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Have you ever seen someone at a dog show not using any verbal cues when working with their dog? It’s possible you’re watching a handler compete with a deaf dog. Despite some obstacles, partially or completely deaf dogs can successfully compete in a wide variety of sports, as long as you work with them.

But there are some specific training considerations to keep in mind to get started with your non-hearing dog.

Are Deaf Dogs Allowed to Compete in AKC Dog Sports?

Dogs who are deaf can compete in a variety of performance sports. Sports that welcome deaf dogs include:

Dogs who are deaf or partially deaf respond well to training and can excel in sports training and competition. Regardless of what sport you are interested in pursuing with your hearing-impaired dog, the key is building a strong relationship with your dog. This will help keep your dog focused and engaged with you.

Denise Welk uses a handle signal with her deaf dog Juno.
Courtesy of Rich Knecht Photography
Denise Welk uses a handle signal with her deaf dog Juno.

Overcoming Obstacles

Of Denise Welk’s five dogs, two of her mixed-breed dogs, Roman and Juno, are deaf. Yet the entire crew is involved in a variety of sports, including Agility, Obedience, AKC Rally, Barn Hunt, AKC Scent Work, and Flyball. She also has Roxy, a mixed-breed dog who is both blind and deaf and still competes in AKC Scent Work with Denise’s husband Wayne (Dune) Welk.

Welk encourages people to not overlook deaf dogs when thinking of adding a dog to the family. She advises people to not underestimate what these dogs can accomplish. “They can do almost everything that other dogs can do,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to adopt these dogs, but don’t expect them to be couch potatoes. There is plenty they can and will do!”

Keeping a dog physically and mentally active is as important with deaf dogs as it is with full-hearing dogs. Dog sports are a great outlet for mental and physical energy. When Welk got her first deaf dog, she wasn’t sure what was possible. “The day I brought [Roman] home, I told him, ‘I don’t know how to train a deaf dog, but I’m going to try and teach you all the games that I love to play, and we will see what happens.'”

Roman loved training and is now an accomplished sports dog. Some of his accomplishments include qualifying for the AKC National Agility Championships in 2022 and working on his Preferred Agility Champion title (PACH). He also has his Rally Excellent title, is a Master Barn Hunt Dog, has earned his Companion Dog (CD) in Obedience, and is actively competing in Open Obedience.

Getting Veterinary Clearance

Before starting sports training with any dog, talk with your veterinarian to ensure there aren’t any health considerations or limitations to keep in mind. If it’s hearing loss, it can be helpful to understand how much hearing your dog does or doesn’t have.

“In order to determine if a dog has hearing, is partially deaf, or totally deaf, the dog must have a BAER hearing test, which is performed by certain veterinarians at certain locations,” explains Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC.

Some dogs are born completely deaf and have never known anything different. Other dogs can lose some or all hearing as they age. But regardless of when they lose their hearing, it’s still possible for them to have a robust sports career.

If you have a deaf dog and aren’t sure where to start, Welk encourages exploring different sports. Not only can it help you figure out what your dog may excel at, but it also helps to strengthen the relationship and communication with your deaf dog. She also advises owners not to give up if the first sport they try doesn’t click for their dog.

“Roman didn’t really like Agility at the beginning, probably because it was difficult to look at me and the obstacles and try to figure out what to do, all while running, which was sad for me because Agility is my favorite sport,” she says. “However, I started doing Rally with him and that really helped to build the teamwork and made him comfortable, and therefore, I believe it helped his confidence with Agility.”

Welk's deaf dog Roman walks over a teeter totter.
Courtesy of Rich Knecht Photography
Welk’s deaf dog Roman walks over a teeter-totter.

The Importance of Patience and Perseverance

Beverly Clagg got involved in dog sports after rescuing Chase, a deaf Australian Shepherd. Chase is Clagg’s first Agility dog. When they started training, Clagg had no idea where the journey would take her.

“My goal was originally putting him in Agility just to give him some confidence, and then he showed real talent and it was just getting that control over a deaf dog, getting a team, and forming that team was really hard,” she says.

Chase was 3 when he started competing in AKC Agility trials. Clagg says it felt like forever before they got out of the Novice level. But once they learned to communicate on the course, everything clicked. “I had to learn how to look behind me when I was running forward. I’m not young, so that was kind of difficult, but I learned how to do it,” Clagg says.

