Teaching and Training a Deaf Dog

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Behavior, Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Teaching and training a deaf dog takes a bit more thought and planning than teaching and training a hearing dog, but the principles are identical. Slightly different language to communicate is used. Hearing dogs learn commands by hearing specific words repeated and associated with specific actions. They do not know our verbal language, but they learn the sounds of the words.

Deaf dogs must be taught specific visual signals that we want them to associate with specific actions rather than verbal signals. It is worth noting that dogs who compete in advanced obedience, as well as many working and hunting dogs, do all their work in response to hand signals and body posture. For additional information, see the handout “Living with a Deaf Dog”.

What hand signals do I need to know?

deaf_dog_1There are no set hand signals for teaching and training a deaf dog. This means there are no wrong hand signals. The key is to choose a few you will use, and then be consistent.

A professional trainer can assist in teaching the hand signals that are used in obedience work. Some people use American Sign Language (ASL) signs; others may modify these signs for one-handed use so that it is possible to hold the dog’s leash with the other hand. Finally, some people simply make up the signs they use (often with a little help from an ASL dictionary).

"The key when training a deaf dog is to choose a few hand signals you will use, and then be consistent."

No matter what signs you use, be sure to teach them to family and friends so everyone can communicate with your deaf dog.

How do I tell my deaf dog he’s a good dog when he does the right thing?

Effective training hinges on rewarding the behavior we want repeated. One key ingredient is to find a reward that is meaningful to the dog. Most dogs are food motivated, so training with treats usually works well. For some dogs, you may need to use a favorite toy as a reward instead.

If you use food as a reward during training, here are a few things to remember:

  • Take away part of the kibble from your dog’s daily meal intake to use for training to avoid adding calories.
  • If you want to use something different from your dog’s regular food for training treats, reduce his overall daily food portions slightly.
  • Small treats are best for training treats. You want to be able to reward correct behavior quickly and then move on, so choose a treat that’s quick to eat.
  • Do not train your dog when he has a full stomach. A little hunger provides an edge of motivation in the learning process.
  • As your deaf dog becomes more confident in what he knows, mix up food treats with a sign you intend on using for “Good dog”. Intermittent food rewards are strongly reinforcing, and this technique allows you to reserve the special rewards for when your dog really gets it right!
  • Be patient! Every dog is different, and every dog learns at his own pace.
  • Minimizing distractions will help facilitate the learning and allow you to increasingly graduate to busier environments.
  • Never allow a deaf dog to be off-leash in an unfenced, open area. It is too easy for a deaf dog to get spooked or distracted and run into harm’s way. You can use a long training lead for teaching more remote commands.

Can I teach and train my dog who became deaf because of age?

It is a myth that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Any dog (including hearing dogs) can learn hand signals. Older dogs can learn new things, including how to watch for hand signals. The principles of training are the same as for a dog who is born deaf.

What is my takeaway message?

Invest the time, energy, and patience to train your deaf dog, and the rewards will be enormous!

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