Fading into Silence

As I type this post, I’m listening to music, streaming through my computer.

One song – by Paul Winters – opens with the sound of several Canada geese honking.

Normally, such wildlife sounds would be enough to excite Finn, waking him from his nap on a dog bed three feet behind me to jump up and run outside, certain the geese needed to be herded away to keep us all safe.

But this evening, Finn doesn’t hear them. He doesn’t even lift his head from his front paws as he snoozes.

***

Finn is now mostly deaf, hearing only the loudest sounds.

It happened fast, at least from my perspective. It took me the past three weeks, observing new and odd behaviors, worrying he was developing dementia, before recognizing the truth. By then, his hearing loss was nearly total.

He hid it well.

From Finn’s perspective, the hearing loss has likely been a long, easy fade into silence, something he’s had plenty of time to adjust to and accommodate.

I haven’t had much time to adjust.

***

Finn is thirteen, and – I hope – could live to age sixteen. Today he joined me and Conall on a five mile run in the forest, similar in distance to one we did two days ago. As always, Finn was exuberant, having a blast, and didn’t want to stop.

Finn has been healthy and active from the day I brought him home from a border collie/Aussie rescue at the age of seven months (best guess) in 2008. I’m the one who has had to make him take it easier as he aged, running every other day instead of daily for the past year or so to avoid an injury and ensure he keeps running as long as possible. His energy and endurance are amazing, even if, since October, they’ve been helped by daily doses of an anti-inflammatory for age-related arthritis. Honestly, I worry Finn’s teeth will wear down to the gums long before the rest of his body is done.

dog standing on snow in forest
Finn, ready for more adventure toward the end of our run on March 27, 2021.

Hearing loss in old dogs is common, I’ve read. But Finn is the first dog of mine to experience it. I’m learning to adapt in ways that keep our lives together humming along smoothly.

I’m grateful I’ve always used hand signals along with verbal commands when training my dogs. Since they’re often (usually) off leash in the forest, it’s important that they can see my arm held out when I want them to come from a distance, visually reinforcing the verbal command, “Come!” They also know hand signals for sit, down, up (e.g., onto the bed or into the car), come closer, and stay, which we use when in close proximity.

All of these signals are suddenly crucial for Finn. For example, the boys and I often walk on a nearby country road. As a young dog, Finn quickly learned to jump up on the snow berm or sit in the ditch (when there wasn’t snow) until a vehicle passed, responding to both my verbal and hand signal commands to come and stay. Conall has been a little less reliable at staying in this circumstance, viewing vehicles as things that bring fun people to meet and greet. So, I’ve always held onto Conall’s visibility vest as the three of us stand on the side of the road, waiting for a vehicle to pass. Finn still reliably comes and stays on these walks, but now in response to my hand signals, allowing him to continue enjoying them off-leash.

Of course, this assumes Finn is looking at me when I need him to come because a vehicle is approaching. I can no longer simply call out, “Finn, come!” Luckily, Finn loves the tiny chicken liver treats I pack in my pockets for these walks, checking in with me every few seconds (or so it seems), seeking another treat. I almost always give him one, to reinforce his check-ins, but sometimes I hold my hands up, palms facing him and say “All gone!” Now, at that hand signal, even though he can’t hear my words any longer, he continues walking down the road with Conall, searching for voles and interesting critter tracks, until a minute later he stops to look back at me again, asking telepathically if he can have another treat. It works for us.

I still talk to Finn in the ways I always have, in the same tone of voice, saying stay, come, or all gone on our walks even though now I know he doesn’t hear me. I continue murmuring “You’re a good boy,” and “I love you,” as I pet him at home, relishing the feel of his thick Aussie fur in my fingers. I don’t yell to make him hear me. I’m not one to yell, and besides, Finn seems to understand my facial expressions just fine.

Maybe he can read my lips. What do I know?

dog with toy in mouth on a lawn
Finn with his favorite toy, May 4, 2020. We play fetch with this toy every afternoon after dinner.

Best of all, Finn isn’t sad.

He simply goes about his life as usual, with only the smallest changes. He’s as happy and playful as ever. Hearing loss is…a loss, certainly, but it’s painless and his life continues with some adjustments. It’s no reason for despair, on his part or mine.

So I’m following Finn’s lead by refusing to feel sad.

