Features September 2003 Issue

Training the Hearing Impaired Dog

Training a dog who is deaf or hard of hearing is not difficult, it’s just a little different.

[Updated July 18, 2017]

DEAF DOG TRAINING OVERVIEW

- Consider adopting a deaf dog if you want a dog who does not bark at environmental noise.

- Teach your deaf dog a “look at me” or “watch me” signal first. This makes it easier to add hand signals to cue other behaviors later.

- Owners of elderly dogs should consider teaching their dogs hand signals; hearing loss is common in very old dogs.

Each year, as many as tens of thousands of dogs are born or become deaf. Unfortunately, given the number of hearing-impaired canines, there is a lot of misinformation promulgated about deaf dogs, even among dog lovers. Well-meaning but misinformed breeders and other “experts” commonly perpetuate myths about deaf dogs – that they are difficult to live with, hard to train, aggressive, and that they are only suitable dogs for a few “special” people. But the people who really know deaf dogs – those who live with and love them – tell a very different story.

“We got our first deaf dog when going to a pet fair ‘just to look’ at the cute dogs,” says Deb Sell, an animal chiropractor in Prunedale, California, and the proud guardian of four dogs. “We already had a 1½- year-old Aussie mix, Hawi (pronounced Ha-Vee; it’s Hawaiian), and really hadn’t planned on getting a second dog.”

deaf agility dog

Echo is an adorable mini-Aussie adopted from a shelter by Dr. Deb Sell and her husband, Stacey. Echo is also deaf, something that does not prevent her from learning and joyfully demonstrating her agility skills. Her owners have since adopted two more deaf dogs.

But when Dr. Sell and her husband Stacey got to the pet fair that night, they saw one cute little white dog quietly watching everyone and became intrigued by her calm nature. They didn’t adopt Echo right away. Deb and Stacey went home that evening without her, but couldn’t stop thinking about her all week.

“We decided that if she was at the pet fair the following Friday night, we could consider adopting her. As fate would have it, she was there!” Echo soon came to live with the couple. Echo would begin for Dr. Sell what some might consider a “calling” into the world of living with and loving deaf dogs. The Sells now share their home and lives with three deaf dogs – Echo, Nefe, and Cooper – as well as their hearing dog, Hawi.

Suzan Mark and Gary Lomax of Santa Cruz also found their deaf dog, Cleo, somewhat through chance. They were visiting a local shelter, searching for a small dog, when they first met Cleo. Anything but a small dog (she is a Dalmatian), Cleo nonetheless caught their attention when in the midst of kennels full of barking, jumping dogs, she came to the kennel door and sat looking at them.

“It was as if she was saying, ‘OK, I’m ready to go home,’ ” says Mark. Not knowing Cleo was deaf, they went into an exercise yard to meet with her. It was then that one of the volunteers at the shelter mentioned that she might be hard of hearing. Gary experimented by clapping his hands over Cleo’s head. When he got no response to the sound, they realized that she was probably completely deaf.

Suzan and Gary also went away that day without Cleo. “We just weren’t sure about having a dog with a perceived handicap,” says Mark. They were also concerned that a Dalmatian might simply have too much energy for them.

The couple left the shelter with Cleo on their minds and in their hearts. Though they did look further for a small dog, they also did research to find out more about living with a deaf dog and living with a Dalmatian. They decided it just might be something they could do.

“We were still very nervous. We tried to think about all of the advantages – like she wouldn’t bark at the doorbell!” In the end, though, it was Cleo’s personality, not the fact that she could or could not hear, that won them over. “She is just a really sweet dog!” says Mark.

Why are Some Dogs Deaf?

Dogs are deaf for many of the same reasons that some people are deaf. Many deaf dogs are born that way – called congenital deafness – and there is often a genetic component. While the causes of genetically determined deafness in dogs are not completely understood, experts seem to agree that in many cases there is a relationship to a dog’s coat and eye coloring.

