Deaf Dogs Can Learn As Well As Hearing Dogs

When it comes to training deaf dogs, they can learn just like hearing dogs with just a slight tweak in the training program. When training a hearing dog, you would use verbal and visual commands. When training a deaf dog, you would use hand signs for visual cues to replace verbal commands (although I still talk so my deaf dogs can read my facial expressions). Many trainers of hearing and deaf dogs combine the verbal with facial expressions along with the visual hand signals so that both hearing and deaf dogs will perform with hand signs.

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The newest member of our family Bowie! 

My deaf dogs Bud and Nitro

Below are a series of tips I’ve picked up during my last five years of training my three deaf dogs Nitro, Bud and Bowie. I hope these tips help our readers discover how easy and enjoyable training  deaf dogs can be especially if you commit to consistent positive reinforcement training every day.

Happy training! ~ Christina Lee – Deaf Dogs Rock

Our 3 deaf and three hearing dogs here at Deaf Dogs Rock HQ

Avoid surprising a deaf dog until you have the chance to work on desensitizing the dog with your touch. Deaf dogs can’t hear a person approaching  from behind so it is very important to touch them gently and often. To wake a deaf dog, lightly blow on their face or touch the dog on the back leg or shoulder. I always wake up Nitro and Bud every morning and we have our morning ritual of me touching and rubbing them all over while they wake up and stretch.  A gentle stroke to the dog’s head will not be taken as threatening, your hands will be safe, and your dog will come to recognize your touch as a welcome ritual.

I touch all three of my deaf dogs all the time when they are sleeping to try to desensitize them to being woken up so they don’t usually startle. When I first adopted my deaf Boston puppy Bowie he would snap when I would wake him up but not anymore because we worked hard to constantly touch him to desensitize him to our touch. When I wake my deaf dogs,  I also spend time massaging each of them and gently rubbing the insides of their ears, rubbing their paws, and legs so they get used to being touched all over. In our AKC Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog Training programs we work on touching our deaf dogs but we also invite the instructors and other people to practice touching our dogs as well.

Training has to be a priority if you are going to adopt a deaf dog. Training any dog takes time and patience but I think you will find with a deaf dog or puppy is that they learn very fast because they have no sound distractions. Also when a deaf dog finally figures out what you are asking him to do, you can actually see the excitement in their eyes and facial expression. The first step in training a deaf dog is to get on a dedicated training schedule hopefully at a dog training center so you’re deaf dog gets the socialization he/she needs for building a strong foundation.

The second step in training a deaf dog is getting them to look at you often because a deaf dog needs to be looking at you before you can sign to the dog. When they get a sign command, they will watch for your facial expressions to see if you have a happy look on your face. You will find when you train a deaf dog the best course of action is positive reinforcement dog training using a marker and a high value treat. The second course of action is lots of praise like smiling, a thumbs up signal and I even do a wave clap and act happy when my deaf dog Nitro gets a new command. I always make sure he is hungry so never feed your deaf dog before a training session.  What I mean by a high value treat is a treat that is viewed as currency by your dog. I usually cut up turkey meatballs, hot dogs or sliced light bologna.

Hand signals based on  American Sign Language (ASL) work very well, or you can make up the basic signals like sit, come and stay. I use a little of both so many of us deaf dog owners call our signs Deaf Dog Sign Language or DDSL. If you have more then just your deaf dog at home (I have five), you will be surprised how fast your hearing dogs will pick up on the DDSL hand signals when there is a high value treat involved. Nitro knows about 40 to 50 signs now (he took tricks and agility classes also) and he is only two years old. Click here to see more about “Beginning Sign Training” and to watch an video with Alisha McGraw where she shares with all of you the ASL signs for the most common dog command signs.

If you want to use ASL for signing be sure to check out aslpro.com  or signsavvy.com to learn the different hand signs for commands. An advantage to using ASL sign is if the dog you are teaching is in a shelter and up for adoption it helps the new family to be able to have a consistent easy sign language they can look up on-line. Also I can’t count the times a deaf person has come up to Nitro and asked him for a “sit”  in ASL and he immediately sits down. He is such a good boy!