***

Some adjustments I’ve noticed Finn making so far:

He follows me everywhere. Finn used to be okay staying in a different room or hanging out in the yard if I was inside. Now, he’s my shadow. I feel guilty if I get up to grab and snack because he’ll see me moving, get up and follow me. He also taps my leg with his nose more often, something he’s always done as a way to say “I’m here” if I’m focused on my computer, the dishes in the sink, or whatever, but now it’s more frequent. He checks in regularly.

Finn is more affectionate. He wants me to pet him more often. He spends more time with me on my bed, something I’ve noticed over the past year, one reason I think the hearing loss has been a long time coming. Finn’s most recent thing is climbing up the doggy steps onto my bed an hour before daybreak and lying beside me, knowing that soon I’ll get up to give him breakfast and start our day with a run or a walk. When I finally roll over and say, “Good morning!” his little tail nubbin starts wagging excitedly and he snuggles closer to me. If I don’t immediately start petting him, he touches me with his paws, insisting. Come on, wake up, it’s a new day! His enthusiasm and joy are infectious. If I stop petting him, even for just a second, Finn rolls onto his back, feet up, chest and belly open for rubs, cute as a button and utterly irresistible. As this new routine plays out, Conall can’t help getting in on the love fest. He jumps onto the bed and positions himself alongside my legs, next to Finn below my arm, and gives Finn’s ears and face a few gentle licks as we start our day. Before jumping off the bed, Finn gives me several appreciative kisses on the chin. It’s our new routine. Precious times.

dog rolling on bed
Upside-down Finn, seeking belly rubs, January 13, 2021.

If Finn sees or hears Conall rushing outside (I think he can still hear some loud sounds, like the rare alert bark from Conall), he is right on Conall’s heels barking at the top of his lungs, louder and more insistent than he’s ever barked before, until they’re both through the dog door. Then, unless Finn sees the ravens he doesn’t like, he’s silent, even if Conall woofs at something, like the neighbor’s dog or a fox. Finn’s play bark, when he and Conall chase each other in the yard or forest, is also much louder now. Finn reminds me of old folks who, refusing to wear hearing aids, shout every word.

Finn spends more time collecting visual cues, especially when we’re out in the forest. He keeps his eyes on Conall, observing his body language to alert him to something fun/interesting or potentially threatening. In addition to (usually) letting Conall lead the way, Finn stays much closer to me, checking in more, turning his head just enough to look around his shoulder to make sure I’m behind him as we trot along a trail. But he’s also scanning the forest alongside the trail, as he demonstrated this morning when he saw a grouse that both Conall and I missed, racing on his old dog legs up a slope toward the bird until it flew to safety in a nearby tree. Finn (and I) lost sight of the bird, but while scanning the tree branches above him he gave two proud barks as if to say, See, I’ve still got it!

The same focus on visual cues occurs at home, with Finn paying more attention to my facial expressions. When I smile, so does Finn, his ears relaxing. I’m smiling more, and bigger, even as I talk to Finn in the normal tone of voice I know he can’t hear, because it clearly reassures him. I find myself sitting on the floor and encouraging Finn with hand signals to join me for a snuggle for no reason other than we still can.

Finn snoozes more, without auditory interruption. I’m a little envious, frankly.

So far I haven’t noticed any changes in how Finn and Conall interact. I wonder if Conall knows Finn is “different” now and makes allowances? Or maybe their interactions have always been based more on visual and olfactory signals, rather than verbal.

***

Throughout these changes and adjustments, gradual for Finn and a bit abrupt for me, Finn – like all of the dogs I’ve been privileged to share my life with – is teaching me. He’s teaching me that we can and should, with grace and humility, accept and adapt to the challenges of aging. He’s teaching me that our elderly dogs deserve our love, attention and consideration, at the very least as a recognition and thank you for all of the joy and comfort they’ve given us throughout their lives. It’s a privilege to take this aging journey with a beloved canine companion, to help them, learn from them, and apply those lessons to our own lives as we age.

dog on bed
Finn warming my pillow for me, evening of March 26, 2021.

I’m learning that, of all of the old age afflictions that could stalk Finn, hearing loss may well be the least daunting. He’s showing me, every day, that he’s not only handling it, but enjoys life every bit as much as when his hearing was perfect. He’s not held back, he’s not less than. Everything about the world remains awesome, in his view, each day a gift to be enjoyed without worry for tomorrow.

