sleight of hand: tips for training deaf dogs
It happens more than you think; a new dog is adopted or purchased, and several days (or even weeks) later, their owners suspect they may be deaf. At first many owners panic, wondering how they are ever going to reliably train a deaf dog. But I’m here to tell you, not only is it do-able, it’s not as difficult as it sounds! Here are my top tips for working with a hearing impaired hound:
When training a deaf dog (or any dog for that matter), remember that you will always achieve more if you use positive reinforcement methods. Especially in the case of a deaf dog, tactics like using a dominant voice or yelling are completely ineffective because your dog can’t hear you. Show your dog what you want using treats, tactile praise like pats or scratches, and games like fetch or tug.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
Just like people, dogs can learn sign language. In fact, for a species with such defined hearing and scent capabilities, dogs (hearing or deaf) are quite adept at learning to read their owner’s body language. In my experience, lure-reward style training works best with deaf dogs. Here are a few easy signs to start with:
- A Name Signal: A name signal can be anything, but one of my favorite ways to ‘name’ a deaf dog is with the American Sign Language sign for the first letter of their name. For instance, the last deaf dog I worked with was named Delancey; we called her by moving our left hand into the ASL letter D. Every time we presented the D sign, we would lure Delancey’s eyes up to us with a treat and reward.
- Sit: When teaching a dog to sit using lures, a trainer will place a treat in their right hand directly in front of and close to the dog’s nose. Very slowly, the trainer will lure the dog’s nose and head straight up and back, causing the dog to move into the sit position. After you’ve done a few sits with a treat and your dog is moving into that position easily, fade the treat but keep the hand signal. The finished signal should start with your arm down by the side of your body and your palm facing away from your body. From the start position, move your hand upward until it rests on your chest.
- Come: This is one that will sometimes require the help of a tactile signal like a tap or a vibrating collar to get the dog’s attention. To practice this signal, give your dog a tap with your hand or stimulation with a vibrating collar or flashlight. When the dog looks toward you, run backwards away from the dog, moving your hands in a circular manner. When the dog catches up to you, reward with a treat or a game or tug.
Get your toolkit ready
Since your dog can not hear you when you call, there are a few tools that may seem silly to use with a hearing dog, but can be lifesavers with a deaf dog! One widely recommended tool is a vibration collar. This is a remote-operated collar that sends a vibration to the dog in order to get his attention (these collars can spook some sensitive dogs, so make sure you condition the dog to it using lots of treats and positive reinforcement!). If your dog is sensitive to a vibration collar, sometimes simply stomping on the floor or using a bright flashlight can help you to get their attention as well.
How to identify a trainer
When looking for a training program for your deaf dog, it is important to interview your dog’s potential trainer thoroughly. Make sure they are employing only positive reinforcement methodology, and ask them if they have worked with a deaf dog before and what kind of success they have had. Many deaf dogs will thrive in group obedience classes, just be ready to modify and be flexible about unique and ‘out of the box’ training styles!