When I give my deaf dogs Nitro, Bud, and Bowie a sign command, and they follow through and do the command, I make sure to give them an open flash of my hand (just like in clicker training but instead of a the sound of a clicker the dogs see a visual marker – some people use a thumbs up sign to replace the sound of a clicker). What I am trying to do when I do a marker is an open flash of my hand is to mark the correct behavior the very second the dog chooses to make the right choice to do the correct command. I immediately follow the sign marker by giving the dog a high value treat. What this does is let the deaf dog know after just a couple of repetitions is that he/she is doing the correct action to my sign command request. I used to do a five finger flash but now I do a three finger flash so I can still hold a treat in between my thumb and index finger. Please don’t use a flashlight, LED light or a laser light or a vibration collar as a marker (see our posts on OCD behaviors and light) but keep it simple like a thumbs up sign or an open three finger flash of your hand.

To signal “Good dog,” after the flash I use a thumbs up sign when he is going in the right direction.  I make sure I smile with a big smile and sometimes I will give him the “good job” sign which is bringing my hand out from my chin.

The “thumbs up” sign can be done immediately with any free hand and even across the room as long as your dog is looking directly at you. So to summarize what I just went over.  I ask my dog for the command by giving him a sign, when he chooses to give me the right command (or if he doesn’t understand I try to lure him into place with the treat inside my closed hand),next I do an open flash of my hand (or a thumbs up sign) to mark the correct behavior and then give the dog a high value treat (I use Oscar Meyer Light Bologna cut into small pieces). Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Teach your dog focus. Always make sure to teach your dog to focus on you as the dog’s owner and constantly “check in” with you every few seconds. You can teach your dog the “watch me” sign by holding the treat up by your eyes or nose and say “watch me” by pointing to your eyes. Deaf dogs are visually oriented, so use visual cues and body language.  My deaf dogs Nitro, Bud, and Bowie had huge training advantages in their levels obedience classes because while the other dogs were barking and being disruptive, my three deaf dogs were totally focused on me in most of my classes. Nitro for example went through puppy class all the way to level 4 in six weeks and he is 100% deaf!

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Trust is everything to a deaf dog. All three of my deaf dogs know no matter what happens I always have theirs backs. For this reason, in my opinion, you must never ever strike your deaf dog for any reason but instead redirect him. They need to trust your hands 100% as positive communications. Your hands are your bridge to everything you do with and for your deaf dog. Redirection is always the best course of action for example if your deaf dog is chewing on your shoes, you would give your dog the “no” sign and then give the dog a chew toy with a “thumbs up” sign. When your deaf dog is truly bonded with you, he will always come to you if he is worried or frightened. At our local dog park my deaf dog Bud is more of a free spirit and runs with the pack but Nitro tends to shadow me everywhere. He will play with another dog as long as I am there to protect him if there is trouble but the minute I walk away, he stops playing and follows me where ever I go.

Make dog training part of every activity you do throughout your day. My first few weeks with each one of my deaf dogs Nitro, Bud and Bowie I had them attached to my belt by a leash. We call this Tether Training. To learn more about Tether Training, please click here. All three deaf dogs literally became my shadow. I use this time as an opportunity to sign to them, point and treat to give them directional training.

By the end of the week of tether training, they know about 20 signs right off the bat. Now they both move from room to room with me when I am in the house. Deaf dogs have a good chance of having separation anxiety issues so they tend to follow their owners from room to room. For the first two years of having Nitro and Bud they used to follow me from room to room but not as much anymore. My deaf puppy Bowie follows me from room to room now. If your deaf dog is being good and just hanging out on the floor watching you then give him a treat with a thumbs up for being a “good dog”. By being consistent and doing these training tips often, you will be amazed at the transformation from an unruly young dog to a dog with good canine manners who actually pays attention to your commands.

