Training a Deaf Dog — Hand Signals and More

Training a deaf dog commands is not much different from teaching a dog that can hear — you just communicate differently. Hand signals are the way to go.

Training a deaf dog, hand signals
Training a deaf dog using hand signals was taken to a new level by the owner of this Dalmatian. The dog, a deaf rescue, was taught how to run agility courses.

Training a dog with a disability may seem like a very challenging thing to do. As with people, when one of their senses are eliminated or compromised, they rely heavily on their other senses. A dog that is deaf will primarily count on sight and smell to gather information.

As dog owners, we need to learn to communicate with our dogs, even the disabled ones, to ensure that proper training is instilled within them.

Teaching a deaf dog commands is not much different from teaching a dog that can hear — you just communicate in different ways.

Dogs, deaf or not, learn obedience through repetition. Many dogs learn hand signals at some point in their training; but with these special-needs animals, hand signals are the main source of relaying commands to your animal.

In this situation, I would suggest hiring an open-minded trainer to avoid frustration for your dog. Good trainers have a variety of ways to teach the same command and can help you teach your dog in a way that he can fully understand.

Training a Deaf Dog — Hand Signals

There are universal hand signals for most commands, but you don’t need to use them. The most important thing when training hand signals is to stay consistent with what you choose. The advantage to using a universal signal is that other people and trainers will know how to communicate with your dog as well.

To get started, you want to find a desirable high-value treat/reward for your dog and choose a signal that will mean “good,” possibly a “thumbs up,” and a release signal. (For dogs that can hear, I suggest teaching hand signals once you have mastered a command with your voice and you want to add a hand signal for better communication with your dog.)

Here are two helpful commands:

1. Focus

Training a deaf dog to focus is very similar to training a dog that can hear to focus. Typically you would say the dog’s name to get his attention, but since he can’t hear you, get your dog’s attention with either a light stamp on the ground or a hand signal that means his name.

If the dog immediately looks at you and makes eye contact, give the “good” signal and offer a treat and give the release signal immediately. If he ignores you at first, wait one long moment for the dog to respond. If he still isn’t looking at you, get your dog’s attention with a desirable treat and lure him into the focus behavior.

When luring, get your dog’s attention on your baited hand. Slowly raise your hand toward your face and between your eyes. The instant the dog looks directly into your eyes, give the “good” signal and release.

2. Sit

Stand in front of your dog and put your baited hand in front of the dog’s nose. A hungry dog will touch his nose to your hand; when he does this, slowly begin to move your hand up and over the dog’s nose. While the dog’s nose is attached your hand, begin to move the lure over the top of the dog’s head. He should be looking up and back to follow your lure into a sitting position.

The moment the dog’s behind touches the ground, give your signal for “good” and offer the treat. Before he gets up, give the release sign.

For the Advanced Learners…

You don’t have to stop with the basic hand signals, of course. You could always go with sign language. For example, check out this video showing all the American Sign Language signs that Alisha McGraw has taught her two deaf dogs. (Alisha holds a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies and is nationally certified for American Sign language interpreting):

Why So Many Deaf Dogs?

Although it’s wonderful that more people are adopting mixed-breed, shelter and rescue dogs, fewer people are interested in purebred dogs. With the lack of adopters for pedigree dogs, the amount of dogs being used to breed is decreasing. The decreases in these dogs are leaving only a small amount of dogs to make pedigree animals, within a small gene pool.

The amount of inbreeding within extended canine families is leading to an increased amount of genetic diseases and inherited disabilities, like deafness. One of the most common purebred dogs found to have inherited deafness is the Dalmatian. Anywhere from 10 to 12% of Dalmatians are deaf.

Whether your dog’s deafness was inherited or was caused by trauma, it’s important to remember that these pets are not much different from pets that can hear. Although they may take a little more time to learn certain commands, patience is a part of owning any dog — and training an animal with special needs can be very rewarding.

Photo: Sam Cockman/Flickr

Clarissa Fallis

View posts by Clarissa Fallis
Clarissa Fallis is a canine behaviorist and trainer from Upstate New York. She has attended Bergin University of Canine Studies, State University of New York at Cobleskill and Animal Behavior College. She is competent in training all breeds and ages of dogs, though she prefers hounds because of the challenge they present.

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