzymes, whole ground grains rather than mill fractions, easily assimilated minerals and vitamins, a proper balance of Omega fatty acids, all natural ingredients, and of course the dogs need to like it.We avoid foods with soy and wheat. Some dogs will also have problems with beef and corn, though certainly not all. In fact we have had several dogs who actually did best on a beef and corn based diet. Here is a handy way to assess a food brand.

    There are a few other areas where Danes need special care, such as anesthesia, but again this is common to all Danes and has nothing to do with their being deaf.

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    Do I need to use special hand signs with a deaf Dane? Can I use ASL (human sign language)?

    Well this is certainly a hotly debated topic in some circles. But the bottom line is, no you do not need to use any special hand signs. And yes you can use ASL, or whatever the human sign language is in your area (ASL stands for American Sign Language so it is not a universal sign language). Though in our experience ASL is not the best choice for dogs unless you modify it, in which case it's big benefit, that it is a universally recognized and well known format, is lost to a large degree. Here's why:

    There are some things to consider when selecting signs to use with your deaf Dane. Most dogs do not see as well in normal light as humans, and their discrimination ability is also less acute.

    Signs that work with humans may well be a blur or confusing to a dog. Add to this the fact that most deaf Danes have eye defects that affect their vision to some degree, though generally not enough to affect their normal day-to-day lives, and you can see why it is important that the signs you use be clear, easy to see, and easy to differentiate one from another. Besides you will find you are using the signs at distances of 10 to 50 yards with your dog, distances human sign language was not designed for. Certain ASL signs will work fine, especially as part of a vocabulary designed to work together and be easily differentiated. Other ASL signs will work if modified, but then you will lose part of the rationale for using ASL, the ability for others to communicate with your dog.

    We use a combination of carefully selected signs. Some are ASL or based on ASL, others are taken from standardized canine obedience commands. The rest we make up. We look for large signs that can easily be seen from at least 25 yards. We want one handed signs because you often will not have two free hands. We want signs that are not likely to be confused with one another. And that are uncomplicated with with few motions and simple motions. And signs that do not rely heavily on finger positioning.

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    Should deaf Danes be Temperament Tested?

    A lot of shelters are now pushing this concept and implying that only a "Temperament Tested" dog should be considered safe or adoptable. This is one of those issues that is really not deaf related at all. All dogs should be behaviorally evaluated by someone qualified and who is familiar with the breed. This is not in any way the same as the standardized temperament tests used by shelters, that have become so popular in the animal welfare field lately. The idea of standardizing the process sounds like a good idea, but it is not really possible to achieve this goal even with a standardized "test." There are a lot of issues surrounding this concept that prevent it from being feasible.

    And sadly the concept has been conscripted by many shelters as a way to "cull" the shelter population, without having the that are dogs culled (and euthanized) via the testing, counted against the shelter as "kills." Most people do not realize that many "No-Kill" shelters do in fact euthanize a significant portion of the animals arriving at the shelter. The animals do not show up in the official statistics, because they were Temperament Tested, failed the test and were labeled as unadoptable, and were euthanized. Unadoptable animals are not counted when calculating the statistics the shelters use to show their kill percentages or to show that they are a No-Kill facility. They are treated the same as dogs who were too sick and had to be "humanely euthanized."

    A behavioral evaluation is very different. It is not done in a controlled and hard standardized way, as temperament testing is. It is not done while the animal is under unnatural stress, such as while being confined in a shelter facility. And it need not be done all at one time. It can vary widely from a formal uniform reporting system, to the verbal observations of the evaluator based on their time with the dog over a period of hours, days or even weeks. Sometimes it may simply be the unstated familiarity of the rescuer based on having lived with the animal for weeks or months at a time.

    That is basically what we use. All our Danes live here with me and I get to know them really well. I use my training and my familiarity with the breed, and with each dog, to develop a sense of what each dog is like. While this is not as scientific or as controlled as the formal testing, I am able to develop a deeper understanding of what each dog is like and what their personality quirks are. I am able to do this because I live with the dogs for extended periods of time. I am able to learn more about the dogs and come to understand them much more deeply than any tester possibly could.

    I believe all rescues should do this. I believe it is one of the added values that a rescue and only a rescue can offer. Shelters by the very nature, do not have the time to devote to each dog that this approach requires. And I do not believe that any Temperament Test can possibly make up for that lack of time spent becoming familiar with each animal as an individual. In fact I think that temperament testing actually is a step in the wrong direction, especially as it is implemented by most shelters at this point in time. Almost no dog I know could pass the testing. None of my own dogs would. If you want to learn more about the problems with temperament testing  be sure to read this article.

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    Note this based on an article I wrote for the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund newsletter in 2003

    Bite Inhibition
    Learning to Cooperate
    By Marc Sayer

    When people talk about dog behavior, there are a number of terms they tend to use. Aggression, Alpha, dominant, pack leader, resource guarding, separation anxiety, these are but a few of the current popular terms of the dog behavior field.

