Saturday, May 2, 2009

Deaf Dog 101: Living With and Training Your Deaf Dog

Deaf Dog 101 by Stormi King, CCS
Smart Paws Training and Behavior Solutions

Repeat after me, deaf dogs are NOT harder to train than hearing dogs. They are not inherently skittish, "difficult", nor do they automatically startle or become aggressive when they reach a certain age. Like any dog, they simply need to be well socialized and exposed to as many new situations as possible as a young pup. Am I saying don't adopt an adult deaf dog? Absolutely not! They can make just as excellent companions as a puppy, and there are certainly more of them out there that need homes.

Special considerations for a deaf dog

Desensitization to reduce startling

From "These exercises are nothing more than training your dog how to handle, and respond to, various situations. They are no different than teaching a dog to sit. Your dog's personality will determine how much time you need to spend on these exercises. Some dogs are easy-going and fairly unflappable. Others are more sensitive, and will require more work. To desensitize a deaf dog to the startle effect of being touched unexpectedly, begin by walking up behind the dog when he isn't looking. Gently touch the dog, then immediately pop a treat in the dog's mouth when he turns around. The dog quickly associates good things (i.e., the treat) with being touched unexpectedly, and learns to respond happily. To condition your deaf dog to wake easily in response to a gentle touch, start by first placing your hand in front of the sleeping dog's nose, allowing him to smell that you are near. Next lightly touch the dog on the shoulder or back, pretend you are trying to touch only one or two hairs with your fingertips. Then gently stroke the dog with two fingertips, then with your entire hand. Most deaf dogs will awaken during some part of this exercise. When they open their eyes, their owner's smiling face, and perhaps even a treat rewards them. In a matter of weeks, the dog becomes accustomed to waking up when the owner places a hand in front of his nose, or lightly touches his shoulder or back. Waking up becomes a gentle, positive experience. As a deaf dog matures, he gains self-confidence and experience in a wide variety of situations. With many dogs, the likelihood of being startled generally decreases with age."

Getting your deaf dog's attention

Seeing as how you can't just yell "hey, fido!", you must get creative about getting your pups attention. As the joke goes "when the dog doesn't come, the deaf dog owner 'waves louder'". Indoors, if your floor allows for it, you can often stomp your foot, sending vibrations thru the floor, to get the dog's attention. If you are in a small enough space (this will work in a living room, but perhaps not in an auditorium), clap your hands as hard as you can. More than likely, the dog will pick up on the vibration caused by the clap. If your dog is not facing completely away from you, you can try waving your arms to attract attention. Note: you are a deaf dog owner. You can't be afraid to look like an idiot while talking to your dog
Outdoors, I would recommend always having your pup on a reliable leash unless in an entirely closed off area. If in a fenced in yard, check for potential holes in the fence or areas the dog could dig out. Once they've worked they're escape artist tactics, it can be difficult to get their attention, and, if you live in the city, it can be very dangerous to your dog. Long lines (you can buy them at pet stores, or even make your own with a sturdy rope and clip) are an excellent way to give your pup a little bit of freedom without being entirely out of your control. Most cities have leash laws that include maximum lengths, so be sure to check with your local laws to make sure your long line is in compliance.

Leave-it in real life

While on your walk, Fido spots a wrapper with half a hamburger in it. You don't want him to eat it, because who knows where that thing's been, but his eyes are already dead set on it and getting his attention seems futile. What do you do? This is a problem that you will encounter at some point. And since we can't actively yell "leave it" when the dog is eyeballing something we don't want him to have, it pretty much renders the command useless in real-life situations. So how do we combat this? There are a couple of different ways.

You can teach a good "watch me" command, and anytime you see a potential hazard in the distance, be it food on the ground, another dog, or anything you don’t want your dog getting into, have your dog "watch me" before he see's the object and as you roll on past it. To begin teaching the “watch me” command, start in a low distraction environment. Starting in a park where there are a million distractions is too much to ask of a dog who is just learning. Hold a treat, or anything your dog truly desires off to your side, clear of the path to your eyes. Tell him “watch me” (use whatever hand signal you feel is most comfortable), and wait. Only give the cue once, and don’t try to coax him in to looking at you. You want him to be conscious of his behavior without manipulation. The moment he looks into your eyes, give him a thumbs up (or whatever your chosen marker is) and give him the treat. His glance may only be that of a split second, so watch closely. It may take a bit of patience on your part to begin with, but after relatively few repititions, you’ll see a light bulb go off. He’s learning that all he has to do to get what he wants is to look at you when you ask him to! Easy, right? Once he’s got the idea down, generalize the command. This means start adding different value treats and objects he’s watching you to earn, taking it to different locations, practice giving him the cue with your body in different positions in relation to his, building up the duration of his watch, and slowly building up the strength of your “watch me” to be useful in real life situations. Before he’s allowed to greet his dog-pal on a walk, ask him to “watch me” first. After repetitions of this game, his initial instinct when passing other dogs on the sidewalk will be to look at you before going to greet.

