Teaching and Training a Deaf Dog

By Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM.

Behavior

March 8, 2013

dog_-_lab_mix_shakeTeaching and training a deaf dog takes a bit more thought and planning than teaching and training a hearing dog, but the principles are identical. We just use a slightly different language to communicate. Hearing dogs learn commands by hearing specific words repeated and associated with specific actions. They don’t know our verbal language, but they learn the sounds of the words.

Deaf dogs must be taught specific visual rather than verbal signals that we want them to associate with specific actions. 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.

What hand signals do I need to know?

There 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 it’s 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).

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

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

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’s 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.
  • Tiny is 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.
  • Don’t 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 she knows, mix up food treats with a “good dog” sign. 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. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

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

"Any dog (including hearing dogs) can learn hand signals."

dog_-_child_feeding_dogIt’s 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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