“I think that everyone agrees,” says Jack Edwards, Executive Director of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF), “that the genes for merle patterning that affect the color of individual hairs, the spotting patterns (especially the piebald series) that overlay whole sections of coat color and even eye color, all carry a portion of the code that determines whether a dog can hear or not.” But there may be other, less understood, genetic factors involved as well.

Edwards also notes other reasons – not related to color or pigment – that may cause a dog to be born deaf. A malnourished mother dog, birth difficulties, illness during pregnancy, plus the normal occurrence of birth defects can all be factors.

Dogs, just like people, can also lose their hearing later in life. Illness, infection, or injury to the ear can cause deafness. Older dogs may also experience a sudden or gradual loss of hearing. Dogs can be deaf in only one ear (unilateral), in both ears (bilateral), or experience only a partial deafness.

Many people with deaf dogs know their dogs are deaf without having any special medical evaluation. Some people do “sound tests” at home, much the way Gary Lomax did with Cleo at the shelter – whistling, clapping hands, or making other noises to see if the dog responds. These are not foolproof testing methods, as a dog may respond to the vibration of a sound or the movement of the air caused by making the sound, and appear to hear a certain sound when she does not. However, home tests can be helpful indicators and are a way for people to confirm what they may suspect.

For dog guardians who want to know absolutely the extent of hearing loss, there is a procedure called a “brainstem auditory evoked response” (BAER) test that measures hearing loss through measuring brain responses. Electrodes are placed under the skin on the dog’s head and hooked up to a computer that records the brain’s response to sounds. The test does not appear to cause the dog any pain, but some dogs do become agitated because of being restrained and because of wires dangling about their faces. BAER tests are performed at some university veterinary schools, hospitals, and specialty clinics.

“Special Needs” Dogs

Sell, Mark, and Lomax all agree that living with a deaf dog, for the most part, is really not so different than living with a hearing dog – they are, after all, just dogs! Some are friendly, some are shy, some are cautious, and some approach life with gusto. Each dog – hearing or deaf – has his or her own personality characteristics and needs. Deaf dogs do not have “special needs” per se. Sell emphasizes that living with her deaf dogs has “taught me that deafness is such a non-issue when it comes to dogs.”

training deaf dogs

Teaching “look at me” or “watch me” is helpful for all dogs, hearing and deaf. Using a treat in your hand, you can draw the dog’s attention to your face, or have him focus on your hand.

DDEAF’s Jack Edwards agrees that deaf dogs really don’t have “special needs.” He emphasizes, “Every dog needs food, water, shelter, and routine veterinary care. They need owners to love, exercise, and train them. They need protection from man-made dangers like household chemicals and street traffic and that nasty little boy down the street. Whether they are deaf from birth and unaware that something is missing or deaf from old age where the sounds of life slowly fade away, deaf dogs do not have any needs beyond those of every other companion animal.”

Edwards argues that “special needs” are those that take extra care or work. He cites examples of dogs with medical conditions that require specific diets or medications, dogs with allergies and skin problems that need special shampoo, or even dogs who have behavioral problems that require additional training or behavior modification as having “special needs.”

The exception may be a dog that experiences a sudden deafness later in life. “There are differences when working with dogs who became deaf at different times,” says Edwards. “Congenital and geriatric deafness are really not a lot different. One never heard anything and the other learned to compensate while the surrounding world grew quiet. The biggest challenge working with these dogs is getting the owners past the initial shock and ‘what do I do now’ stage.”

“In the case of sudden-onset deafness, whether from a trauma, a toxic reaction, or a surgery, it is a little more difficult,” Edwards says. “These dogs are used to getting information about their surroundings that is no longer available – and they have grown to depend on that input. They do have a special, albeit temporary, need. You may have to help them adjust the changes they are living through because of suddenly not being able to hear.”

But there are other considerations for a person considering adopting a dog who was born deaf. One in particular, Sell says, is that you have to be much more careful about letting your dog off leash in an unfenced area. In fact, many deaf dog guardians choose not to have their dog off leash at all unless the area is fenced.