Finn is showing me the way.

Feature photo: Finn in the forest, December 7, 2020.

24 thoughts on “Fading into Silence”

  1. Aww, poor Finn. As an old dog myself with moderate hearing loss, I can empathize with Finn’s plight. Hearing loss is a lonely place. I’m not a dog person, so I really don’t know how large a listening vocabulary dogs have, but I know that before I got hearing aids (and to some extent in the months before I got new hearing aids last month) I was missing a high percentage of the words that were said to me. Often, in crowded rooms I feel more like a houseplant than a person. I observe what’s going on around me, but I don’t understand it. I’m glad he’s compensating for his inability to hear with more touch. Probably something a person can’t get away with, but it sounds nice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must be so challenging, Jeff. I remember my father telling me how difficult crowded spaces were for him, wearing hearing aids. My 80-year-old neighbor with cochlear implants reads my lips when we talk, so I try to slow down and always face him. I hope your new aids are an improvement. And you make a good point: we humans rely much more on hearing to navigate our world than our pets. But more touching to compensate probably isn’t socially acceptable!

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  2. Old age gets us all, but it’s always heartbreaking when it starts showing in our beloved pets. Quality of life is everything… and it seems like Finn is handling his loss with grace. We had a deaf cat as well as a blind one. Animals are amazingly adaptable. Love him… for as long as you can.
    ❣️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sad when we watch our pets age. We had a dog who lived to be fifteen. She lost her hearing and she did stay closer to us. She is still remembered because she was so special to us. Old age is hard for dogs and for us, but somehow we all adjust and strive to make each day as interesting as possible. Sorry Finn has lost most of his hearing.

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  4. Our furry friends are so adaptable.

    My boxer Molly was deaf. She had been returned to the shelter because the family had young children and complained that she snapped at them. After one meeting, I was dubious. So we took her home and got right to communicating via sign language. No sneaking up on her, which was the problem in the first home, I suspect.

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    1. I bet you’re right; Molly was likely simply reacting as any startled dog would. It was the kids in that first home who needed training! Glad she found an understanding and loving home with you. I’m already way more conscious of avoiding startling Finn when he’s snoozing!

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  5. I completely relate to Finn and Jeff. The evidence is I have had something of a hearing loss most of my life, only recognizing it late and wearing hearing aids since 2008. It always seemed like events were transpiring in front of me but it took more time than others take for me to comprehend and react. All the other cues had to be added up.

    Strangely this has never been the case in trial. Perhaps its because that environment is so focused, so rule bound and intolerant of chaos that I feel more comfortable there than in many other settings. Still, I recall trying cases standing up next to opposing counsel or sitting in the jury box to make out what is going on before I bought hearing aids.

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    1. I sort of remember that about your courtroom style, Pete, but didn’t realize it was because you had trouble hearing (I left in 2005, so before you got your hearing aids). Interesting, how we ways to compensate and adapt.

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      1. I just read an article about bean plants and intention. An experiment using time lapse photography showed that young bean plants offered poles to climb intentionally reached out to them as they matured, as opposed to young plants offered no poles. They sensed the poles were there. Not unlike trees that communicate with each other. So yes, of course you have those sentiments of care toward your plants as well as your cats, and I’m sure that’s why they’re all thriving!

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  6. What a beautiful story about Finn, Rebecca! It appears that he has adapted to his hearing loss. Dogs are amazing animals. So much of their connection to humans is based in the vibe they feel from us and of course he’s reading your expressions and body language. He knows you well. His added closeness to you makes him feel secure I’m sure. And he has Conall too, which is great. What a joyful doggie. I just love dogs and can clearly see how much you do too. Lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. He looks healthy and happy, Rebecca. Finn is lucky to have you in his life. One of my dogs is very visual. You reminded me that when she grows old, certain parts of her may not work the same but that devoted look in her eyes will likely still be there. Treasure your moments with your devoted friend. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Siobhan. Finn continues to amaze me, and reminds me of earlier old dogs in my life, some with late-in-life health challenges (e.g. lymphoma, bone cancer), all of them stoic and accepting of their fate, no complaining, each day a gift until the day when it’s time to go. I’m sure your girl will appreciate the care and love she receives from you as you help her navigate old age, when that time comes. Great teachers, all of them. I hope I’m half as stoic as they are as I age!

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