Mark Vette – Internationally renowned Animal Behaviourist, Educator, Author and TV personality

Training tips for deaf dogs

TRAINING TIPS FOR DEAF DOGS  

I’ve heard from many people who’ve adopted a puppy without realising it’s deaf, or fallen in love with a rescue dog that’s hard of hearing. However, when a lot of typical dog training relies on spoken commands, it doesn’t make things easy. So if you have a deaf dog – here are my tips for learning to train and communicate with it more easily!


1. Rely on hand signals

If your dog can’t hear your spoken voice, you’ll need to rely on hand signals to indicate what you want your dog to do. Dogs are generally non-verbal anyway – dogs are primarily postural communicators and in fact, I teach hand signals before verbal commands even with dogs that hear. Some hand signals include a downward pointed finger for “down”, a flat hand stop sign for “stay”, a pat on your upper thigh for “come” or tapping your left hip for “heel”. Exaggerate the size of the visual signals. Give the hand signal and put your dog in the position you want, then reward successful behaviours with small pieces of high value food, such as cubes of dog roll or cooked chicken. Learning some sign language may be helpful!

2. Use food lures

Small pieces of high value food can be used lure dogs into the behaviour you want. For example, if you’re teaching “sit”, hold a piece of food and bring it to your dog’s nose so they can sniff it. Move your hand (with the food) from your dog’s nose to above its forehead, twisting it like you are turning a key in a lock. Your dog should follow your hand with its nose, which will lead it into a sit position. Then give the dog the food reward. This “turn key” motion will become your hand signal for “sit”. Food lures in conjunction with hand signals can also be used to teach your dog commands like down, turn around, heel, roll over etc. 

3. Use training tools

Find tools that will help you guide your dog into the behaviours you want. For example, a nylon safety slip collar is fitted with an O ring at each end. By pushing a fold in the nylon collar through one of the O rings, you create a loop that your dog’s head goes through. A lead is attached to the other O ring. This means if your dog pulls away from you, the slip collar tightens, creating a little discomfort. When your dog walks beside you and doesn’t pull away, the collar hangs loosely and is more comfortable. This teaches your dog the contrast between pulling away from you (uncomfortable) and staying beside you (comfortable, and ideally he’d get a treat when he does this too!). In this way, you can train your dog to “heel”. You can enhance this behaviour by treating your dog whenever he is walking nicely beside your leg to reward that behaviour. You might get him used to his by clipping his lead to your belt so that he stays in your space and gets used to moving with you. Treat him when he isn’t pulling (but be careful with this technique if your mobility is compromised!).  

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4. Get your dog’s attention 

Your dog won’t hear you when you call its name, so find other ways to get your dog’s attention. Try thumping the floor with your foot to create vibrations your dog will feel, use a torch (especially at night time), or try waving your arms. However the best method is a vibration collar (see below under Tools). 

5. Be respectful

As with any dog, be respectful and understand that deaf dogs might startle more easily. When waking him, do it by touching him gently or holding your hand in front of his nose to sniff. It’s also a good idea to desensitise him to unexpected touching to avoid a fear response – do this by touching him gently and unexpectedly in different places on his body, and immediately following up with a treat. This shows him that unexpected touch is a good thing to look forward to, not be afraid of!

6. Use body language 

Dogs are gifted at reading human body language and facial expressions, and your deaf dog may become even more in tune so use this to communicate. Research what human postures and expressions mean to dogs, for example: crouching down, looking slightly away from your dog and turning sideways are non-threatening postures that are good for commands in which you want to draw your dog towards you, such as “come”. You can smile and squat down to draw the dog to you. For fixed commands such as “sit”, “down”, “wait” or “stay”, have your body square on and make some eye contact.

7. Find a signal for “yes” 

With hearing dogs, a clicker marks the behaviour I want. You can replace a clicker with another marker for your dog that says “yes, that’s what I wanted!”. For example, thumbs up. Always follow up the “yes” signal with a treat.

8. Tools that help

As with any dog, be respectful and understand that deaf dogs might startle more easily. When waking him, do it by touching him gently or holding your hand in front of his nose to sniff. It’s also a good idea to desensitise him to unexpected touching to avoid a fear response – do this by touching him gently and unexpectedly in different places on his body, and immediately following up with a treat. This shows him that unexpected touch is a good thing to look forward to, not be afraid of!

There are vibration collars you can buy for your dog that vibrate when you push the remote. Starting on a long line or retractable lead, you can vibrate when the dog orients to you and comes  to you for a food reward. This will give the dog a message that you are calling him to look to you when they feel that vibration. Then when your dog is looking at you, you can add the visual signal for the command (e.g. come, sit, down etc) and deliver a food reward when your dog does the correct behaviour by coming to you. This vibration can then be used for distance recall with your deaf dog, given you are unable to call or whistle! You can even use the vibrate like a clicker too! The vibration becomes a  marker for the correct behaviour, and is a promise of a food reward – this can really speed up training. If you choose to use a collar like this, remember to help your dog adjust to it slowly – when you first use it, use nice high value food rewards.

Please note that this is different to using an electric collar to deliver a remote correction. Pairing a food reward with a light vibration is treating it as a positive reinforcement for the behaviour you want to see, whereas using a shock for a correction when your dog is doing an inappropriate behaviour is using it as a conditioned aversive signal and instead telling your dog “no!”. We don’t recommend you attempt to use a collar for remote corrections without professional assistance. If you have a deaf dog with behavioural issues that you need to work on, contact us instead and we can give you some advice on the best methods to work through any challenges you’re experiencing in a positive way. 

Good luck with your training and building that life long bond!

If you want to teach your dog all the most important commands, if your dog has persistent behavioural issues, or if you simply want your dog to listen to you more, my interactive Dog Zen Virtual Dog School covers how to train your dog and solve common behavioural issues. Find out more here. 

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