Gary Lomax and Suzan Mark agree that the fear of losing Cleo, of her wandering off, is the one thing they consider significant and different about living with a deaf dog. A hearing dog, obviously, can also get lost or run away, but they believe Cleo’s lack of hearing would make it more difficult for them to locate her if she were to become lost. Because of their fear of losing her, they are careful to allow her off leash only in secured areas, such as a fenced dog park.

Deaf Dogs and Aggression

One of the predominant myths about deaf dogs is that they will become aggressive. To this day, some breed and rescue organizations recommend that all deaf dogs be killed as puppies, in part because of the belief that deaf dogs are aggressive.

Aggression is not caused by deafness. Aggression is linked to genetic predisposition and socialization. While there are no studies on the incidents of aggressive behaviors in deaf dogs as compared to hearing dogs, people who live with deaf dogs agree: a dog that has a sound temperament and is wellsocialized is much less likely to be aggressive, whether he can hear or not.

“I don’t believe there is any correlation between deafness and aggression. It’s a question of personalities and handling,” says Jack Edwards, Executive Director of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF). He has come to this conclusion through sharing his home with five deaf Dalmatians, as well as through his experience as a trainer, and his extensive contact with other deaf dog guardians.

Edwards notes that through a deaf dog email list (with more than 1,100 members) the subject of aggression comes up periodically in regard to specific dogs (as it does on most email dog lists that discuss behavioral and training issues), but it is not a regular topic.

In addition, Edwards has helped plan and has attended six Florida Deaf Dog Picnics. These events are held in public off-leash parks and are open to everyone. Edwards says that these events have been attended by all sorts of dogs, from Boston Terriers, Dachshunds, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Catahoulas, to the ever-present Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Boxers, and Dalmatians. “I have yet to see any problems or scuffles started by a deaf dog at one of these events.”

This of course does not mean that deaf dogs do not have aggression issues – they are, after all, dogs. But the incidence of aggression in deaf dogs does not seem to be any higher than among the general dog population. And specific training and behavior modification used to deal with aggression issues works just as well with deaf dogs as with hearing dogs.

Dogs Don’t Speak English

Of course, people who decide to adopt a deaf dog will need to be willing to overcome any reluctance they may have to communicating nonverbally. Dogs, whose primary mode of communication appears to be body language, don’t seem to have a problem with nonverbal communication; they don’t depend on English or any other spoken language to begin with! But some people do fear that they will not be able to adjust to using hand and visual signals rather than words to communicate.

Mark and Lomax said they had expected communication to be a problem, but discovered that it really hasn’t been. Cleo, Mark notes, is very intuitive about body language and picks up on hand signals very quickly.

“A slight flick of the wrist tells her to sit,” she says, “and using your whole arm is like shouting at her.”

People who live and work with deaf dogs do develop a whole series of nonverbal communication signals – including facial expressions, body postures, hand signals, and even high-tech devices such as vibrating collars. Some of the communication signals are intentional. Others happen naturally, for example when the dog learns what it means when people open a certain kitchen cabinet or reach for the leash. Of course, many people continue to talk to their dogs, too. When people speak, we incorporate a whole slew of facial expressions that may actually prove beneficial in communicating in spite of the fact that the dog doesn’t hear the words.

Do you have to learn special hand signals, like American Sign Language (ASL), to communicate with a deaf dog? Not necessarily. For some people, adopting signals from ASL means that they do not have to invent their own. Others use a combination of ASL signals and common obedience hand signals. Still others use whatever hand signals come naturally. One advantage to using certain ASL or “obedience” style hand signals is that other people may also know them and be able to communicate with your dog. For example, if you take your dog to a training class, the instructor is more likely to already know traditional obedience hand signals.

Isn’t Training More Difficult?

Deaf dogs, like hearing dogs, do not train themselves. Just as with any dog, your job will be to devote time and energy to their training and socialization in order to help them become well-adjusted members of the community. The principles of training apply to a deaf dog in the same way they do to a hearing dog. The main difference in the way you train a deaf dog is just in the way you communicate.

