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Observations on dogs with early hearing loss

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We have moved farm (an incredible effort), and now that we have taken away the well-known context from Bonnie and Kelly (11 yo, failing eye-sight), it is Darinka's time to shine. Who knows she might work out her flank glitch yet. She loves the mountains (although by the local definition, these are not yet mountains) and the newness of it all. Bonnie will have to wait until the fencing is better, to do some work, since I can't risk her taking off in a drive to who-knows-where (e.g. nearby river). Poor lil' Bonnie.

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I know your pain, we moved farm three years ago, from our rental to the one we bought. We lived and had a small livestock operation there for ten years, what an incredible amount of stuff and junk you can accumulate over such a length of time....

Congratulations on your move!

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The problem with Kelly is that she is not aware that she can't see well and she wanders off on "expotitions" in this new and exciting place, the good side is that her sniffer works just fine. So if you call her she will trace back the tracks, rather than go in a straight line.

This is the place. What you can't see is the beautiful and barn and the sheep barn.


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Recently I came o a conclusion, which however, requires an introduction.

When I was training Bonnie I did two things:

  1. I used the trick recommended by Derek Scrimgeour of creating the path of nice voice-harsh voice. There wasn’t really a “harsh” voice” in the learning process; it was more like hot and cold game. It worked really well with Bonnie, and made her a very quick learner.


  1. When she was trained fairly well, I used to work with her using precise command mode, where I required a very exact execution of my fairly frequent commands, and a scarce command mode, where I only used the absolute minimum to get the job done. And it worked great producing a both reliable and thinking dog. The latter system evolved e.g. into “find the sheep” task, in which she would go about 400yds gather the sheep including sleeping lambs (for in this command she actually swept the area and looked for sheep), bring them all home and lie down in front of the sheep pen. This she would do while I was doing something else was not even in her sight until the final stage.

And now I have been trying to teach Bonnie hand signals, and we are not doing very well at all. Yesterday, I brought the sheep home with her and she was a rather pathetic shadow of her old self, and more importantly her reaction to my signals was zilch. And in general, her response to my teaching her optical commands I would say – if I didn’t know better- is really dumb.


And I have come to realize that Bonnie still does not know she can’t hear me. She is waiting for voice tone guidance, which I had used so abundantly for learning and with this not forthcoming she goes into the “sparse command” mode, but since she does not have enough information about the task, she becomes nervous and distressed about what to do. That’s why she looks at me (or rather is looks to me) but she does not react to the hand signals because she still expects the voice to come. But it never does. And with me teaching her optical commands she too expects that in learning the hand signals I will guide her with the tone of voice and that silence is either you’re doing ok or do whatever you think best. And when she does not know what to do, she is frustrated that I am not telling her what to do and it really shows in her work. Because in the past she could execute complicated tasks without me in sight if I chose to teach her so, but her whole purpose is to do these tasks for me.


She does not work sheep for herself but for the team work. And her not being aware that I haven’t stopped talking, but that she stopped hearing causes her distress and makes her all but unable to learn things in a new way.

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  • 4 months later...

Ok, I want to tell you something but not because I want expressions of pity or sympathy - I know that after I write this you will know quite well how I feel, and I know that you know; and you know that I know that you know (that's what you get for befriending a linguist ;) )


I discovered a more basic reason why Bonnie - the supper trooper, genius, and fast learner - does not respond well to visual training. Something that I've been worried about since I noticed the gradual loss of vision in her mother (who now sees very poorly but gets around well by smell and hearing.) Bonnie's cataract started developing sometime ago, but I thought at first I was seeing things and getting paranoid, but no - she is losing her sight and earlier than her mother. Bonnie can see ok, but the developing cataract likely makes thing fuzzy enough for her to have difficulty figuring out what the heck I am actually doing flailing my arms and differentiating gestures.


