Take Whisper, a 3-year-old Australian Cattle Dog. Her first owners had no idea she was deaf, so pegged her as a “stubborn puppy” for not coming when called and “obstinate” for blowing off loud scolding. When they eventually realized she could not hear, they handed her over to a rescue organization.
With over 85 breeds affected by inherited deafness, you would think that the myths about deaf dogs being untrainable and making terrible pets would be ancient history, yet euthanasia is still shockingly common. Lucky for Whisper, Elise Bonder knew that such claims are nothing short of tall tales. Adopting Whisper with full knowledge of her deafness, Bonder was keen to make the few adaptations to standard training that were needed to bridge communication in Whisper’s silent world—including learning how to say “no!” Let’s take a look at how basic training can be tweaked to help deaf dogs share our lives with all the joy, freedom, and safety we can offer them.
Signals Instead of Sounds
Whether you want to tell your deaf dog that she’s been good or naughty, teach her a brand new command or ask her to follow an old one, the only difference in training is that you can’t rely on sound to get your message across. The universal “thumbs-up” signal is a great choice for the most important message of all—“good girl.” Now you need a clear signal for the opposite, so that she can benefit, just like a hearing dog, from knowing when you disapprove.
Whisper learned early on that if she pays attention to Bonder, there are lots of opportunities to score the good stuff, but that misdemeanors will be met with consequences.
“She knows that a stern frown and finger wag mean she’s done something wrong,” says Bonder. Early in training, this was paired with time outs, but now the signs alone are enough to send a clear message.
How many signs can you teach your dog? Some, like Whisper, boast a vocabulary of over 20, putting many a hearing dog to shame.
“Making up new ones for tricks is half the fun of training. She just learned beg and I finally decided on this,”—laughing, Bonder holds out a hat upside down—“as the sign! We put it on Facebook.” Signs can represent specific commands, like “sit” or “don’t touch,” or they can give information: that you’ll be back in just a moment or that someone is at the door. At a minimum, you will want to teach “watch me,” “come,” and “stay.” The American Sign Language (ASL) dictionary is fun to peruse for ideas; just pick out signs you like and create your own meanings—you aren’t going to find “shake a paw” in the index!
Regular lure-reward training works very well for teaching action signs to deaf dogs. For example, you can teach “down” by luring the dog into position with a treat, and then giving her the treat as a reward. Gradually phase out the treat and presto: moving your empty hand in a downwards motion becomes the command signal, reinforced with life rewards like walks, fetch, and belly rubs.
You can also use signs that have nothing to do with how you lure her in the teaching phase. For example, give the ASL sign for bed (resting side of your head against your open palm) and then lure her there with encouragement or kibble, rewarding her upon arrival with whatever turns her crank. Soon enough, she’ll catch on to the signal without needing the lure.
Dogs are tremendous visual learners. In fact, they often pick up on hand signals much faster than verbal commands. And there are even advantages to using sign language, according to Bonder.
“Your training is very resistant to being ruined by others. You know how everybody always wants to make your dog sit? You go somewhere and they say sit sit sit and the dog is thinking I really don’t feel like sitting right now. You don’t have that problem with deaf dogs, because you essentially have a secret language.”
Getting Your Dog’s Attention
So, provided you have eye contact when you are trying to communicate, deaf dogs are hardly at a disadvantage with non-verbal training. But what about those situations where you don’t have eye contact?
Truth be told, this is a challenge. While hearing dogs can be engaged verbally from out of sight, there are limited options for communicating with a deaf dog that cannot see you. You can flicker the porch light or shine a flashlight into the yard for “come in” at night, jiggle the leash for “look at me” on walks, and toss a lightweight toy into sight or stomp on the floor for “turn to me.”
And then there is the Cadillac of remote technology for deaf dogs: the vibration collar. Some people use the vibration as a command for “come,” others for “look at me.” Either is fine because, once you have eye contact, you can switch to visual signals. V-collars are a wonderful invention, but don’t be fooled into thinking that a high-tech device will do the training for you. Even when a deaf dog has been “paged,” she can be just as selective as a hearing dog about responding… and we have all seen lots of dogs with selective hearing! How well she obeys you will depend on good training, not just a good collar.
In addition, remote collars aren’t for everyone. Some guardians, like Bonder, are not comfortable relying on technology and prefer to train up a very reliable check-in instead.
“Whisper just didn’t take notice of the vibration, so I opted to train her to stay pretty close when off leash, and check in very frequently. I would always just feed her when she was near me, and she got the concept that being close to me is good. As her confidence grew, she ventured out a bit but she’d always look back at me to check in; if I gave her the thumbs-up, she’d keep going, if I didn’t do anything, she’d come back, and I just reinforced that. At home, I taught her that an open door doesn’t mean she can take off unless I give her permission.”
Whisper is never off leash in unsafe areas, only in places far from traffic and mostly fenced, but whether you let your dog off leash at all is a personal choice. While acknowledging the risk of misadventure, some deaf dog guardians like Bonder feel that good training combined with very carefully chosen venues for off-leash romps is a responsible balance of safety and freedom. There is no right answer, but also no escaping the fact that you need to take extra measures to protect your deaf dog from the dangers ordinarily accompanied by warning sounds, traffic being the most common. As for the risk of a dog becoming lost and not being able to hear your call, there is no harm in fitting her with a GPS. Yup, they make them for pooches—designed for hunting dogs, but who says they need to be working to wear one?