“I expected it to be difficult and it wasn’t. ‘Deafies’ (at least the deaf Aussies I have) are so tuned in to your hand signals and body language, they seem to stay more focused on me when I am training them than a hearing dog,” says Sell. “We have been involved in agility training and use only hand signals to do so. Echo buzzes around the course like a pro!”

Just as when training a hearing dog, you must first teach a deaf dog to understand when you want her attention. This is akin to teaching a hearing dog to understand her name. You can choose a signal for her name or teach a signal for “look at me” or “watch me.” In addition, you can teach a physical cue, such as a tap on the shoulder, for attention. Some people choose to use lights or vibrating collars (not shock collars) to get their dog’s attention.

In addition, you will need to teach a deaf dog one or more reward marker signals, and signals that are the equivalent to verbal praise. If this seems like a lot, just remember that we must also teach our hearing dogs what these things mean. No dog automatically knows his name, nor does he know the word “good” is praise.

Special issues around training do come up in regards to calling your dog at a distance – especially if she is not looking at you. Using a laser light (shined in front of a dog who is looking away, not at his eyes!) or a vibrating collar are two good solutions to getting attention at a distance, and thus being able to signal your dog to come.

“At the dog park,” Suzan Mark notes, “it is a little harder to get Cleo’s attention to call her back to us than it is with other dogs. Of course that does depend on who you are comparing her to – lots of dogs at the dog park don’t respond when they are called!”

Getting a Deaf Dog’s Attention

My students with deaf dogs frequently relate that their biggest challenge is getting their dogs’ attention, whether at home or out in the world. I watched one student, early in her training, do some incredible acrobatics to try and keep herself positioned in her dog’s line of sight. She seemed very happy when she realized she could teach her dog to look at her, instead. Here are some tips for getting a deaf dog’s attention (these tips work well with dogs who hear, too.)

• Reward “offered” attention

One of the most important ways to teach dogs to pay attention to you is to reward all “offers” of attention. This will encourage your dog to check in with you regularly, whether you ask for attention or not. At first, just for giving attention, you can offer a reward. In other words, if you are out on a walk and your dog looks up at you, give him a treat!

Once your dog starts to realize that checking in with you regularly earns rewards, you can start asking for additional behaviors before rewarding him. For example, if your dog looks at you expecting a treat, ask for a “sit,” then reward. Do continue to occasionally reward simply “checking in” with treats, play, or petting.

Jack Edwards from DDEAF suggests a game of “hide and seek” for teaching a dog to offer attention. “It starts out as ‘find me and get a reward.’ Then it turns into ‘whenever you see me, you get a signal to do something rewarding.’ Sometimes it’s a signal to go back to playing and sometimes it’s a ‘how fast can you get here’ recall. These games sure teach the dog to pay a lot of attention!”

• Hand signal for his name

Just as you teach a dog to respond to “Max” or “Spot,” you can teach a deaf dog to respond to a signal that means, “I’m talking to you now.” A simple finger point or a wave will each work and are easy to teach, but any signal will do.

To teach that the finger point or wave means “Max,” start by simply pointing or waving at the dog, then offering a reward such as a great treat. Throughout your daily life, use his “name signal” much as you would a verbal name. If you are about to feed your dog, point or wave in her direction, then walk to the kitchen and prepare his dinner. Before walks, point or wave to your dog, then get out the leash.

Soon the dog will respond to the hand signal just as a hearing dog would respond to the sound of his name spoken verbally.

• “Look” or “watch me” hand signal

Many dogs, hearing and deaf, need to be taught that they must pay attention at times. A “watch me” signal is a great way to teach them that they need to focus on you.

Take a treat between your thumb and middle finger. Briefly swipe the treat under your dog’s nose, then bring your hand up to your face and point your index finger to your eyes. As your dog’s eyes follow the treat to your eyes, give your “thumbs up” or other reward marker and give the dog the treat.

