Teaching and Training a Deaf Dog

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Deaf dogs can learn the same skills as dogs with normal hearing. Deafness does not change the dog’s ability to learn, but it does change how they receive information. Instead of listening for cues, deaf dogs learn by using their vision, their sense of smell, and their sense of touch.

Dogs naturally use a complex system of visual cues, their body language, to communicate with other dogs and humans, and they are astute observers of human body language. In fact, many dogs with normal hearing respond more reliably to hand signals than to verbal cues.

How do hand signals or cues work?

A cue is a label assigned to a behavior that a dog has been taught to do. For dogs trained using positive reinforcement, the cue predicts that a reward will be delivered once the dog performs the behavior.

For example, when a dog sits promptly after receiving the “sit" cue, they will receive a reward. Cues for hearing dogs are usually words and/or hand signals. For deaf dogs, cues may be visual (hand signals), tactile (touch or vibration), or olfactory (scent-based).

Which cues and signals do I need to teach the dog?

There is no right or wrong set of cues or signals to teach your dog. Consider what you would like the dog to be able to do on cue. You will need a clear, discrete signal for each desired behavior.

"You will need a clear, discrete signal for each desired behavior."

Some of the common behaviors put on cue include sit, lie down, stay, go to bed, and come. Almost any behavior can be put on cue - the only limits are the dog’s physical coordination and strength and the skills of the person doing the training!

Here are some tips:

  • Cues should be distinct. Each signal should cue a single behavior or behavioral sequence.
  • Cues should be used consistently by each person that communicates with your dog. Your dog might not understand a visual cue that is presented at a different speed or with a different hand. Be sure all caregivers practice giving cues.
  • A professional trainer can help teach hand signals that could be used for competition-style 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).

How do I begin teaching and training my deaf dog?

When you reward your dog for doing a behavior, your dog will be motivated to repeat the behavior in the future. That is how learning occurs when you use positive reinforcement.

The first step is to choose a reward. Reward-based training is effective only if your dog loves the reward.

  • When using treats, be sure that your dog still eats their required daily amount of nutritious food and that they do not become overweight.
  • Most dogs are very food motivated and will work for tiny morsels of dry dog food.
  • Calculate the number of calories your dog can have in a day and stay within that guideline. You may be able to allocate part of the daily food ration to be used in training and reduce meal size accordingly.
  • Small, soft treats work well for training. Treats can be the size of a pea or a pencil eraser, or even smaller for tiny dogs. Choose treats that can be swallowed easily and quickly.

Food is a powerful motivator, but it is not the only reward available. Some dogs prefer to be rewarded with a toy. Your dog should eagerly offer behaviors to try to gain access to the reward.

Once you have found a reward your dog likes, start training! Each time your dog performs a desired behavior, deliver a treat or reward right away.

Sometimes, it’s not practical or possible to immediately give the reward while the dog is doing the behavior. For this reason, it’s helpful use a visual marker signal such as a “thumbs up” to precisely mark the behavior as “nicely done”. The marker signal lets your dog know that a treat is on the way. A marker signal for hearing dogs is the “click” from a clicker training tool.

Your dog won’t know that “thumbs up” predicts a treat until you create this positive association through training. You will need to pair the “thumbs up” signal with the delivery of a reward:

  • Show your dog the “thumbs up” and immediately toss her a treat.
  • Repeat a few times in a row. Soon, she will see the thumbs up and look for the reward.
  • You can now use the “good job” signal to mark the moment the dog does a desired behavior, then follow up with a food treat, toy, or other beloved reward as soon as is possible, hopefully within 3 seconds.

Create a list of skills that you would like to teach. For each behavior, create a signal that you will use. Write the signals down and share with all your dog’s trainers and caregivers.

Are there any other training considerations for a deaf dog?

  • Be patient! Every dog is different and every dog learns at their own pace.
  • Minimize distractions, especially during initial training, to help your dog concentrate and learn more efficiently.
  • Deaf dogs may be easily startled. Be sure your dog sees your hand before your reach for their collar or leash. Even an unexpected pat can startle a dog and make them afraid of being trained.
  • 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. Deaf dogs can wear a long line or drag line to have more freedom to explore while still saying safely within your view.

What about special training collars?

You can purchase a vibration collar designed for training dogs that cannot hear. A vibration collar can be used as a recall cue: you can train your dog to come back when she feels a vibration. Use caution when considering any kind of wearable electronic device. Many dogs find the vibration to be aversive and can become frightened. It is almost always safer and more humane to keep deaf dogs safely fenced or leashed with a long line.

What if my dog is deaf due to aging, not born deaf?

Dogs can learn new skills at any age. Learning may be a little easier during youth, but even dogs who lose their hearing due to aging can learn new signs and signals, if needed. Many dogs become deaf in old age, so it may be helpful to teach your dog how to respond to both visual and verbal cues. Then, if a dog loses their hearing later in life, they can still understand the signals as originally taught.

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