Deaf dogs can be great with children. My dogs Nitro and Bowie absolutely love children and they are trained to sit or lay all the way down when they meet a new  child or another dog. Since children can be unpredictable, raising a deaf dog in a household with children can take extra training not just for the dog but also for the children. On the other hand my deaf dog Bud who just turned three is nervous around kids so we have to go a little slower with introductions with him.

Children must be taught to respect the dog’s space and not to disrupt the deaf dog when he is sleeping. Also playing a serious game of Tug of War with a deaf dog is a big mistake if you have small children. You don’t want a deaf dog chasing children and grabbing onto their clothing (and tugging) them in play so it is important to show the children how to teach a dog to fetch by taking two toys (throw one and when the dog comes back to them throw the other toy which makes him drop the first and go after the second) and teach the dog to fetch so he is running after the toy and not the kids.

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Deaf dogs can’t hear an adult or child cry out in pain when a puppy bites down to hard so it is important to work on bite inhibition and leave it training.   I have taught Nitro the “no bite” signal with a “no” sign and then my right hand makes a biting motion to my left hand.

When a deaf dog bites, you should give the “no bite” sign, make a very sad facial expression and make sure all play abruptly stops by walking away. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This also includes playing with other dogs, children and adults. As soon as the dog learns when he/she bites down to hard, all play stops, then they learn very fast not to bite down hard. I have also taught my deaf dog the “gentle” sign by softly stroking the top of my hand with my other hand and mouthing the word “gentle”.

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Give a deaf dog his own personal and safe space. Be sure to have an area where the deaf dog can have his very own space. For my deaf dogs Nitro and Bud they both have big kennels in our bedroom that are half covered up with blankets so each kennel is like a big den for each dog. This is a safe place they each can go inside and get their time to relax and take a nap. We have crate trained all of our dogs and we give them their meals and treats in their crates so their crates are a positive place to go.

If you are getting a deaf puppy or a rambunctious older deaf dog, think about putting up doggy gates in your living-family room. By having dog gates up, you can monitor your dog when you are potty training and from keeping them from counter. Young dogs love to get into everything so it helps to visually see your deaf dog at all times. Also never punish a deaf dog by putting him into his crate. The crate must always be a positive place to go so never use it as your “time out” area. If you need a “time out” place then choose one like a hallway with a gate up and stick to it (some folks use a hallway or outside in the back yard).

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I purchased this heavy duty baby gate on a local Facebook yard sale page for $15!

In my opinion, having a fenced yard is a life saver when living with a deaf dog unless you can take your dog on a lot of walks, go to doggy daycare or go to a safe dog park. A smaller lap dog will do well because they are happy just taking a walk a couple of times a day. You must always walk a deaf dog on a leash. If you decide you want a deaf dog who can be off leash, (many compete in agility, rally, flyball and disc competitions) then it would be a good idea to train your dog on recall with a vibration collar.

Hearing dogs can be your deaf dog’s “partner” My two hearing dogs are great partners for my three deaf dogs. Deaf dogs often take “cues” from the hearing dogs around them. When my deaf dogs Nitro, Bud, and Bowie notice the other dogs in our family running to the fence to bark, they will always join in with them. Also my hearing dogs have been trained to come whenever I call them so when they come running to me, Nitro, Bud, and Bowie are always right behind them. You should be working on your recall with all your dogs but especially your deaf dogs. The commands of “come” and “stay” are very important and both of those commands could potentially save your deaf and hearing dog’s life one day. You can use a your porch lights and flip them on and off at night to get the dogs to come inside. I taught all my dogs the “treat” sign. If I stand under the light and show them the sign for “treat” it is like a flash mob of all five of my dogs come rushing to the back door to greet me.

I hope these tips help you on your road to building a great training foundation for your deaf dog. If you have problems or concerns be sure to talk with all the deaf dog owners on our Deaf Dogs Rock Facebook page.

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Happy deaf dog training ROCKERS!

~ Christina, Nitro, Bud and Bowie

 

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