Search This Blog


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Brownie's Hearing

Bow and Brownie don't interact much. But the other day, when Bow was sitting outside, I noticed that Brownie was curled up right next to the corner of the outer pen where Bow was sitting. It was as if he were keeping Bow company.

Bow takes it easy on the rim of the bench

Every night, when I coax Brownie to come in from the cold and spend the night in my bedroom, I know that Bow, in the inner pen, all snuggled up in his blankets and safe in the warm darkness of his night time safe place, is listening to me and Brownie interact. Brownie is older now, and he is very slow to come when I call him. Some of that is because his lumbering gait has changed a little over time, but another reason is that he does not seem to respond to my verbal coaxing. It is only when I reach out and touch him and beckon with my hand that he finally decides that it is okay to come in through the open sliding glass door. Then I hear Bow make an approving, low sounding "ah-ah-ah" sound from inside the inner pen, which means he feels all is well with me and Brownie. "Good night, Bow," I call out to him in Hebrew, and then I close the glass door. The house is built in such a way that you can actually see into my room from the inner pen, unless I have the curtain drawn.

Brownie takes it easy in a blanket of leaves

Brownie is sweet and very cooperative, but I have always felt, ever since he adopted us, that his language comprehension was less developed than that of our other dogs and overall less advanced than that of any other dogs I have known throughout my life. 

I speculated that maybe it was because by the time he found us outside of my daughter's gymnastics class and asked that we take him home with us he was already about  two years old. I thought maybe it was because we speak Hebrew at home, but he was probably exposed only to English during his puppyhood. But today, I have a different theory. Because today I realized that Brownie is deaf.

View of the ledge in front of my bedroom door from the pen

When I went out to give Brownie his breakfast, Leo was standing on the ledge that leads to my room, eagerly awaiting the feeding, even though Brownie never lets him eat. (We have to feed Leo separately inside.) But Brownie knew this was his breakfast time, and he stood and looked eagerly toward the center of house, with his back to me. He looked as if he thought I was still in the inner pen. I came and stood right behind him and told him that breakfast was ready and asked him to come. But Brownie just kept looking longingly at the house, and it was only when I touched him lightly on the flank that he turned around, startled, then happy to see me. He followed me right to the ledge of my room, where I put his bowl down, and he eagerly ate. 

Somebody recently talked to me about how the language ability of apes is far better than that of dogs, and I told her that actually I have known some dogs who had excellent language comprehension, though, of course, they had no means of production. They understood things I said in Hebrew to them that no one else in the room understood, because everyone else spoke only English. Or they attended to things as a result of a conversation that was not directed to them, but they learned new information by eavesdropping. However, I had to admit that not all dogs are equally good at understanding spoken human language. I was thinking of Brownie. He has always been unusually dense when it came to interpreting speech directed at him. 

Brownie was not always this deaf. When he was younger, he did hear noises, and he did know when someone was coming. That's why I did not understand why it was so hard for him to interpret what I said. But I suspect that he may always have been somewhat deaf, and this may have been his secret challenge even when he was young. 

Dogs can understand spoken language -- but not if they're deaf. I think Bow has always been more tolerant of Brownie than of the other dogs, because maybe he knew what I didn't: that Brownie could not make out what we said to him. 


  1. When I first read the title of this post, I thought, 'uh-oh, Brownie is having a trial- what did he do?' HA! Poor Brownie - it does have to be a little scary living in a world where you can't hear everything - it would scare the living daylights out of me to have someone suddenly touch me on my back, if I hadn't heard them coming and knew who it was.
    I find it so fascinating that many dogs DO have great language comprehension. Nikki has learned many commands, as expected, but it goes beyond that. She seems to know when Bob and I are talking about her, and even when we try our best to avoid certain words (ie, "WALK", "TOY" or "TREAT", "FOOD", etc.), she seems to catch on quickly to what we are referring.

  2. Hi,Kathy. We usually don't hold full blown hearings to deal with doggy misconduct -- but that was an interesting guess about the title. Actually, Brownie is very sweet and hardly ever does anything wrong. He won't even come inside when the door is open, unless he is sure he is allowed to. Which is why his not responding to my giving him verbal permission has been so strange. I think this is actually proof of sorts that most dogs do understand human language, when we notice such deficits for one who can't hear. Because if it were all based on non-verbal cues, at least when he is looking at me and I am calling him, he ought to know I want him to come in. But he needs me to touch him and gesture very explicitly now.

  3. I had always thought Brownie looked docile in videos, but maybe some of this is because he is now deaf, and has to gather more visual information before acting. I used to have a chocolate lab when I was growing up, and she was extremely hyperactive, even after training her. Her hearing was okay, but I always noticed Buster, the Siberian Husky could detect sounds more distinctly. It actually became a big problem when our neighbor kids were harassing him, and shouting things to make him bark. I would literally have to go out there every five minutes to calm him down. Their mom Lady actually had wonderful language comprehension. Sometimes I would want to watch the end of the show before I walked her, and I would tell her to wait. She would actually get up and come to me with the cue of the ending credit music. Irina's language comprehension is also progressing as well. When I count 1. 2. 3...she nows this means to make a big jump across furniture. She could not jump when we first got her, so it quite capitivating to now see her fly through the air. Also, when she is across the room and I tell her I need some kitty cat love, she will come to me and start rubbing against my legs and hands.

    1. Brownie has always had a sweet disposition, and he tries to do as told, but he has trouble understanding what we say. Now that he is almost completely deaf, it's no wonder.

      I am glad you have noticed the different degrees of language comprehension that your dogs and cats have had, Julia. Some people just take it for granted that their understanding is minimal, just because they cannot speak.