Another tactic is, once you have your pup walking nicely on leash, you can work on distraction training to "proof" the dog from going after tempting objects even when he does spot them. This is similar to the “watch me”, although there isn’t a cue involved. To begin, teach him the game of "red light, green light", which means, dogs pulls=you stop. This is also a portion of teaching general loose-leash walking, and teaches the dog that if he pulls, it doesn't get him anywhere. Once you have a 100% success rate in a low distraction environment, take it outside! Start leaving low-value items just outside of your pup's reach. If he tries to go for it, immediately put on the brakes. When he looks back at you, TREAT TREAT TREAT!! Keep upping the value of the "illegal" item (in other words, start with something that the dog shows little interest in, and slowly increase to something he's got a great deal of interest in). Always praise and treat when he ignores the illegal item!! Do your best to avoid slip ups where he actually gets the illegal item, because this will reinforce the undesired behavior of picking up the foreign object. Once you have 100% success rate with the illegal item out of reach, take it up a notch and walk past the object within reach. Keep an eye on your pooch, and if he goes for the object, be ready with a tasty treat and a gentle butt-tap to interrupt and redirect him with. Eventually, you'll have a pup that sees a steak slathered in BBQ sauce with a sign saying "eat me" on the sidewalk, and he'll walk politely on by.

The convenient part of having a deaf dog!
*Other dogs bark at him on the street, he hasn't a clue.
*You can make all kinds of noise while your dog is sleeping without worrying that he'll wake up. *You get the pleasure of not having to deal with squeeky toys, and if you kill the squeaker (which I do for sanity's sake!), your dog doesn't care.
*You have a dog that’s attentive to your every move.
*You can talk to your dog even when you've got a sore throat.
*You get to skip the transition step in training from hand signal to vocal cue.
*Fireworks are a-OKAY!


Luring is your new favorite friend. If you have a food motivated pup, you can lure train a deaf dog to do just about anything. Again, this is really no different than training a hearing dog to sit, lie down, stand or come. You can use any hand signal you want for the cues, I personally prefer the faded lure signal as opposed to the ASL sign for a certain command. It’s easier to transition, and you don't have to worry about having both hands free to talk to your dog.

Ex of the faded lure hand signal: To teach a dog "sit" start with a treat in your hand at the the dogs nose. Slow lift the treat up and slightly backwards (think of it as shifting a car) until the dog's bottom hits the ground. Mark the behavior (for deaf dogs a quick thumbs up works great!), and treat. When you have 100% success, and the dog is even anticipating the signal, turn your hand so your palm is facing upwards at about waist level. Push your hand up slightly to simulate the lure. Treat from the opposite hand. It make take a few transitional steps in-between (slowly changing your hand position from in front of the dog's nose to above the dogs head), but eventually your signal will be a short upward movement of your flat palm moving upwards.

For visual examples:

Vibrating collars: These are not to be confused with shock collars that administer an aversive punishment. They are collars that go around your dogs neck that emit a very light vibration in order to get the dog's attention. When conditioned properly, they can be wonderful tools as an attention getter, but when used improperly, they do have their fall-backs. I personally don't favor the use, because A. there are opportunities for the collar to accidentally shock the dog if ever there is a short, B. they're very heavy in weight and C. the main use for such a tool is when the dog is off leash, which, in theory, your deaf dog will never be off-leash in an uncontrolled environment. I much prefer the option of training the dog to "check in" during play, or physically going over to the dog if there is any need to get his attention. Its very easy to accidentally build a negative association with the vibrating collar. All you have to do is "page" him once to leave play, and he could quickly associate the vibration with "uhoh! play is over!", and run away instead of coming over to you. When training your pup to "check in", always be ready with some super yummy goodies to praise him for doing so!

Training a deaf dog is easy, whether you have experience or not. The biggest key is, again, you must have a sense of humor to be caught waving and acting like a buffoon in public while teaching your deaf dog.

For some fun, deaf dog humor: