Just because your dog can’t hear doesn’t mean she can’t learn

© Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT

The basic method behind training a deaf dog

is the same as training a hearing dog (or any animal): Reward behavior you want

to see repeated, and prevent rewards for behaviors you don’t want. Dogs do what

works — if a certain action results in something they want, they will repeat it.

Of course you need a way of communicating

with your deaf dog. It’s easy to use visual signals for deaf dogs. Even hearing

dogs rely more on vision and body language (after all, dogs don’t use spoken words

when they interact with each other). You can take advantage of your dog’s vision,

and also their sense of touch and maybe also their ability to smell.


will mostly be communicating with your dog through hand signs. Think about what

signs you will use before you try to train them. Hand signals must be:

  • Clear
  • Distinguishable

    from other signs and gestures you commonly use

  • Visible

    from a distance, and

  • Consistent.

Don’t forget facial expressions and body language,
too, though. Your dog will be reading you for that!

Your first step will be to establish a sign which
means “Yes!” or “That’s correct, you’ve earned a reward!”. An easy one is a
quick thumbs-up, or a flash of your entire hand, fingers spread wide apart.
See this video for
an example. You can teach your dog what this means by linking your “Yes!” sign
with something your dog likes. Food treats work really well in initial stages
of training, but don’t forget fun toys, exciting games, favorite activities,
and good petting, rubbing, and scratching. Simply sign “Yes!” and immediately
give your dog a treat. Repeat this a few times. Look for your dog’s reaction
to the “Yes!” sign — if she pricks up her ears or looks towards the treats,
you know she’s catching on. At the same time you can say “Yes!” or “Good dog!”
out loud — if you mean it, she’ll learn your facial expression (and it may help
you to remember to reward her).

Once you have this sign trained, you can start using
it to teach your dog to do what you want. A very important behavior for the
deaf dog is “Pay attention” or “watch me”. You’ll need another hand sign for
this. I like sweeping an index finger up to the front of your face, forming
a sort of “J” in the air as you move it; or tapping your finger next to your
eye. You can also teach your dog to look towards you when you stomp your foot
— on certain surfaces your dog will be able to feel that through the floor or
ground and know to look at you. If you get (or make) a vibrating collar for
your dog, you can teach her that a short vibration means “watch me” (and a longer
one can mean, “come”).

To train your dog to watch you, all you need to
do at first is reward her for doing it. If she’s looking at you, make your “Yes!”
sign and reward her. If you need to, you can “lure” her to look at you with
a piece of food or a favorite toy — simply wave it in front of her nose and
bring it up near your face. Immediately sign “Yes!” and reward her. As she gets
comfortable “watching” you, sign “Watch me” as she’s doing it, then sign “Yes!”
and reward her. This way she’ll learn what the “Watch me” sign means.

You can play the “Eye contact game” with your dog
by putting a desired treat or toy in your hand and moving both hands behind
your back. Wait until your dog glances from the treats to your face. Immediately
sign “Yes!” and give her the treat. As she catches on to this, you can leave
the treat-hand at your side for a few repetitions, then make it even harder
by turning away from her so she has to actively seek out your face to make eye

Now your dog knows it’s worth her while to watch
you, and knows when she’s going to be rewarded. It’s time to start teaching
her some action commands.

The best way to teach any animal to perform an action
is to catch them in the act of doing it and reward them. For example, if your
dog sits down, you can reward her for sitting. To let her know why she’s suddenly
getting a food treat or special attention from you, use your “Yes!” sign at
the moment she sits to mark her action. When you’re pretty sure you can predict
that your dog is about to sit, you can make a sign for “sit” just before she
does it, then follow that up with “Yes!” and a treat.

You can’t always catch your dog doing the action
you’re looking for. An alternative is to use “luring”. Luring is especially
good for teaching hand signals (in fact hearing dogs have a hard time transferring
their cue from the luring hand to the verbal signal). For “sit”, hold a food
treat or a favorite toy in front of your dog’s nose. Move it slowly back over
her heard, aiming for the space just between her ears. If she’s interested enough
in the treat, her nose will follow it. Most dogs will lower their butts to the
ground as their nose follows the treat. You can immediately sign “Yes!” and
give her the treat. After you practice this a few times, see if your dog will
sit without the lure. The first time she does, she has earned a “jackpot” —
an extra amount of treats, or at least one really special one.

Turn your lure into a hand signal by not holding
a treat but making the same motion for the next repetition. If she sits, sign
“Yes!” and give her the treat. After this, if you need to use a treat to lure
her, don’t give it to her as a reward. Pet her and “praise” her with your body
language for a moment, then immediately try the hand motion without the food
in your hand. If she sits without the food lure, she gets “Yes!”/treat. If she’ll
only sit if she sees the treat “up front”, she hasn’t done enough to earn it.

You can “capture” with your “Yes!” sign anything
that your dog does right. You can formally train some actions such as “lie down”
this way, or you can use it to reinforce general good behavior you see and like.
Use “Yes!” and a treat to reward your dog for walking without pulling, for greeting
without jumping, for choosing a toy instead of the furniture or the cat as a

One of the most important thing you can teach your
dog to do is to come when you call her. You’ll need to practice this “recall”
a lot before it becomes a habit for your dog to respond to you. Start while
your dog is already looking at you. Let her know that you have something that
she’d like, and take a few steps backwards. As she follows you, make a sign
for “Come” and then sign “Yes!”. When she gets to you, give her the treat. Traditionally
the signal for “Come” is holding your hand straight out to your side, palm facing
the dog, then sweep the palm of your hand towards your chest. This is pretty
visible from a distance.

