Do you have the opportunity to raise a deaf dog but feel intimidated by the responsibility involved? Fear not: Training a deaf dog isn’t as challenging as you might think, and, if you have the patience and take the time to do it right, you can have an incredibly strong and communicative relationship with your pup.
September 20 marks the beginning of National Deaf Dog Awareness Week, so we sat down with professional dog trainer and owner of Washington D.C.’s Good Dog DC, Michelle Yue, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA to get answers to some of our toughest deaf-dog-training questions.
PetsMatter (PM): Do you recommend an owner take his deaf dog to training classes?
Michelle Yue (MY): I recommend starting in private sessions most often, since nonverbal communication is not necessarily easy for humans to learn (private sessions provide better opportunities for the pet owners to learn). The dogs learn hand signals quite easily, so a good trainer should be able to help get you started with that. Private training sessions can also help you pinpoint any areas of training that might be more difficult for you or your pup. After a private session or two, head to group training classes—just make sure the instructor has experience working with deaf dogs in class.
PM: Is sign language the key to communicating with deaf dogs? What are the most important commands to teach your dog using sign language?
MY: Since dogs communicate primarily through body language, learning hand signals is typically easier for them than learning verbal cues is for hearing dogs. Deaf dogs will pick up sign language quickly, and you won’t be restricted in the commands you teach them: If you can train a hearing dog to do something, a deaf dog will be able to learn the same command through sign language.
The most important commands to teach your dog include marker cues (tells them they did something right) and cues that tell them to look at their handlers, sit, down, leave it, stay, loose leash walking, and come. All of these commands can easily be taught using hand signals.
PM: What is the best way to get your deaf dog's attention without startling her?
MY: Scent is the easiest and gentlest way to get a deaf dog’s attention. Hold a treat just a few inches in front of her nose and then bring the treat up to your eyes. This will cause your dog to look at your face. Smile at your dog and reward her by giving her the treat when she looks at your face.
After you have good practice with this, while your dog is still looking at you, try to calmly touch her on a specific body part, like her shoulder. Immediately put a treat on her nose and bring her gaze up to your face, smile, and reward her for looking up at you.
The treats will teach her to have a positive and non-startling reaction to being touched there, and they’ll also reward her for giving you attention. Gradually work up to being able to do this when she is looking away from you and eventually to when she is sleeping.
Remember to avoid startling her by always approaching slowing and calmly. If she ever reacts quickly or fearfully or gets too excited when touched, go back to the previous training step—your training is likely moving at too quick a pace. Repeat this behavior hundreds of times until a hand placed on her shoulder prompts her to calmly look up at you and give you attention, no matter the circumstance.
PM: What is the best way to wake up your sleeping deaf dog?
MY: This is a great question, and it’s something that is often overlooked. It’s really important to wake your deaf dog properly and in a non-startling fashion. Using scent is the easiest and gentlest way, though, once you've built a strong, positive relationship with your dog, you can use the hand-on-the-shoulder technique described previously.
PM: Should deaf dogs always be leashed?
MY: Yes, most deaf dogs should always be on a leash when away from home or outside the confines of a fenced backyard. The good news: There are great secure harnesses and comfortable long lines that can safely give your dog a sense of freedom. Reward your dog often for checking in with you while on the long line to help build and maintain a strong foundation for regular check-ins.
Deaf dogs can make wonderful companions. Read more tips on living with a deaf dog, and visit Yue’s website if you’re in the Washington D.C. area and would like to learn more.
Bekka Burton is a freelance writer and English language teacher who lives with a diva in the form of a tortoiseshell cat.