ACDs, also known as Blue Heelers, Red Heelers, Queensland Heelers and a host of other nicknames, are energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent working dogs. For those who have the energy and time, they can be devoted family companions.
One of the common problems with ACDs is deafness. Dr. George Strain of Louisiana University estimates that 14.5% of dogs of this breed have some degree of hearing loss. Though there is no definitive proof, it is thought that the genes responsible for congenital deafness come from the Dalmatian line that was used in developing the breed (Dalmatians have nearly a 30% chance of deafness.) Many quality breeders of ACDs will test puppies using the BAER, or Brain stem Auditory Evoked Response test. Puppies found to be deaf are euthanized. Backyard breeders are much less likely to test, and as a result, there are a number of deaf ACD dogs either for sale, or for adoption at your local shelter.
I'd like to introduce you to Allie. She's a mis-colored cattle dog, lacking neither the “blue” nor “red” coat. She is also totally deaf. This color, plus her deafness, is likely caused by a recessive gene.. I found her at the local Humane Society in 2001. Her first owners had abandoned her at a vet's office after learning of her deafness, and they, in turn, sent her to the shelter. I found her there, and knew I was the right home for her. She was nine months old, which is about the right age for an abandoned dog. That's the time that ACD puppies go from “cute” to “hellion” and many people who are unfamiliar with the temperament and training needs of herding-breed dogs usually give them up at about this age.
If you've ever owned a high energy dog, especially a young one, you are familiar with the term, “A tired ACD puppy is a good ACD puppy.” Bored cattle dogs are a danger to themselves and others. If they don't have a job to do, they will find one Unfortunately their pastimes of choice aren't always “good dog” behavior. Imagine a 9-month old teenager tearing around the house with your shoe in her mouth and a gleam in her eye, or trying to herd the cats into a corner, or trying to discover how to get into the bin to find that fabulous smelling trash, or digging at the carpet trying to find out why that one spot right there feels different under her paws than that spot over there. Now imagine not being able to say, “Allie Down! Allie No! Allie Sit!” because she can't hear a single word you're saying!
If you have a deaf dog, one of the best devices you can buy is a vibrating collar. It doesn't shock or sting the dog, it simply vibrates when you push a button on a remote transmitter. A smart dog quickly learns that a buzz on the collar means “come here for a tasty treat” then “Come here” Then, “Come here and look at me.” Eye contact is important to train in these dogs. If they can't see you, they can't “hear” you. One of the first commands Allie learned was “Look at me.” It is now a habit for her – if we are on the move, she will glance at me several times a minute, making sure she's not missing anything. She is reassured by the ASL sign for “I Love You” which is her “Good Dog!” encouragement.
Instead of using a clicker or vocal command, deaf dogs must be taught obedience commands using hand signals. I used modified American Sign Language for my dog, but some people prefer to use the standard obedience signs. It's completely up to you. Since ACDs like to have a job, they are very easy to train. Their intelligence, focus, and dedication make training time a rewarding activity for both of you. Allie is now about seven years old. She has a vocabulary of over 20 commands and is learning new tricks all the time.
The only difference between Allie and her hearing buddies is that I must keep her on a leash at all times when she's outside the home. Normally, this is not an issue since walks around the neighborhood, or trips to the “dog store” are always on-leash events. However, in remote areas where leash-free running would normally be encouraged, I will not let her go without a leash. If she sees a squirrel or other small animal and decides to give chase, she may get out of sight, or out of range of her collar transmitter and I will not be able to call her back. I never assume that her loyalty or training will override her strong prey drive. That drive is one of the key attributes of her breed.
I can understand why breeders of top-quality show dogs want to humanely euthanize deaf puppies to minimize the genetic risk to their stock. Most breeders are concerned with the improvement and continuation of a great breed of dog, and congenital deafness is a genetic defect. However, I would like to see more breeders offer their spayed or neutered deaf puppies as pets. Owners of deaf dogs will tell you – deaf dogs are no more difficult to raise or train that hearing dogs, and make wonderful family pets that add energy, enthusiasm and goofy fun to our lives. These dogs aren't “special needs” animals and they don't need special care above and beyond the attention and training that any good owner would give their dog.