So the priority now is building a fence around our beautiful farm. Bonnie loves to work sheep and gets so excited that it is a bit dangerous. We are working on fencing the training area for beginners dogs that are raring to start training this spring, so I am hoping that this will be also a safe area for her to work sheep and be able to do it often so that she is not so terribly excited while doing it.




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Yes, I do hope our fencing in of a training area (and the yard) will help her, since my attempts to teach her with gestures has been a total failure. If we only can somehow get over the idea the "I'm not talking to her". Bonnie, as I wrote earlier, was a really excellent independent worker, and (I really don't mean to idealize her 'before' abilities) she was able to do an awful lot on her own, but at the bottom of this independent work was her (correct) conviction of what I was expecting of her. The absence of this conviction has reduced her herding ability to zero - and this is something I did not expect.


Now I just hope she will stop trying to place the entire flock in my lap, after a while :lol:


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  • 8 months later...

I've  tried to 'train' with Bonnie on balance, but you can't fool a dog like that. She knows I am just letting her noodle about with the sheep, and we are not really working. So twice a day, I break her heart by doing chores with Darinka.  And here in the new place all the well-know routines were broken and Bonnie out of her depth.

But today, I have a little bit of better news. We had fenced in there pastures, but there are areas still unfenced that are used when moving the flock from place to place.

So today I took Bonnie to the lower pasture and had this grand plan to bring the sheep on balance. The whole path of ca. 200 yds is unfenced with the following straying options: (a) neighbor's yard (2) deep dark forest (3) road with and additional option of falling into a deep ditch  (4) more deep dark forest (5) neighbor's pasture (6) really lots of  deep dark forest.  So as I said, I had  this grand plan to bring the sheep home on balance.

Fat chance.  I have the Queen of Drive after all, don't I?  I let Bonnie off the leash, opened the gate, and yes, you guessed it, before I could do anything, the flock rushed past me followed by Bonnie, who drove them at a smart pace toward home.  On the way, the sheep took a detour to have apple snacks, and Bonnie didn't know what to do, so she went forward and waited for me alert and ready (so that the sheep were between me and her.). When I eventually hobbled up the hill, she was there waiting, and I sent her on a flank to fetch the flock, which she did, and then brought them to the sheep barn. We shall gloss over the fact that Bonnie was not pleased with the tempo in which the sheep entered the pen so she  took them out and had them re-enter it properly -- for in the end everything went better than I had hoped.  

And the little rascal was happy.  Because she knows the difference between real work and pretend.  So this is can be the basis for establishing new routine and giving Bonnie work.    

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Well, you know life itself is a temporary arrangement :D .  So within this paradigm, and setting aside the still-unpacked-boxes, this farm took to us instantly :) and we are really at home here. 




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Yesterday, I risked the harder version - taking the sheep to the pasture, and everything went fine, except for having some difficulty to "call" her off at the end.   

Yes, the place is so beautiful I envy myself everyday.






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Yeah having trees is pretty cool. We do have some, a few rather pathetic rows of willows planted by the previous owners, about a km from the farm.

But it is a thing here in Iceland, forestry, and we are looking into it. Not very high on our current priority list....

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here is Bonnie taking the flock out a couple of days ago. There is no original sound because , well nothing was said obviously, and you don't need to hear me being out of breath :).  I'm sorry about the shaking  but I can't find the stabilizing function on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHRj3SECwCw&t=2s

As a comparison, here is Bonnie's teeny-lamb intelligence:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tjmegvog0-c

Bonnie's gosling intelligence:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNGYKne7AHI

And her Bonnie's ewe&lams smarts, and then she is searching for chickens and finds them, and then her penning smarts (older style with out the handler at the pen):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtJ2926VZ84

This last video she could  still hear (at 4 yo), except when I went to a clinic Iater that year  realized that I was really shouting in comparison with all other handlers.




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Your farm is so beautiful! And I'm glad Bonnie is no longer having her heart broken. My old man is losing his hearing (normal at 12.5 years) and I formally retired him from working trials a couple of weeks ago. But I can still find some jobs for him at home to keep his heart whole!

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  • 2 months later...

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