Special Social Needs
Even the most stellar training cannot make up for the deaf dog’s inability to perceive natural sounds that have social significance, so to live with a deaf dog that is safe and secure you need to do more than just teach sign vocabulary, you’ll also have to meet some special social needs.
Touch sensitivity: “Oh, it’s just you!” Deaf dogs often startle to being touched the way a hearing dog startles to unexpected noise. Most will alert to being touched by surprise, such as from behind, and then recover, just like a hearing dog usually recovers from a loud bang. Many and frequent surprise touches followed by super treats will go a long way toward creating a touchaholic who is pretty startle-proof, especially if you start this in puppyhood, as Bonder did.
“I took the time to train Whisper out of it as a puppy. We would actually wake her up really abruptly, give her hot dogs, then tell her to go back to bed. She’s never reacted aggressively.”
Some deaf dogs, however, are quite sensitive and need extra work to avoid being anxious or fearfully aggressive when touched unexpectedly. If they don’t acclimatize, they may require careful management for everyone’s wellbeing. Outside of hot-dog training sessions, the sensitive and startle-proof alike should be given the courtesy of a gentle warning, such as blowing an air puff kiss or tapping the floor, before waking them from sleep.
Peer pressure: “You talkin’ to me?”
Interestingly, while some deaf dogs seem to be able to pull the wool over our human eyes, their disability doesn’t slip by other dogs quite as easily. One of the challenges in living with a deaf dog is managing her around her own species, as deaf dogs are often misread as being socially inappropriate and, like Whisper, can even be attacked for not responding normally to vocal cues.
“I used to go to the dog park with her and she would get picked on,” Bonder explains. “A dog would come up behind her and bark like I wanna play and she’d ignore them because she can’t hear them, and the dog goes Well, why did you ignore me, that’s rude! and they’d nail her. I’ve had to pull numerous dogs off her.”
To keep your dog safe, you must be extra careful about choosing her playmates and you need to establish a “heads-up” prompt to warn her when other dogs are approaching from a blind side. “I’m cautious about who I let her socialize with, and, if a dog is coming up behind her, I give her a tap and point. It’s a social ‘head’s-up’ that we use for lots of different things.”
Playbiting that hurts: “Did you say ‘ouch’?”
The squeal from a dog or human that lets a pup know she is playbiting too hard is a useless message to a deaf puppy. Hearing puppies acting like piranhas will gradually soften their bite in response to yelps and refusal to play. The deaf puppy needs diligent feedback of ending play abruptly in response to her hardest bites, so that her mouth gradually softens. Deaf puppies usually learn this more slowly than hearing pups, as Whisper’s puppyhood nickname “gator” suggests, but they are able to learn it nonetheless. Safe adult dogs with good social skills can be a big help by using their full spectrum of body language in teaching the little land shark to ease up.
The bottom line is that you and your dog will need to work together to fill in missing information. Acting as your dog’s ears and taking extra safety precautions is your part of the deal, and will complement your dog’s natural inclination to make the most of her sight, smell, and touch. As Bonder will confirm, deaf dogs are pretty savvy about capitalizing on their other senses.
“Whisper sleeps in the crook of my legs so, if I move, she knows. And during the day, she’ll often fall asleep touching my foot. Sight and smell are huge for her. She likes high spots so she can see everything. If you take a shower, she’ll stand right outside so she knows when you get out. It isn’t anxiety—it’s just her own way of making sure she knows where her people are.”
Not only have Bonder and her deaf dog met the challenges of day-to-day life, they have also competed in agility. Whisper’s ribbons are a clear testament to great teamwork, and her success flies in the face of those who argue that deaf dogs are untrainable. Her disability actually made her a natural in this fast-paced sport, according to Bonder.
“If you think about what you are always teaching a deaf dog— ‘follow me,’ ‘look at me’— agility is sooooooo easy: follow me while jumping over this fun thing, follow me while going through this cool tunnel. She just loved it! Agility is so based on body language that deafness was a total moot issue.”
Although Whisper is now retired from agility and flyball, Bonder keeps her busy with tracking and obedience.
“Every dog wants mental stimulation, physical exercise, affection, and food. They need those things to be happy healthy dogs…in doing these sports, you are giving your dog what she needs to be a good canine member of society, and if you do that, you wind up with a dog that is happy.”
Clearly it takes a bit of extra effort and creativity to train a deaf dog. And maybe even an extra dose of patience and humility as you navigate unfamiliar ground. Deaf dogs are different, for certain. But aren’t we all just a little bit different, yet equally precious?
“For perhaps, if the truth were known, we are all a little blind, a little deaf, a little handicapped, a little lonely, a little less than perfect. And if we can learn to appreciate and utilize the dog’s full potential, we will, together, make it in this life on earth.”—Author unknown
I wish you a wonderful journey with your precious girl.
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