An excerpt from “Setterly Yours: A Photographic Introduction to The English Setter” by Danica Barreau.
“English Setters can be born deaf. They can be hearing impaired in one ear or both and have varying degrees of deafness. Since English Setters are actively bred to be working dogs and deaf dogs are more difficult to train for hunting, some breeders will euthanize the deaf puppies. Others recognize that deaf Setters make wonderful pets and work hard to place them with the right families.
Setters that are born deaf have no idea that they have a “disability”. They behave exactly as a hearing dog would. They just have a better excuse not to listen than hearing dogs! They bark, they chew on things they shouldn’t, they point birds, and they climb in your lap for cuddles. Dogs communicate very well through body language and a deaf dog will quickly pick up both human and dog gestures. Deaf Setters can be easily trained to respond to hand signals instead of voice commands and hearing dogs in the same household learn to respond to the same hand signals. You should never expect less of a deaf Setter than you would a hearing Setter.
With patience and the use of a vibration collar, deaf Setters can even be taught to hunt. They have the same natural bird dog instinct – they just need to learn to respond to a different type of command. While this is usually hand signs, hunting requires that they respond to commands at a distance – thus the use of a vibrating collar (not a shock collar). Deaf Setters can also do agility, rally, obedience, scent work, and just about anything else a hearing Setter can do, including just laying around the house, looking pretty.
There are also advantages to having a deaf Setter. Imagine having your dog sleep through a ringing doorbell or a terrible thunderstorm. Deaf dogs pay no attention to the barking dog down the street and the vacuum sweeper is either ignored or treated like a toy.
Don’t dismiss a deaf Setter because they can’t hear. They make wonderful family pets and make you laugh and smile just as much as any hearing dog.
Technically, all English Setters are born with the ability to hear. The genetic anomaly that causes deafness in about 10% of the breed doesn’t occur until the puppies are a few weeks old. At that time, something triggers the hair cells attached to the cochlear nerve that respond to sound to start dying off. Although the reason why isn’t certain, it seems to be related to a lack of blood supply in the areas without any pigment. The pigment cells help maintain potassium levels in the cochlear necessary for proper function. To put it simply, if there’s no color in the blood vessels, the potassium levels drop, the hair cells die, and that area of the inner ear no longer responds to sound.
The hair cell damage can affect either one ear or both and in various percentages. Unilaterally deaf or uni’s (dogs deaf in one ear) can function remarkably well in a hearing-dog world, to the point that an owner might not realize they were hearing impaired.
The congenital defect for deafness is closely bound to the piebald gene that gives English Setters their beautiful spots. It is not associated with any other physical defects, unlike the merle gene in other particolor breeds that also have a problem with deafness. Although deaf English Setters make wonderful pets and live full and wonderful lives, they should never be bred and the breeding lines that produce deaf puppies should be closely examined by someone with an understanding of autosomal recessive and dominant genetic patterns.
Using coat color to determine whether an English Setter is more or less likely to produce deaf pups is not statistically useful. You can also not tell if a dog is deaf by looking in their ears. The cochlear is small and deep inside the ear and even a tiny area of depigmentation could cause deafness in a dog with the damaged gene. There are all white English Setters who hear just fine and English Setters with a lot of color who are deaf.
All English Setter litters should have a Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) test at about six weeks to check for hearing loss. The test is painless and a high level exam can be completed without anesthesia. Most university veterinary hospitals can perform a BAER test.
A recent survey of deaf English Setter owners showed that the overwhelming majority would not hesitate to own another deafie. Most of the owners also had hearing dogs in their households and were a little more reluctant to have a single deaf dog. That’s because deaf dogs are remarkably attuned to their hearing pack and use them to respond to auditory stimuli that they miss. For instance, if a deaf dog is out in the yard and you call your hearing dog to come in, the deaf one will invariably follow or at least look at you so that you can give them a visual command. The main concerns to owning a deaf dog were around distance control, loud barking, and OCD behaviors. Deaf dogs, especially visually oriented hunting dogs like English Setters, are prone to nervous OCD behaviors such as “fly snapping” and “shadow chasing”. These can be managed with positive behavior modification, exercise, and in some cases, medication.”
A video of the author doing agility with her two deaf English Setters.