As your dog learns the game, begin to do the hand motion without having a treat in your hand. Do continue to give your dog the “thumbs up” and a treat for looking at your face.

Keep playing the game, increasing the length of time your dog “watches” you, before giving the thumbs up and the treat. One to three minutes of sustained eye contact is a good goal for a solid “watch me.”

Once your dog knows the signal from sitting in front of you in the living room, teach it with your dog in different positions. For example, ask him to watch you as he walks beside you as if walking on a leash. Then begin to practice in a variety of environments.

• Tap on the shoulder

In order to avoid the acrobatic antics of trying to make your dog see a hand signal, you can teach a physical cue that means “look” or “watch me” too. I like a tap on the shoulder or rear end as the signal for “Hey, look at me now.”

Start by tapping your dog on the shoulder when he is already looking at you, and offering a treat. Then move to tapping on the shoulder and treating when he is off to your side. Gradually move so that you are behind your dog. Tap him on the shoulder, and when he turns his head, give him a treat.

Once he knows that tapping means looking your way for a treat, you can add the other steps for “watch me.”

Clicker Training for Deaf Dogs?

Of course! Clicker training is simply a style of training that uses a “reward marker” to tell the dog when he “got it right!” With hearing dogs, people most commonly use a “clicker” or a word such as “Yes” as the reward marker. With a deaf dog, you can use the flick of a penlight or a hand signal such as a “thumbs up” for your reward marker.

To teach your dog that the flash of a penlight or a “thumbs up” signal means the dog just got it right, simply pair the signal with a treat. For example, first do a “thumbs up,” and then give your dog a great treat. Repeat 20 to 30 times in a row.

Now you can use your “thumbs up” the same as you would a clicker. For example, to shape a “sit,” wait for your dog to offer a sit or lure him into position just as you would a hearing dog. When he sits, give a “thumbs up” followed by a treat. As with a hearing dog, remember to get the behavior first, then put it on cue. When teaching the dog to sit, make sure your dog will, first, offer the sit reliably. Then give your hand signal for “sit” just before your dog sits. When he sits, immediately give him a “thumbs up” and a treat. He will quickly learn that your hand signal cue means sit, and the thumbs up means he did something right.

In addition to teaching a reward marker, consider teaching a signal such as a hand clap motion that means “good dog” or “keep going.” This can help bridge the communication gap when a dog is trying, but hasn’t quite hit the target for a “thumbs up.” A “reward marker” is a visual signal that alerts the dog that she has done the right thing and can expect a reward.

From here, it’s all up to you. You can teach a deaf dog as many behaviors and tricks as a dog who hears.

Using Technology with Deaf Dogs

High tech devices are not necessary when training a deaf dog; many people do without them just fine. But they do offer another alternative for getting a dog’s attention.

Consider a vibrating collar. (Not a shock collar. Be careful if you get a collar that doubles as both; you could accidentally shock your dog when you mean to vibrate.) The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund has a list of vibration collar manufacturers on its Web site (deafdogs.org). By itself, a vibrating collar will not teach a dog anything, but if you pair the vibration with great rewards like chicken or tuna, your dog will learn to look at you when he feels the vibration. This signal can work to get your dog’s attention when he is across the park from you.

You can use a laser light in a similar fashion to get a dog’s attention. Flash the light in front of the dog on the ground or another surface, and then give the dog a treat. (Be sure not to flash the light directly at the dog, as it could damage his eyes.) A laser light can be used in the daytime as well as at night and some lights can focus a spot up to 100 yards away.

Other Attention-Getters

Stomping your foot or banging a door can get your dog’s attention because they create a vibration that the dog may feel. Flicking the light switch or flashing a flashlight will attract their attention visually. Waving your arms in a wide circle over your head and out at your side can get a dog’s attention through his peripheral vision. Each of these will work even better if they are paired with a great reward.

“All Done” Signal

When you spend a whole lot of time teaching a dog to pay attention to you, you can end up with a dog who will never leave you alone. This can be trying for both the dog and the person!

