Help! My Dog is Deaf. Now What?
The very idea of living with and training a deaf dog can be terrifying if you’ve never met a deaf dog and, to be honest, that includes the vast majority of the world’s population. Based on my experiences adopting then learning how to train a deaf dog- not once but twice- I am sharing a few tips I learned about living with and training a deaf dog.
In The Beginning There Was Edison…
The first few weeks after we adopted Edison were intense, frightening and intriguing. The hours stretched into days as we exhaustively combed the internet for information about living with deaf dogs.
We were looking for websites, blogs, books or articles that could tell us more about living with and training a deaf puppy. But we persevered and found the information we needed with the help of Google and Deaf Dogs Rock, a fantastic organization dedicated to all things deaf dog!
When we started our deaf dog adventure, Edison was a ten-week old Pitbull mix and he weighed almost twenty pounds. We knew he was going to grow to be a big, deaf, bully breed dog so screwing this up was not an option and the pressure was definitely on.
We were hungry for training tips, advice on keeping him safe and, perhaps, even connecting with other people who were living with deaf dogs, kind people who could provide us with both the intellectual and emotional support we were craving.
In my first article about deaf dogs, Learning to Speak (Deaf) Dog, I wrote:
“We wanted to equip ourselves with what we needed to know, but we also wanted encouragement. We didn’t want things white-washed but we did want to know, to feel, that we could do this. We needed to know that it was possible retrain our brains to communicate only with our hands, our bodies, and not rely on our voice- you know, like a dog.”
We learned a lot during those first weeks and months and have learned many more things in the five years since.
It was because of our early experiences learning about deaf dogs and trying to assuage our fears that I was motivated to start blogging about deaf dogs. There aren’t a lot of people talking about deaf dogs and I wanted to join the conversation by sharing my voice, my thoughts and my experiences. Edison is my most perfect muse, and he and his deaf pack mate, Foster, inspire me every day.
Ultimately, what I’ve realized is that living with and training a deaf dog isn’t harder, it’s just different. Here are a few tips to help new deaf dog pet parents get started. I hope these help ease your anxiety and fears during this transition. Successful training can only occur in a calm and confident environment.
If you have any questions or have one of those “Holy Moly, what have I done?” moments, please reach out. I’ve been there and I can help or get you to someone who can. But first let’s…
Take a Breath!
I know that everything feels overwhelming when you realize your dog is deaf, but I promise that you can train a deaf dog. You can learn how to communicate with him using your hands and you can learn some easy ways to keep him safe. You can become his ears when he needs a pair and you can be an advocate for him and every other deaf dog in the world.
Let’s Consider Dog Vs. Breed Vs. Deafness
It’s important to keep in mind that, although your dog is deaf, he is so much more than that. In fact, I’ll share a bit of sage advice I learned from Deaf Dogs Rock.
Above everything else, your deaf dog is a dog first and everything that means. Second, he is his breed and any breed-specific behaviors and needs will come into play and need to be considered. Third, he is deaf, which only means you have to use your hands and, to a certain extent, your body, to communicate with him.
Once you flip this switch in your brain, communication is pretty easy and you’ll be amazed at how much you can teach and how much Bingo can learn.
Sure, there are a many more nuances that have to be factored in, but I find that the dog-first, breed-second, deaf-third hierarchy is a helpful way to think about things initially.
Do Some Research
At the beginning of your adventure into the world of deaf doga, spending a little time doing some research will be immensely helpful later on. Here are a few suggestions.
Connect with Deaf Dogs Rock. DDR is a deaf dog not-for-profit based in Virginia. For my husband and me, DDR quickly became our deaf dog go-to guide. They have tons of resources available, including training articles (even a few by me), videos, advice, tips and just about anything else you will want or need.
The community of deaf dog parents they have created is nothing short of life changing for people new to deaf dogs. You can also find additional resources on The Graffiti Dog’s resource page.
Grab a Book or Two
The first book I suggest you get is a sign language dictionary.
In the United States, this would be an American Sign Language dictionary. Please remember, however, that signed languages are not universal. If you live outside the U.S., please get a dictionary for the signed language used by the Deaf community in your country or region.
There are a handful of books available about living with and training deaf dogs which you might find helpful. Here are a few of them.
