Many breeds of dog are particularly prone to deafness, either from birth as a genetically inherited condition, or developing later in life. The Dalmatian is a good example of a breed that produces more than the average amount of deaf puppies, and other types of dogs that are largely white and blue eyed may be more prone to deafness as well.
Deafness in dogs may be more common than you think; it is thought that around 3% of dogs are profoundly deaf from birth or a young age, and this figure rises to around 13% of the canine population when you also take into account aging-related deafness and partial deafness too.
With statistics like these, it is understandable that there is a great amount of interest in how best to train a deaf dog, when you take into account the fact that using vocal commands is the most common method of dog training, and most of the commands and signals that we give to our dogs are largely vocal. So, how can you train a deaf dog effectively? Read on for a few ideas.
Some dogs are very good at masking their deafness. It is not hugely uncommon for a person who has owned their dog for many years to be shocked at a new diagnosis of deafness, as their dog may have found ways of accommodating for their lack of hearing and responding to cues that are not sound-based without you realising it! This neatly demonstrates how adaptable these dogs are, and can give dog owners hope for training their own deaf dogs using methods other than verbal cues.
If you suspect that your dog may be deaf, partially deaf or losing their hearing, it is best to get this checked out by your vet, in case there is a treatable underlying cause or medical condition associated with their deafness. Your vet will also be able to let you know exactly how much your dog can or cannot hear, and if they have better hearing in one ear than in the other.
It might seem obvious that you will need to replace the normal verbal cues that make up training commands with signalled commands and movements, but putting this into practice can be less straightforward!
Before you can begin attempting to teach your dog signalled commands rather than vocal cues, first of all you will need to work out a pattern of signalled cues to use. If you take into account how many training commands the average dog can retain; usually at least ten and often many more, this gives you a wide range of options to designate as your core signalled training commands, and should of course include the obvious core commands such as sit, stay, no, lie down and stop it. Designing hand movements to match these commands can be more of a challenge. You should make sure that each signalled command is distinctive from all of the other commands to avoid confusion, using both of your hands to provide variety and involving the movements of your arms, head and body as well for added clarity.
Dogs take many of their cues from your mood, and the expression on your face can go a long way towards letting your dog know what your mood is; so accompany ‘good’ and positive signals with a smile and enthusiasm, and ‘stop’ or ‘no’ with a frown. A frown and a headshake works well as a ‘no,’ while nodding, smiling and a ‘thumbs up’ gesture makes an effective ‘good dog’ signal.
When giving signalled commands to a dog, even one that we know cannot hear, it is often second nature to accompany the signal with the appropriate vocal command, and this isn’t a problem! But bear in mind that if you do get into the habit of administering a vocal command along with your signals, you will need to do this regularly every time, as your dog may begin to associate the shape and movement of your mouth as you speak with the cue, even though they cannot hear your words.
Understandably, it won’t help at all even if your dog has a huge vocabulary of signed training commands that they understand and respond to if they are not aware that you are talking to them!
With a deaf dog, you cannot simply call their name to get their attention, and so you will need to get into the habit of hailing them and getting them to look your way to see what you want them to do by other means.
Inside of the house if your dog is nearby and on some types of surfaces outdoors, you may be able to alert your dog of your presence by stamping your feet, so that your dog feels the vibration through the ground and looks your way.
Outside, off the lead and out walking, however, this may not always prove effective. It is vitally important to keep a deaf dog on the lead while walking along roads, or within range of roads or any other potential hazards. But it can be perfectly safe to let a deaf dog run freely off the lead in safely enclosed areas; as long as you can ultimately get their attention if you need to.
It is a good idea to train your dog (deaf or hearing) to look back to you regularly when they are running off the lead, in case you are trying to get their attention or give them a command. This is especially important in the case of a deaf dog, as even if you are frantically calling for them, they will of course not be able to hear you!
Wearing something brightly coloured and that stands out from the backdrop, such as a bright coat or jacket or a reflective vest can help your dog to easily place your position at all times, and give them a point of reference to orient themselves by.
There are various different methods of catching a deaf dog’s attention from a distance and summoning them to return to you, and training your deaf dog to do this is essentially the same as using a verbal recall command for other dogs. But effective and consistent recall can be one of the harder commands to train and instil in your dog. While it is of course important to ensure that your deaf dog understands what you want from them in order to comply with it, do not automatically assume that a lack of consistent obedience to a visual recall command is based on a lack of understanding!
In football, a ‘red card’ is used by the referee to signal stop of play and that a player must follow a specific command directed at them. You can use a similar system with your dog to order them to stop what they are doing and return to you, although the ‘red card’ system should not be considered as the punishment that it often is in football!
Holding up a coloured card or bright item of clothing that your dog can clearly identify and using this as the recall command or ‘stop that and come here’ command is one way to go about it, or an alternative on darker days could be to use a flashing a torch.
Finally, your ‘red card’ should ideally be a colour other than red, as dogs are generally thought to be colour blind to reds and greens!