By teaching your dog an “all done” or a release signal, you have a way to tell your dog when he is off duty and no longer needs to give you his undivided attention. This one is easy; simply pair a signal such as a flat hand or a “go away” motion with absolutely no attention from you! Your dog will soon learn that when you signal “all done,” the game is over.

Startling Myths About Dog Deafness

When I began working with my first student with a deaf dog, I did research trying to discover special issues that come up with deaf dogs. One of the “myths” surrounding deaf dogs that I saw repeatedly was that if you startle a deaf dog, they will bite.

“I think you can just take ‘deaf’ out of that sentence,” says Mark. In other words, if you startle any dog, he might bite. Hearing dogs can be startled too, and any dog who is frightened might react defensively. Deaf dogs aren’t necessarily startled more easily, just differently. And not all dogs react to being startled with aggression. Take Cleo, for example. “You can startle her and she reacts. But she thinks good things are going to happen!” Mark says.

The combination of Cleo’s good nature, possibly coupled with startle conditioning exercises shortly after they brought her home, has made startling a non-issue in their life. In fact recently, while playing at a local dog park, two young children ran up behind Cleo and grabbed her in a big hug. Cleo was obviously startled, but seemed to simply enjoy the experience. She greeted the girls, then happily received their pets and hugs.

Jack Edwards agrees. “It is my opinion that all dogs startle to unexpected stimuli – hearing dogs even more so because of the additional surprises. The phrase to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ was not written about deaf dogs but has been passed through generations of people who know better than to startle a dog.”

Edwards does also emphasize, however, that dogs who have suddenly become deaf may be more likely to suffer all the negative side effects of being startled. “These are the dogs where you really do need to take the time to help desensitize them.”

Like hearing dogs, not every deaf dog will be as easygoing as Cleo about being surprised or startled. For example, Deb Sell’s Border Collie mix, Nefe, did have trouble with people suddenly “appearing” in the doorway at her office. (This issue may be more related to her being a Border Collie, than to her having trouble hearing – one of my herding dogs has had a similar problem when she accompanies me to work.) Through counter-conditioning, Nefe has learned that people appearing in a doorway is not such a scary thing after all.

Socializing any dog to lots of people, places, sites, and touches will help him learn not to be as startled by any one factor. In addition, people living with deaf or hearing dogs can consciously condition their dogs so that they actually enjoy being startled. By pairing the dog’s favorite treat with a “startle,” she can learn, like Cleo did, that being startled means good things happen.

Speaking Louder Than Words

I must admit that I wanted to write this article to help dispel myths about deaf dogs, and to help put a wedge into the shameful practice of killing deaf dogs simply because they cannot hear. But I had a second motivation: to share with other caring dog people that living with a dog that has a physical difference isn’t about being altruistic or noble. Rather, it’s about being open to sharing your life with an animal who comes your way – the one who is meant to be your companion whether she can hear or not.

Sell notes, “People shy away from adopting a dog that is ‘defective.’ Those people are really missing out on sharing their life with a very special animal. I truly believe animals come into our lives for a reason. I think mine are here to teach me that a ‘handicap’ is something that you need to look beyond, to see the real inner person (dog). If we had not adopted these three deafies, we would have missed out on one of life’s great gifts . . . an amazing and strong bond between people and their dogs.”

Suzan Mark and Gary Lomax began their journey with Cleo with some apprehension. They were understandably nervous about adopting a deaf dog. But now, after having shared their life with her, when asked if they would do it again, Suzan and Gary say, “For sure! She picked us.”

When asked if she would do it again, Sell just laughs. “Well, I think the fact that we have already adopted three pretty much answers this question!”

See “Resources." for contact information for people in this article.

Mardi Richmond is a writer, editor and dog trainer who lives in Santa Cruz, California. She is grateful to Jack Edwards of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund, Dr. Deb Sell, and Suzan Mark and Gary Lomax for sharing their experiences for this article.

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