Rest assured, that you can train any dog. A deaf dog is no exception to the rule. So, whether you’ve adopted a deaf dog, or your dog has lost hearing in old age — you can train your dog, just as well as any other canine.
Dogs predominantly rely on their five senses to navigate the world. Their senses help them interact and understand their surroundings. A regular dog will have all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. A deaf dog, of course — only has four senses.
However, dogs are fantastic at adapting to their environment — which means, the four senses that a deaf dog has, will be heightened and utilized to adjust to their surroundings.
The point being, a deaf dog is more than capable of being trained, just like any other dog. The only difference is in the method used to train deaf dogs, which we’ll explain in this article.
What Causes Deafness in Dogs?
Deafness in dogs can be caused by various factors. Sometimes, puppies are just born deaf, due to genetic defects. This is called congenital deafness. In other cases, dogs become deaf later in life. Old age is a common cause of deafness, but infections and other ailments can cause different levels of deafness, depending on the severity.
A common cause of congenital deafness is related to a dog’s pigmentation. This is usually related to the piebald gene. Piebaldism is caused by the absence of melanocytes, i.e., cells that form the pigment melanin.
Melanocytes are part of the dog’s DNA and determine the dog’s coloration, e.g., black hair, brown eyes. However, if a puppy is born without melanocytes, the dog will form a predominately white coat (oftentimes, you will see blue eyes — due to the lack of color-forming pigmentation within the iris.)
Now, not all breeds with white coats suffer from the piebald gene. For instance, Samoyed’s are usually unaffected, because their skin has pigmentation (notice the black nose and eyelids).
Some breeds, like the Jack Russel and Dalmatian, have colored coats, with white trim. The trim (think of the black, or brown patches as their true color) is the result of unpigmented skin (you’ll see this as pink), which results in white hair.
A dog can hear due to a layer of specialized cells within the inner ear. The cells that determine a dog’s hair color derive from the same stem cell source. Without this crucial stem cell, the layer of specialized cells which result in a dog’s hearing will not form and will likely be white.
So, if a dog has unpigmented skin in the inner ears, the nerve endings often degenerate and will die, causing deafness. Now — you cannot discern the color of hairs located in the inner parts of the ear, by looking at the visible color of a dog’s ear.
Please contact your local vet if you have any concerns about deafness. Deafness can occur in dogs with white and colored ears — please seek professional advice.
How Do I Get the Attention of a Deaf Dog
Training your dog begins with training your dog to focus on you.
Usually, dog owners appeal to a dog’s sense of sound to gain their attention. In the case of a deaf dog, that’s not optional. You have to use a different technique to obtain the focus of your dog. Getting the focus of your dog is an important part of any training.
Your dog needs to learn that focusing on you leads to positive outcomes, which will encourage their training and help form the relationship between you. It also helps teach dogs that you are the alpha.
This is crucial, ensuring your relationship with your dog is safe, providing your dog with security and placement within the pack, and forming mutual respect between you and your canine.
To get your canine to focus on you, you need to implement positive reinforcement. To get your dog to focus on you, you need to consider it as the first aspect of training. When you begin this focused activity, you will reward your dog with a treat when they voluntarily make eye contact with you.
After multiple repetitions, try the activity in different locations, giving your dog praise when they voluntarily make eye contact with you. This will cause your dog to link paying attention to you with a positive outcome.
You will progress this activity with touch. When your dog is awake and turned from you, you will touch their head, or rear end (pick one location and stick with it), and gently pet them. At first, they will be startled — so be sure to be gentle and caring. Give the dog treats or lots of praise.
Eventually, your dog will associate being touched by you as a positive, rather than being startled and scared. You will repeat this process while your dog is asleep — again, being very gentle and caring, and supplying your dog with treats and praise to trigger positive reinforcement. This allows you to wake up, and touch your dog safely.
Other ways of gaining attention could be by using vibrations, e.g., by gently tapping your foot, or tapping their bed.
How to Train a Deaf Dog: Hand Gestures
Dogs are excellent observers and notice small details. You will communicate with your canine by using hand gestures and through your body language.
Generally speaking — you can use any hand signal you’d like, as long as you’re consistent in using different gestures for different signals. Although dogs are highly observant, it can get confusing if your hand signals are too alike.
Some people prefer to use traditional sign language, while some prefer to make up their own signs. Use whatever will be clearer for you and your dog. You can use sign language to teach your dog common obedience tricks, such as sit, stay, rollover, and so forth. Deaf dogs are just as capable of great obedience.
Turning Clicker Training into Signal Training
Traditionally, in clicker training, the trainer creates an association between the sound of a clicker and the dog receiving a treat.
The purpose of the clicker is to mark the precise moment of the desired behavior — when the treat is (immediately) delivered, the dog learns that the particular behavior will result in a treat. This is due to the association of the click and the positive reinforcement of the treat.
Now, a deaf dog can’t hear sound — so instead, you will follow the same method, but use hand signals, instead of clicks. You will use a very simple hand gesture, commonly, people prefer to use a thumbs-up gesture. Instead of the click, you mark the behavior with your chosen gesture and reward them with a treat.
You would repeat this training just as you would normal clicker training — once your dog shows excitement and anticipation for your chosen gesture, you’ll know the association is beginning to form.
Deaf Dogs and Luring
The next stage is helping your dog learn basic training cues, e.g., the gesture for sit.
Now, this stage will be pretty similar to teaching any other canine with lures. The difference is, the deaf dog won’t hear the verbal cue (we’ll explain later, why verbal cues are still useful for deaf dogs).
You’re going to get a treat, and hold it in front of your dog’s nose — still using the treat, quickly guide the dog into your desired position — then, use your chosen gesture to replace the clicker, followed by the treat. After your dog starts positively responding to this, you will then replace the treat and just use the motion of your hand.
You will use your chosen gesture to replace the clicker and lots of praise when your dog completes the act. When your dog gets the hang of this, you can adapt to the motion of your hand into a shorter gesture, and follow the same process.
As stated, the process can be adapted to other basic training cues, like stay, sit down, rollover, and so forth.
We stated in the article that verbal cues are helpful for your dog’s learning, and understanding. This is true. Although your dog cannot hear you, your dog is excellent at reading facial expressions and watching behavior.
If you say, ‘no!’ your dog will understand from your expression that something is negative, and if you say ‘good!’ your dog will understand from your expression something is positive. So, be verbal with your dog, in training and otherwise — it helps your dog understand you, and what you’re asking of your canine friend.
When it comes to training sessions, try to keep them short, around 10-15 minutes at a time. Only train when you can give your full attention to your dog.
Scolding your dog for not understanding is not effective, and is cruel. You need to implement patience and kindness into your training, and always apply positive reinforcement.
Deaf dogs require the same patience and understanding as regular canines, they just require different methods, and you need to be aware of how they navigate the world using their four senses.
Unfortunately, many deaf dogs are euthanized, simply because they are deaf. This is based on a cruel misconception that deaf dogs cannot be obedient and therefore are a danger. This is wrong, deaf dogs are just as capable of obedience, and are just as loving.