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 help get started with your non-hearing dog.
Are Deaf Dogs Allowed to Compete in AKC Dog Sports?
Anything a hearing dog can do deaf dogs are also more than capable of achieving. 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 regardless of what dog sport you are doing.
Of Denise Welk’s five dogs, two of her Australian Shepherd mixes, Roman and Juno, are deaf. Yet the entire crew is involved in a variety of sports, including Agility, Obedience, Rally, Barn Hunt, Scent Work, Toss & Fetch, and Flyball. She also has Roxy, a Border Collie Aussie mix who is both blind and deaf and still competes in 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 and 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, and 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, it’s important to 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 AKC Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jerry Klein.
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 encourages owners not to give up if the first sport they try if it 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.”
The Importance of Patience and Perseverance
Beverly Clagg got involved in dog sports after adopting Chase, a deaf Australian Shepherd who she rescued when he was a year old. Chase is Clagg’s first Agility dog and when they started training, she 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, and although Clagg says it felt like forever before they got out of Novice level, once they learned to communicate on the course everything clicked together. “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’s level she realized that maybe a Master Agility Champion title (MACH) wasn’t off the table—even though previously she never imagined it was possible.
Chase earned that MACH and his PACH, and at 9 years old, he is on the road to his second PACH. Clagg recalls that when he earned his MACH she cried and said that 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 noted that she’s found most judges have no idea that Chase is deaf. The only giveaway is that Clagg runs silently and communicates where they need to go 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 of them running deaf dogs and supporting them by brainstorming creative approaches to training and handling. This year Chase qualified for AKC Agility National Championship, and Clagg is extremely proud of Chase’s performance, earning 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 with your deaf dog, there are some basics that are helpful to teach to ensure they are safe. Welk says there are two core training skills 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.
For Clagg, a solid recall was her priority 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 in sports 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.”
Beginning Training With Your Deaf Dog
According to Dr. Klein, like all dog owners considering starting a new exercise program with their dog, owners of dogs with disabilities should ask their veterinarian’s opinion if their dog is physically able to. 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, and it’s the reason they sought out a sport for her deaf and blind dog Roxy. Her nose still works perfectly, which allows her to do Scent Work. However, Welk has to communicate with Roxy using touch cues and uses a special harness and treats just for Scent Work, so she 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 with 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.
- Agility: email@example.com
- Obedience: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rally: email@example.com
- Tracking: firstname.lastname@example.org