Meet Harley, a 2-year old Boxer dog who was born completely deaf. Congenital deafness is most commonly caused by a lack of pigmentation of the skin, and the unpigmented skin in the inner ear causes the nerve endings to die in the dog's first few weeks of life. It is more common in dogs with spots, dapples, or merle coats or those with white skin/fur and therefore certain breeds such as the Dalmation, Australian sheepdog, English Setter and Bull Terrier are more likely to be affected.
There are definitely some downsides to having a deaf dog; I cannot give him a command if he is not looking at me, he is extremely visual and he finds it harder to read dogs as he cannot hear their vocal cues. But there are also positives; we never have to do any noise desensitisation work and people can baby talk him all they like! However, all things considered there is no reason why a deaf dog cannot live the same quality of life as a hearing dog, and training them is not as different as it may initially seem. They have only lost one of the five senses, and all the basic rules of dog training still apply.
Proper leash pressure and release is very important to communicate effectively with a deaf dog. The principles are exactly the same as with dogs that can hear: pressure on the lead means you are asking something of the dog and the release/absence of leash pressure means that they are doing the right thing. However, I rely on it a lot more to direct Harley and if the lead didn't mean anything to him, or if he had been conditioned that it meant the "wrong" thing (ie ignore leash pressure or lean against it), I would have lost another important communication tool.
The same can be said of spatial pressure, the principles are exactly the same as with a hearing dog, and any well-trained dog should be respectful and move when you move into their space. But again, I rely on this a lot more to move Harley around. If he did not move when I put pressure on him by walking into his space I would struggle to communicate with him without a lead. I use spatial pressure, along with pointing my finger to direct him to where I would like him to go, and this means that I can use this as a way of asking him to place on objects or go to bed.
Because Harley cannot hear, his other senses are heightened, and an example of this is how he knows when I have come home without being able to see or hear me. This is firstly because he has a great sense of smell (especially for a boxer!) and also because he is extremely sensitive to vibrations. He is also a lot more responsive to being touched than the average dog. I am therefore able to use this as another way to train him - he has been conditioned that when he feels a tap on the shoulder I am asking for his attention and that he should turn to look at me, at which point I can then give him a command.
I communicate with Harley using hand signals. Just like verbal commands, you can choose absolutely any signal and pair it with a behaviour that you want to be able to ask for on cue. A lot of Harley's hand signals are very discrete, but it is important that they are clear and distinct from one another to avoid confusion. It is also important that they are not commonly used by people in day-to-day life; the last thing I would want is for a stranger to wave their hands around and Harley think that this is his cue to run over to them!
The key to a well-trained deaf dog is engagement. If Harley did not check in with me often then the hand signals would be redundant, and so I always ensure that I reward Harley when he chooses to make eye contact with me. This is particularly important around other people and dogs; I need him to look at me so that I can recall him if needed, and through repetition he now automatically stops and comes back to me in these scenarios without a hand signal.
The actual teaching of the hand signal is not dissimilar to teaching a verbal command. With dogs that can hear, the first thing we do is ask for the command verbally and then guide them with the lead, and perhaps lure them with a treat to encourage them into the position. With a deaf dog, all you need to do is replace the verbal command with a hand signal. However, I often repeat the hand signal on completion of the behaviour, followed by a thumbs up to let Harley know that he has done the right thing. The reason for this is because I want to be extremely clear and ensure that Harley has seen the hand signal and associates it with the behaviour he has just completed.
Harley's commands are as follows:
This is the command for sit - palm facing upwards.
Down - two fingers pointing down.
I have taught Harley to recall and sit next to me on whichever side I ask. I put one hand out as shown above and he knows to recall to that side and then turn into the heel position and sit. I can then either release him or walk forward with him in a heel position by tapping my leg with my palm.
I use the "ok" sign to tell Harley that he can finish what he is doing and have some free time.
Then, in addition to these basic commands, Harley also knows "front" and "middle". These are positions that we need when we do a sport called GRC (https://www.grcdogsports.com/).
This is a "front" command, where Harley sits directly in front of me looking up.
This is the middle command, where he goes in between my legs and stays there as I walk around.
Drop and get it
Get it: if you know Harley you know how much he likes a game. To give him his "get it" command I have my hand in a fist and then I flash it open and close it again.
To tell Harley to drop, I hold my hand up horizontally, with the back of my hand facing him.
This is Harley's command for "enough" - which I usually use when playing a game or when I ask him to stop playing with another dog. This isn't an essential command but because he is very visual and prey driven, without this command he would constantly be waiting for the next "get it" signal. This is therefore a helpful way of telling him that the game has ended and to settle down.
I give Harley a thumbs up to tell him when he is doing a good job. This is equivalent to verbal praise, and I find that it holds a lot more value to him than rewarding him with physical touch because he is so visual.
Conversely, if Harley is doing something that I do not want him to do, such as barking/whining or going to pick up something that he should not have, I shake my finger at him. Now, if you have trained with us you will know that we do not use the words "no" or "ah ah" because rather than telling your dog not to do something, we would much rather tell them what to do instead such as "quiet" or "leave it". With a deaf dog this would translate to having multiple hand signals when the principle of what I want to tell him is the same: "stop performing that behaviour". In this context, having a generalised command for "no" is extremely helpful.
Having a deaf dog is not so different as you may think
If you did not pay attention you probably wouldn't even notice that Harley is deaf. His training allows him the same freedoms as any other dog including being allowed off lead, and for a young dog as bouncy and energetic as Harley this is an absolute lifesaver!
Do not be put off if you ever have the opportunity to take on a deaf dog. The principles of training are exactly the same and it is extremely rewarding to know that you are ensuring that their lives do not have to be restricted in any way. We are always here to help and if you would like to know more about training a deaf dog let us know!