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Call A Trainer
Before Edison, I had trained many dogs, but never a deaf dog.. Once Edison moved in, however, I was flooded with fear and self-doubt. I knew that many of the techniques I had used before wouldn’t work or would need to be adjusted for a deaf dog.
I felt that by working with a dog trainer I could learn better ways to communicate with Edison and also receive some much-needed support. Remember, the only deaf dog I had ever met was the one sitting in my lap!
If you’ve never trained a dog, let alone a deaf one, I strongly suggest you connect with a professional, certified trainer in your area who only uses positive-reinforcement techniques. If you can find one experienced with deaf dogs, even better!
Even if you have trained dogs before, it is definitely worth working with an experienced trainer for a few sessions to both refresh your memory and to get your deaf dog started on the right path. No matter if you are a novice or experienced dog trainer, investing in a short five-session package will pay off for many years to come.
Pick Your Signs
When we first adopted Edison, after we had done some initial research, we made a list of the most important signs we wanted him to know. It was a list of 20 commands, beginning with one of the most basic and foundation skills you should teach your deaf dog, “watch me”.
Our goal was to teach him these signs within two years. Ha! By the time he was six months old, he had mastered all of them and was begging for more. Edison is 5-years old now and knows more than 40 hand signs.
Our list was personal to our family, and yours should be, too. Each person and family has different needs, desires and expectations of their dogs.
Make a list of the signs that are important to you, break it into smaller lists, prioritize them and begin with the foundation skills: watch me, sit, down, stay, come, directional training and I Love You- yes, there is a sign for that and deaf dogs totally know what it means.
You then need to choose the actual signs you’re going to use, learn them yourself and begin to teach them. Though I recommend using standardized signs, such as American Sign Language, whenever possible, you can make up any signs you want.
You can do jumping jacks as the sign for “come” but that’s not very practical and people are definitely going to give you strange looks at Starbucks!
For us, we used our ASL dictionary and used standardized signs as much as possible. If a sign requires two hands, then either adjust it to one hand or make up a sign that works for you. When walking your deaf dog on a leash, you only have one hand free to communicate.
Alternatively, in time, you can teach multiple signs for the same behavior, some two-handed and some one. Edison knows two signs for sit, three signs for come and three signs for “good boy”, each one appropriate for different situations.
The only limitations when training a deaf dog are those that you place on yourself. Shoot for the stars, I say, because you’ll probably grab a few!
Eyeballs vs. Earballs
It’s crucial to remember that if your deaf dog can’t see you, he can’t hear you! This may seem like an obvious statement but it’s important information that deaf dog pet parents need to remember.
Since your deaf dog hears with his eyes, two things come to mind that you should know immediately as you begin this journey.
The first is the importance of teaching a “watch me” sign to your deaf dog. This should be one of the very first skills he learns. By teaching him to constantly check in with you, you are always able to communicate with him, redirect him away from undesired behaviors to appropriate ones, keep him safe in the event of a dangerous situation and generally help him make better life choices.
Second, you can’t get comfortable on the couch. Life with a deaf dog, especially a curious deaf dog or puppy with a penchant for counter surfing, means you have to be more physically engaged with your dog. You don’t have the option to call him from across the room; rather, you have to get up and visually get his attention and then communicate with him. Long gone are the days of using your voice alone to give direction or praise good behavior.
In Time Comes Confidence
In time, and in with practice, you will gain confidence and feel comfortable training your deaf dog. My favorite moments are still those magical ones where I can see a light bulb going off in Edison or Foster’s head, the one that announces that they finally understand what I’m saying with a new movement of my fingers or some weird new twist of my wrist.
After you do some research, connect with other deaf dog pet parents and as your deaf dog begins to learn new hand signs- hand signs that YOU taught him!- you will find that your deaf dog is a gift from the heavens. You are on a special journey with a magical dog!
As weeks turn into months then years, the bond between you and your deaf dog organically grows stronger, communication becomes subtle, almost intuitive and, in many ways, it feels like you are reading each other’s mind. When that day comes, give you deaf dog an especially big hug and thank him for being perfect just the way he is.
In the mean, check out this recent blog post that explains why you SHOULD TALK to your deaf dog, not just sign to him!