    One term you hear far less often is bite inhibition. And generally you hear it being used in reference to a specific dog. This or that dog lacks good bite inhibition. Its use in terms of a dog's development is far less common. And that's too bad, because in a sense, the process of learning bite inhibition is the foundation for learning how to work with others. And that is the foundation for all training.

    In that sense, all training stems from a dog's early learning processes. And in many ways the most important of these is learning how to control or inhibit the natural tendency to bite.

    As anyone who has had puppies can attest, young puppies are little vampires. They have sharp little teeth and they use them without much control. As these puppies play with their mother, their litter mates, and with other dogs in the pack, they learn the need for control over how hard they bite, and how to develop that control.

    Dogs are capable of incredible control. They can execute a strike at lightning speed. And they can do so while also controlling with almost unbelievable precision just how hard they clamp down with their jaws. A dog can move in, snap and step back leaving just the faintest of dimples in the skin. Or they can just as easily step back to reveal a major wound.

    The process by which a dog learns this control is so unremarkable to the outside observer, that we often forget it is even happening. Puppies play, they scuffle and snarl, and yelp and howl. They bite and shake, and chew on one another, on their mother, and on pack mates. We take it all in stride, as part of normal puppy play. But in reality it is much, much more than that.

    During this play, they move back and forth between the roles of teacher and student almost seamlessly. In doing so, they learn that roles are dynamic when working with other creatures, and that you must read your playmates, adapt how you act and react, and cooperate, in order to get what you want. Our puppies are learning how to communicate, how to express themselves, and also how to “listen” to their playmates. They are also learning how to control their mouths and bodies, and how to adjust their actions to suit the situation and the actions of others. In other words they are learning the fundamentals of self-control.

    Self-control is an even more unusual term in the world of canine behavior. Many trainers and dog owners believe that we must exert control over our dogs, and that they are incapable of learning self-control. Too few trainers talk about or recognize the importance of a dog having self-control and even fewer work towards fostering a dog's self-control. In fact, many trainers seem to train to eliminate a dog's desire to exercise self-control. How many of us have seen a trainer tell someone not to reward, or even to punish, his or her dog for anticipating a command? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why the dog should not be rewarded for knowing what it was supposed to do next and taking the initiative to do so? If your child did that, would you punish them or withhold a reward? Then why do so many people seem to feel it is necessary to do so when working with dogs?

    Of course there are reasons for not wanting a dog to anticipate in some circumstances. But some trainers seem to generalize this to almost all situations. There are areas where self-control is not only accepted, but is trained for. Many working dogs, such as herding dogs, S&R dogs, military dogs, and service dogs, are expected to take the initiative in some situations and often will exercise not only control over their own actions, but control over their handler's actions as well. Just think about how ineffective a Seeing Eye dog would be if he were unable to exercise self-control and initiative.

    Remember a dog in the wild lives its whole life in control of itself. Dogs are, in essence, hard-wired for initiative, self-control, and cooperation. That's why they were able to adapt to living with humans so well. A dog living in a pack must be able to control itself and adapt to the needs of the pack. And if it is a high-ranking member of a pack, it will also exercise some control over other dogs as well. However, the dictatorial view of a pack that has become so popular, is far from accurate. A pack works because of cooperation and an agreement by all to play their part, not because of the maniacal control and dominance of a “pack leader.”

    All of this self-control, initiative, and cooperation, starts in the earliest lessons a pup gets from its mother, its siblings, and its pack mates. And perhaps the most important of those lessons is that of bite inhibition. Why? Because it involves not only lessons on control over one's body, but also lessons on control over one's emotions and responses, lessons on cooperating with others, lessons on trusting others, and lessons on playing a part in the group.

    An interesting aspect of this process is that it is based on the natural and intuitive use of positive punishment, something that has fallen out of fashion in dog training today. When a dog bites too hard, its playmate punishes it, often by biting in response, as any puppy owner can attest. But before that happens, the playmate will offer a series of escalating cues to warn the pup and try to avoid having to resort to a severe aversive, such as biting. First the playmate will whine. If that doesn't work they will generally escalate to howling. If that fails, they move up to posturing, then snarls and growls. Failing that, they will air snap, which is a last ditch attempt to get what they want without resorting to the most aversive response and risking the situation escalating into a fight. And finally, when all else has failed they will resort to the final step, biting. They keep this as a last resort because they understand that this response will involve a scuffle, as the other dog will react in kind. Dogs generally do not want to fight and will try hard to avoid doing something that will lead to a fight. Of course there are exceptions, and if you are dealing with one of the exceptions, you need to handle things very carefully.

    Technically, the playmate is teaching the other dog to respond to each level of cue by associating that level with the following level. They snap, the air snap being in effect a command telling the other dog to stop what it is doing. And when the other dog doesn't react correctly, they punish it by biting. Once they have made that association between the air snap and a bite, the air snap can act as a stand in for the bite, and as such, is effectively an aversive in and of itself. They growl, failure to react correctly to the growl is punished with an air snap, and eventually the growl comes to serve as a stand in for the air snap, which is acting as a stand in for the bite. And so on, until they have learned to lighten up on their bite when they hear their playmate whining, to avoid any further less desirable response.

