My most recent dog-training client was a little different than most. I’m used to working with dogs with fear and anxiety, but Lila had those issues with a twist — she’s deaf. Her primary problems were redirecting aggression when awakened from a deep sleep and being terrified of certain fences/areas of her neighborhood. I’ve worked with deaf dogs at the shelter and had a little experience training them, but because Lila’s pet parent had previous experience with deaf dogs, I saw what a dog (and pet parent) is really capable of when you take away the ability to speak to them.
Lila’s current pet parent was her second family, so she had no control over what had happened in Lila’s younger years. If you get a deaf dog as a puppy or younger dog, be sure to socialize your dog just as you would any other, but also work on desensitizing your dog to being startled, which was one of Lila’s biggest issues. Some ways to practice this include banging on the floor to get her attention, tapping her on the shoulder or her back to get her attention, or putting your hand in front of her face when she is sleeping. Whenever your dog wakes or turns toward you, reward her with a treat/toy/scratches.
Just like with humans who can’t hear, dogs who can’t hear need you to communicate with them in a different way, so talking isn’t going to work. Most training commands are pretty easy to pair up with hand signals because we do that anyway, but you will need to think about others or ones that don’t commonly have hand signals as well: good job (thumbs up or clapping your hands), look at me, come, all done, wait or stop, drop it, leave it, play, food, potty, toy, car, walk, etc.
You can look up the American Sign Language signs for these, or pick up the book Dogs Can Sign, Too by Sean Senechal. Warning: Once you start teaching your dog signs, you may not want to stop! It was truly amazing to see the strong bond between Lila and her human, because of how much harder they had to work to understand each other.
This is important for all pet parents and dogs, but especially so with deaf dogs. If your dog takes off, you can’t just call him back. If you want your dog to be able to run off-leash in unconfined areas, then check out tip No. 4.
While it’s definitely not a necessity, many people with deaf dogs use a vibrating collar for off-leash activities or just as a general way to get their dog’s attention. The collar is a way to get your dog’s notice when she might be too far away or not facing you to see your signal. It’s important to go slowly and gradually introduce the collar to your dog. There are some great tips in this article on the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website.
Training any dog takes time and commitment, but training a deaf dog takes a little bit more. Besides the hand signals, you won’t be able to sit back and tell your dog what to do from across the room (or from another room). You might have to get up and tap him on the shoulder to get his attention for further instructions, and you might have to get his attention before you leave the room to let him know where you are going. But trust me, it will be worth all the extra effort in the end!
For more information and valuable resources, visit the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website.
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About the author: Abbie Mood lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues, food culture, and the human experience through her writing. You can find out more about her atabbiemood.com or her blog, lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow Abbie on Twitter @abbiemood or Instagram @abbiemood.