Make sure that you use fantastic rewards for “Come”.
Think of the alternatives from your dog’s point of view — would she rather try
your reward, or would she rather chase squirrels, investigate smells, play with
other dogs, etc.? If you are consistently very rewarding when you signal “Come”,
your dog will be more willing to “bet” that your reward will out-rank the other
possibilities available to her.

I highly recommend having a vibrating
that operates on a remote that you can carry with you. (The collar
should vibrate, not shock). It acts as a vibrating pager, to let the dog know
you want her even if she’s not looking at you. Teach her it’s pleasant by “paging”
her and giving her a treat. Then “page” her, take a few steps backwards (sign
“come” if she already knows it), then sign “Yes!” and reward her as she comes
towards you.

You might think that you would need to teach your
dog a sign that means “No!”, too. But for most dogs, “no” is just
an interrupter, something that causes a dog to stop what he’s doing. A very
friendly method – one apparantly used by Patricia
, is to teach “no” as the same thing as “come”
– stop what you’re doing and come to me (for a reward). Now obviously if you
called a dog to you and rewarded him each time he engged in some behavior, like
chasing the cat, he might think that that chasing the cat is a good thing, because
it leads to a recall + reward. So you’re back to management.

Remember, it’s only fair to your dog that you try
to teach her what is correct to do before you try to scold her for doing something
wrong. So if you fear your dog might sometimes chas the cat, be sure to sign
“Yes!” and reward her if she ever treats the cat nicely (or ignores him), before
you resort to using “No!”. Your dog wants to know when she’s getting it right;
don’t make her afraid to guess — and don’t make her associate the cat only with
scary aversives! (For more on using “No”, see the “Don’t Say No?
” Training Tip

While there are some signs and actions, like “sit”,
“down”, and “come”, that you will probably train formally, your dog can learn
others just in day-to-day uses. You can pair a unique sign with almost any activity
your dog normally does – going potty, getting down off of furniture, getting
to go in the car, going to bed or into a crate, fetching a toy, or going on
a walk. You can teach a different sign for different toys or other objects as

A couple of general tips: Until you’ve established
a really good recall (“come”), don’t let your dog off-leash outside in an unfenced
area. If your dog does get loose, make sure that you have your name and phone
number on a collar tag. You might even want to state on the tag that she’s deaf.
Additionally, it would be very wise to get your dog tattooed with an ID number
and/or get your vet to insert a tiny microchip. The chip would carry an ID number
that any vet or shelter could read. They call a central phone number and are
given your contact name and phone number.

Make sure that you don’t startle your deaf dog by
“sneaking up on her”, especially if she’s asleep. To wake a deaf dog, place
your hand near her nose so she’ll smell you, or scratch the floor or pillow
near her so she’ll feel that. Since she may be startled, you can make waking
up or sudden touches more pleasant by immediately offering her a treat. You
can actually condition your dog to find being startled to be pleasant — just
associate something she likes (such as a food treat) with a startle. Watch strangers
(especially children) and don’t let them touch her unless she’s recognized that
they’re there.

Consider training your dog to follow a scent track.
This could help her find her way home or back to you when she can’t hear you
calling. A dog who has lost his or her hearing might really enjoy scent games
(as all dogs probably would). Here is a very short article on scent games ,
and a video you can pay for and download.
Scent games are also mentioned in the Dog Scouts of America Troop 107’s website. You can find two books on the topic, Scent
, and Click
‘N’ Sniff

For hard-of-hearing or losing-their-hearing dogs

Pat Miller recommends the Duluth
Trading Company’s “Storm
Safety Whistle
” for an older’ dog’s recall. Some dogs will respond
to a very loud hand-clap or stomping on the floor (they may pick up the vibrations
in the floor). Chris Puls recommends
“a 2 million candlepower hand-held light (avail. at places like Home Depot
or on-line.) They are rechargeable and are REALLY bright!”

Resources – Web Pages and E-mail Discussion

The Spirit of Deaf Dogs website: www.SpiritofDeafDogs.org

” article from the Whole Dog Journal – great article on how
to train deaf dogs.

If you are a deaf dog owner and would like to correspond
through email with ~500 other deaf dog owners from all over the world, subscribe
to the deafdogs-daily
e-mail discussion list

The Deaf Dog

Deaf Dogs Atlas

Instructions for building
a vibrating collar

DDEAF’s list of vibe
collars to purchase

Barry Eaton, British trainer of a deaf dog: www.deaf-dogs-help.co.uk

Deaf Therapy dogs of Tennessee Safety Spotters: tnsafetyspotters.org

Home page for two deaf Aussies, with a nice article on clicker training: http://www.myaussies.com/clicker.html

More links: www.deaflinx.com/DeafCommunity/dogs.html

Clicker training (or marker signal training) theory

Clicker training discussion lists — ask questions

or join in a discussion:

ClickerSolutions: www.clickersolutions.com

ClickTrain: www.shirleychong.com/list-clicktrain.html



With A Deaf Dog  by Susan Cope Becker 1997.


On Deaf Ears, by Spiotta-DiMare, 1997. Caesar is returned to the shelter because

he is deaf, but a determined shelter worker discovers how to teach him with signs!

Beautifully illustrated. Ages 5-10 years or anyone with a deaf dog!

Hear! A Guide To Training A Deaf Puppy
, by Eaton (UK), 1996 (Booklet)
Getting attention, teaching basic commands… Help and encouragement you’ll
appreciate if you have taken on a deaf puppy!

Last Updated October 2, 2007 by
Stacy Braslau-Schneck.

All material copyright Stacy Braslau-Schneck. Reprints for non-commercial use, and with the author’s permission only.

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