Patience and perseverance are a must for anyone training a dog, especially a deaf dog. When Chase and Clagg started competing at the Master level, she realized that maybe a Master Agility Champion title (MACH) wasn’t off the table — even though she’d never imagined it was possible.

Chase earned that MACH and his PACH. When he earned his MACH, Clagg cried. While taking the title photo with the judge, she apologized because Chase was so happy and bouncy. But it was challenging to calm him down with his lack of hearing. The judge was shocked that Chase was deaf, noting that he had wondered why Clagg never spoke to her dog while running.

She’s found most judges have no idea that Chase is deaf. The only giveaway is that Clagg runs silently and communicates entirely with her body and eye contact. Welk has had a similar experience. “I have had some people tell me that they didn’t realize Roman was deaf until somebody told them,” she says.

Both competitors noted how supportive their trainers and fellow competitors have been. Chase qualified for the 2022 AKC Agility National Championship. Clagg is extremely proud of Chase’s performance, and the dog earned two ribbons that weekend.

Changing Training for Deaf Dogs

Because deaf dogs can’t hear what their owners are saying, it’s important for owners to communicate with their dogs through body language and visual cues. When working with Chase, Clagg “made up” her own sign language. “We made up a sign for ‘sit‘ and ‘down‘ and we made up a sign for ‘stay‘ and made up a sign for ‘no’ and ‘leave it,'” she says. “If you have those basic signals, they can do everything.”

For Welk, there isn’t much difference between training a hearing dog and training a deaf dog, just more visual cues. As far as training advice is concerned, Welk emphasizes that the most important thing is to “build the team and the bond.” You’ll also need more focus, as your dog will need to look at you for communication. Regardless of what sports you are interested in exploring, there are some basics that are helpful to teach to ensure they are safe. Welk says deaf dogs need to learn “a good startle response and a good check-in.”

Deaf dogs can startle easily because they are unable to hear when they are being approached. “Teaching them to react positively to being startled is very important to me because I don’t want them to snap or have a negative reaction to being awakened by me or if another one of my dogs runs into them,” Welk says. She also recommends having your deaf dog check in with a quick glance every 15 seconds or so while on a walk or during a course run. Because you can’t call a deaf dog, having that eye contact is essential for you to guide them.

Clagg prioritized a solid recall before stepping onto the Agility field with Chase. To teach the recall, she focused on getting Chase to want to pay attention to her. Then she used a 20-foot-long line and began working in areas with more distractions to proof the skill. It’s always important to make sure you have your dog’s focus and attention before starting to teach off-leash skills, especially with a deaf dog that can’t hear recall calls.

Sometimes skills are a little harder to teach when a dog can’t hear, but that doesn’t mean the dog can’t learn the behavior. Welk encourages owners who are working with a deaf dog to keep being creative and not give up. That may mean using a hand cue to replace verbal cues. “Just because you can’t give a verbal cue, doesn’t mean that you can’t train a specific behavior,” she says. “You just might have to think about it in a different way.”

Beverly Clagg's deaf dog Chase herding in silence.
Courtesy of Beverly Clagg
Beverly Clagg’s deaf dog Chase herding in silence.

Beginning Training With Your Deaf Dog

According to Dr. Klein, like all owners considering starting a new exercise program with their dog, owners of dogs with disabilities should consult their veterinarian first. But deafness shouldn’t derail a healthy dog to compete in sports.

“Their brains and bodies are just fine and need to work. If not, they can develop some behavioral problems,” Welk says. That is the reason she sought out a sport for her deaf and blind dog Roxy. Because Roxy’s nose still works perfectly, she is able to participate in AKC Scent Work. However, Welk has to communicate with Roxy using touch cues and uses a special harness and treats just for AKC Scent Work, so the dog knows when it’s time to start searching.

If you have a deaf dog at home or are considering adding a deaf dog to your family, there’s a good chance there is a sport they can do and enjoy. “Don’t feel that they are limited by missing a sense or two,” Welk says. “They more than make up for it with the other senses and their brain power.”

The key is to establish a shared training language. As it’s becoming more common to see deaf dogs competing and excelling in sports, there are more trainers and owners experienced in working with deaf dogs who can give advice and recommend sports to get started in.

If you have any questions about competing with a deaf dog in a specific sport, you can reach out to the question emails for each. People are more than helpful to answer questions and if necessary provide some training tips and encouragement.

Related article: Bond With Agility Dog Helps Competitor Return to Sports
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