You might think a deaf dog is extra challenging to train and own. Although they require a shift in technique, they aren’t much more of a commitment than any other dog. You need to teach them basic obedience, just as you would with a dog who can hear, and with a few other lessons like focus and startle resistance, your deaf dog can understand and obey you with ease. Whether your dog was born deaf or lost hearing with age or an ailment, read on to learn how to train a deaf dog.
Because your deaf dog can’t hear your voice, you must rely on visual cues like hand signals or other body language to communicate. But your dog can’t see your signals if they aren’t looking at you. So, the first step in training a deaf dog is teaching them to focus on you. Start by rewarding your dog with a treat or game anytime they voluntarily look at you. This will reinforce the behavior and your dog will learn that paying attention to you is worth their while. In addition, games like hide-and-seek encourage your dog to check in with you.
It’s also valuable to teach your dog a signal that means look at me. You can’t speak their name or use a verbal cue like “Watch Me,” but you can use anything your dog can sense like a gentle touch or a flash of light. Simply pair the signal with a reward. When your dog is looking at you, give the signal then feed a treat. Next wait until your dog is looking away before you give the signal and offer the treat. In time, your dog will turn to you as soon as they experience the signal. Now you have a way of asking for attention when your dog is preoccupied.
There are many options for an attention signal. The following list will give you some ideas:
- Gentle touch. Always touch your dog in the same place such as the shoulder or top of the rear end. Keep your touch gentle so you don’t startle your dog.
- Light signals. Your dog can see the wink of a flashlight out of the corner of their eye, but a flashlight works best at night such as when your dog is out in the yard.
- Laser pointer. This will show in daylight, but avoid flashing it in your dog’s eyes and beware that some dogs can become compulsive about chasing the light.
- Vibrations. Stomp on the floor or pound the floor with your fist.
- Vibrating collar. Do NOT use a shock collar or the shock setting on a multi-purpose collar. The point is not to punish your dog, but simply to communicate. Also, some dogs are sensitive to vibration and find it aversive. If vibrations stress your dog, choose another signal.
Hand Signals for Obedience and Dog Sports
When it comes to teaching your deaf dog obedience behaviors, hand signals are the perfect way to communicate what you want them to do. You can choose any signal you like for each behavior. Some people use American Sign Language, others use traditional obedience gestures, or you can make up your own. However, be consistent so you always use the same signal for the same behavior. And make sure each signal is distinct from the others. Dogs are remarkable at reading body language yet signals that are too similar can confuse them. You can also use hand signals for tricks like roll over and for dog sports like agility or rally. Deaf dogs can excel in these pursuits just as well as dogs who can hear.
One of the easiest ways to teach hand signals is with lure-and-reward training. The movement of the lure naturally evolves into the signal as you fade the lure. For example, to teach your dog to sit you can lure them into position by lifting a treat over their head. This becomes the traditional hand signal of lifting your hand palm up from your side to a 90-degree angle.
Hand signals are excellent to use for communicating with any dog because dogs often pay more attention to what people do than what people say. Plus, many dogs lose hearing as they age. If they already know hand signals, the transition to deafness will be far easier for you both.
Mark and Reward Training
You might be surprised to learn that clicker training will work with a deaf dog. Although they can’t hear the noise of a clicker, you can mark a behavior with almost anything. And the true strength of clicker training is marking the behaviors you want your dog to repeat. The most practical marker for a deaf dog would be a hand signal such as a thumbs-up gesture. First you need to pair the gesture with rewards so your dog learns it predicts something wonderful is about to happen. Then, when you’re training new behaviors, any time your dog does something correctly, give them the gesture before offering a reward.
Although your deaf dog can feel your approach through vibrations in the floor, they can’t hear you coming and might startle when you touch them or suddenly appear. This can be of even more concern with dogs who lose their hearing later in life because they no longer have the auditory cues they previously relied on. Because any dog can nip when frightened, it’s essential to desensitize your dog and teach them that being startled is a good thing and can lead to rewards.
Start training when your dog is awake. Gently touch them, always on the same spot, then immediately offer a highly valued reward. Next move until you are slightly out of your dog’s sight and repeat. Finally, once your dog looks forward to your touch, you can repeat this exercise while your dog is asleep. First place your hand in front of your sleeping dog’s nose so they can wake to your smell. Immediately treat your dog. The next step is a gentle touch to wake your dog followed by a wonderful reward. And finally, build to a firmer touch.