    At least that's how it is supposed to work. And most often it does, in part because we are used to the process in puppies and are more accepting of the noises and occasional tiffs that are involved, and in part because they learn so quickly to respond to the earlier, less severe cues.

    But we have deaf dogs that can not hear those earlier, less severe cues. Yet our deaf dogs do seem to learn all this for the most part. So how can they learn this if they are unable to hear the lower level cues?

    The best answer is they learn it the same way, but they respond to the visual or tactile aspects of the cues. Initially they need the response from the other dogs and people to be visual or tactile, and often they need the responses to be more severe than usual, because at least at first, the deaf dog is not able to pick up on the initial cues. So the deaf dog's job is made more difficult because of their inability to discern the auditory cues that a hearing dog would pick up on right away. And their playmate's job is more difficult because they have to learn that the deaf dog does not respond to the warning sounds that most other dogs do. This makes the process harder and often causes it to take longer. It also alters the nature of the interaction. It changes the look, feel, and sound of the process, because harsher, more confrontational cues will often be needed at first.

    This process will, of necessity, involve a lot more air snaps and bites, and will look and sound more like fighting than playing in many cases. We have found in our rescue that this is one of the biggest differences in raising a deaf dog. Their socialization process can take longer and seem more tumultuous than a hearing dog's would because of their difficulty in discerning cues, and because the other dogs must learn to adapt how they respond when dealing with a deaf dog.

    But there is often another impediment that interferes with the process, and that is how we deal with it. Because the process may look and sound a lot more like fighting than playing, we tend to be more likely to intervene, and to intervene sooner. And that intervention can interfere with their learning. In raising any dog, you have to walk a tightrope between protecting the dogs and letting them learn.  But with a deaf dog, this particular learning process doesn't sound or look right to us. We hear and see what we interpret as fighting, and think we need to step in. Or we see lots of small little scabs and bite marks and think they are fighting, so we keep a closer eye on them and try to make them stop.

    We mean well, but we are really doing them a disservice. What we are doing is interfering in their “schooling” and making it harder for them to learn these vital lessons.  

    In our rescue we generally don't intervene in their play and scuffles. We let them learn the same way that dogs have always learned. The only difference being that there is more violence involved at first. Both deaf and hearing dogs are learning to live with one another in this process, just as would be happening in a group of hearing dogs. The process just looks and sounds a little different. Eventually the deaf dogs will learn to "read" facial expressions and body language, and will take warning from a growl even though they do not hear it. And the hearing dogs will learn to adjust their responses to accommodate the needs of the deaf dogs. We feel that by intervening we interfere with the natural learning process. While an intervention will stop the immediate conflict, it will not do anything to further a permanent solution or to teach the dogs anything. Of course you do not want any of them to get hurt, or for them to become fearful of one another. So you do need to limit the play sessions at first, monitoring them and controlling how far they go and how ferocious they get. But the eye is toward letting them learn how to give and get feedback appropriately, and how to understand and react to that feedback, rather than toward stopping their "fighting."

    Unfortunately, in rescue we often see older dogs who have not been properly socialized and who have not learned these vital lessons. Then part of our job, perhaps the biggest part, is to safely guide them through this process at an age when they can inflict serious harm on another dog if the play gets out of hand, and when they are not predisposed to learn this lesson. Just as with people, puppies come preprogrammed to learn certain things at certain times in their development, a sort of window of learning. It is much harder, sometimes even impossible, to teach certain things if you miss that window. A puppy is not really coordinated enough to do another pup serious injury, nor is it temperamentally prepared for that, so this is the perfect time for it to go through the bite inhibition process. The risk of injury from play getting out of hand is reduced due to their lack of basic skills, and because they are also dealing with other older dogs that can easily put them in their place.

    On the other hand, trying to teach an adult dog these same lessons poses a much higher risk of injury, and will be more difficult because the dog is not in that window of learning. For puppies some of the assets of that window are their boundless energy, inquisitiveness, desire to play, general acceptance of bumps and bruises, ability to shrug things off, and a lack of hormone driven aggressive tendencies. In the older dog we do not get the benefit of all these assets, and this makes our job as caretakers harder. But it is still just as critical for the dogs to learn these lessons.

    Small punctures, scabs, bald spots, etc. are normal with puppies because of this learning process, and if a dog has to go through it as an adult you will see the same sort of things, only bigger. These are not important. Our rescue dogs are usually a mass of small "play wounds." On the other hand, if you seriously believe that a dog is going to be injured, or if the dogs are becoming afraid of one another, then you need to step in and limit the play times so they don't get to that point. Keep them shorter, distract the dogs when play starts to get too rough.  Don't step in and stop them, just distract them with something more interesting. Let them learn gradually. Sometimes letting things go further, sometimes distracting them sooner. But slowly let them have more and more control over their play. Eventually they will be able to handle it all on their own. As I said earlier, part of what they are learning here is self-control and cooperation, which I believe are critical to a happy healthy life in dogs and people.

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