You’ve just gotten your new puppy and you notice that he isn’t responding to his name. You started off joking that your dog can’t hear and that’s why he isn’t listening. As time moves on you begin to believe that he really can’t hear you! The first thing to do would be to determine if there actually is a hearing issue. Unfortunately we can’t simply ask the dog if they can hear us. A good test to determine their level of hearing is to make increasingly louder noises just outside of the dog’s field of vision. It is best to make these noises with something like a cell phone which allows you to increase the volume as opposed to banging two objects together. The objects will cause a vibration which could cause the dog to react even without hearing a sound. Watch the dog’s ears as you make the noise, if they twitch or move there is a good chance the dog has some level of hearing. You can also consult a veterinarian who can run more detailed tests to provide a clear diagnosis.
Deafness in dogs is not all that rare. There are actually 30 breeds that have a disposition for deafness. They include some of the most popular dog breeds; German Shepherds, Boston Terriers and the Cocker Spaniel to name a few. Additionally, much like humans, many dogs will begin to lose their hearing as they age.
Many people ask us if it is even possible to train a dog that is completely deaf. They are surprised when we tell them that it is not all that different than training a dog that has full hearing. The first thing we want to do is establish a method of communication with the dog. Standard obedience hand signals are the method that we have found to work the best because many people will be familiar with them. There are people that advocate using the America Sign Language (ASL) signals instead. While we do not have an issue with this, we typically avoid it. You will find that more people know the standard obedience command for sit rather than the ASL version. Although using hand signals to train a deaf dog is not difficult, there is one large limitation. When using hand signals you have to ensure that the dog can actually see the command. Always make sure that you are in their range of vision when using the hand signals. Believe it or not, that doesn’t mean you need to be in front of them. Much like humans, dogs have great peripheral vision.
In addition to using the hand signal, we always instruct clients to say the command aloud. This seems odd to people, but it helps both the dog and the handler. For the trainer, saying the command makes them feel more comfortable, because it is what they are used to and feel most comfortable with. For dogs with some hearing there is the chance that they will hear part of the command and learn it along with the hand signal. For dogs that are fully deaf, there is still the chance that they are feeling the vibrations from your words. This is similar to how deaf people feel the vibrations of music and find the rhythm of it.
After teaching the dog how to perform their obedience commands when they see the hand signal, it is time to start working on off leash obedience. An extremely useful tool to use when training a deaf dog is a vibrating collar. This is not a shock collar, but instead a collar that emits only a vibration. We utilize the collar in a manner similar to the way that we get a hearing dog’s attention prior to giving a command. We issue a vibration prior to giving a command with a hand signal which conditions the dog to look to you when requested. This will require a good deal of training before your dog can be free at the dog park and look to you when paged, but it will be invaluable once they start responding to it.
When training a deaf dog, the trainer should exhibit more patience than with the average dog. This is not limited to obedience commands. This also refers to the process of socializing the dog. Many deaf dogs are unfairly characterized as skittish or nervous. This often stems from their inability to know what humans want them to do. The main goal when working with a nervous dog, whether they are deaf or not, is to show them that they can trust their handler. Once they trust their handler and determine that their handler would not let harm come to them, we work on helping them through scary situations.
A common situation that leads to fear in deaf dogs is when someone comes up behind them. Some would say that this is a situation that should always be avoided. That being said, no matter how hard you try, some situations cannot be avoided. At some point in time a child or dog will sneak up behind your deaf dog and surprise them. We teach the dog through training that this is something that will happen and they do not need to fear it. The more you work with the dog, the more comfortable they will begin to feel.
Remember, deafness in a dog does not mean that they cannot be trained or live a normal life. It simply means that we need to communicate in a different fashion.