Our canine companions are wonderful creatures to have to enrich our lives. In return, we wish to do the same for them; especially if they have some unique health traits, such as deafness.
While some dogs can be born deaf, others may lose their hearing due to a medical condition (this can happen at any age). Some may lose it simply due to old age; the ability to hear sounds just isn’t quite like it used to be. Whether young or old, though, deaf dogs can live perfectly normal lives! They just need to have a specially dedicated owner to work with them.
Positive reinforcement/reward training is absolute key when working with a deaf dog. To start training your dog, it is important to first and foremost be able to get your dog’s attention and to maintain it. You can get their attention with a wave in front of their face, thumping your fist on the floor to create a vibration or by touching them gently. Make sure to touch them in the same location on their body as to not confuse them between attention touch and affection touch.
There are some special training tools one can use for training sessions that aren’t the typical clickers and whistles and such that are used in typical obedience training. Collars that produce a light, gentle vibration are wonderful tools to be able to get your dog’s attention, especially when they are not within arm’s reach. Be aware that using a shock collar is not the same as a vibration collar and should not be used for these training purposes, as it does not fall into the positive reinforcement/reward training method.
With a deaf dog, one of the most helpful behaviours, and one to work on first is to reinforce heavily for eye contact. Getting a deaf dog’s attention is not impossible; it just takes a bit of work! Developing a “check-in” behaviour is essential. Each and every time that your dog looks at you, you should mark and reinforce this behaviour (referring back to the positive/reward training method).
Now, since your dog cannot hear a click or a marker/praise word, teaching them a hand signal that means they did something good is quite crucial. Don’t worry; you won’t have to go out and learn sign language (unless you want to!). You can also make up your own signals as long as they are distinct and consistent (consistency is highly important for any form of training). Many trainers will use a simple thumbs up to signal a job well done. You can condition your dog to this by giving the signal and rewarding with a treat (positive reinforcement). Soon your dog will understand that thumbs up means treat!
Another vital part of communicating with a deaf dog is teaching a recall. Safety first, though! It is recommended to start with working on longer-distance recalls in fenced areas or with a long leash. However, as with any behaviour, you will want to start training in close proximity and in a low-distraction environment. Move away, at first just an inch at a time, and then signal with a visual cue for your dog to come to you. Mark movement toward you and be sure to reinforce (positive reinforcement training!) as the pup arrives where you are. As with any recall, slowly build distance and eventually work in some distractions to further advance your dog’s recall skills.
How to Prevent Startling Your Deaf Dog:
It is an important step that many owners might not think of! Non-hearing dogs are often startled or scared by things suddenly appearing, or a person is touching them since they cannot hear the approach. To reduce startling your dog, it is an important thing to work with your dog on desensitization. To desensitize your dog to touch, this means to start by always touching them in the same location. Each time you touch to offer a food reward (There’s that positive reinforcement training method again!). Initially, start by being in sight of your dog, and then once your dog is comfortable with this exercise, move to be out of your dog’s sight when you touch them.
Owning a deaf dog can be very rewarding with the proper knowledge, patience, and – you guessed it – positive reinforcement training! There are many resources available, as well as deaf dog support groups that can offer many helpful tips. With the right training, your deaf dog can do anything a dog with hearing can do. There are many deaf dogs in performance events, including obedience, agility, flyball and scent work. So don’t feel that your dog’s inability to hear will impact their lives negatively and make them feel left out.
Information sourced from Americain Kennel Club.
Written by: Brittany Waselenchuk, RAHT