Communicating with a deaf dog might sound complicated and overwhelming, and because of this, sadly many deaf dogs are euthanized at birth. However, deaf dogs can have equally productive and enjoyable lives as those who can hear, and it only requires a limited amount of modifications on the part of the owner.
To communicate with a deaf dog, you can use hand signals, flashlight signals, the rump tap, or the leash signal. Deaf dogs, just like hearing impaired humans, have other senses that are enhanced, so it’s not that much more difficult to communicate with them than with hearing dogs.
If your dog has suffered a hearing loss or you have rescued a new dog or puppy with hearing loss, we’ll explore a variety of communication methods and techniques that will help you with your pup. We will discuss:
- How you can tell if your dog is deaf
- Types of Dog Deafness
- Communicating With a Deaf Dog
- If deaf dogs can be trained
- How to train your deaf dog
- How to keep your deaf dog safe
How You Can Tell if Your Dog Is Deaf
If you’re reading this, it could be that you just got a new dog or pup that appears to be deaf or that the dog you already have is now showing behavior that suggests hearing loss.
There are several causes of deafness in dogs. Most deafness occurs as a result of old age. Some puppies are born deaf. And dogs can also go deaf as a result of trauma to the ear or chronic ear infections.
Let’s look at ways to identify if your dog is hearing impaired.
If your dog has stopped responding when you’re calling them or when food is poured into their bowl, it might be a sign that they are at least partially deaf. Other ways are ringing the doorbell, squeaking a toy, or clapping your hands. When your dogs can see you, they tend to be able to understand a lot of things you are trying to say, so sometimes it might take a little time to figure out that your dog is deaf.
Try This Simple Test
If you suspect that your dog might be deaf, there is an easy way you can test this to make sure. Pick a moment when your dog is not looking at you and they cannot feel any vibrations (like you walking towards them on the floor) and then make a noise behind them. Try not to startle them as dogs don’t respond well to that. Gradually increase the level of the sound you make. You want to determine if your dog is entirely deaf or partially deaf; therefore it’s smart to try several ranges of sound.
It’s also likely that with many dogs, they still have some limited hearing, so testing their low range, mid-range, and high range hearing is the way to go. Blowing a whistle will test their high hearing range, making a loud noise such as clapping your hands will cover mid-range, and hit a drum (or play the sound of one) for low range.
If you want conclusive evidence, ask your veterinarian for a BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response). This is a diagnostic test where the dog is fitted with headphones and electrodes read the dog’s brain response to several clicks that target each ear. The feedback provides a waveform which gives an extremely accurate assessment of the dog’s hearing loss.
BAER testing is not widely used for household pets because more simplistic tests easily reveal hearing loss. It is more commonly used by breeders to check their dogs’ hearing before deciding to breed. Many breeds (notably Dalmatians) are prone to congenital deafness, and testing before breeding helps limit passing this trait on to future generations.
Types of Dog Deafness
When a dog is born deaf, it is considered congenital deafness. This isn’t something the dog gradually developed or is caused due to (for example) a chronic ear infection; this is when they have been deaf since birth. Some breeds have higher chances of congenital deafness than others. For example, the Dalmatian has a 30 percent chance of being born deaf in either one ear or in both ears, which is very high.
Not only Dalmatians are more likely to be born deaf, other breeds such as Australian Cattle Dogs, English Setters, Bull Terriers, Catahoula Leopards, Parson Russells, and Whippets also have a higher number of incidents of deafness. Researchers aren’t exactly sure yet what causes congenital deafness and why some dogs are more likely to be born with it.
However, they have discovered that it’s most common with dogs that have white or nearly whiteheads. According to George M. Strain, Ph.D., a leading veterinary researcher on the causes of deafness in dogs and a professor of neuroscience at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University, “The lack of pigment on the head causes the pigment cells in the inner ear to fail to develop, or they may be lacking entirely.”
He continues, “The lack of pigment cells causes the death of the nerve cells that need to develop for hearing to occur.” Oddly, some solid white dogs, such as the Spitz or the Samoyed, have no problems with deafness, he says.
BAER is often used to test puppies who may suffer from coat-color-related deafness. Because they cannot hear, they often follow the lead of other puppies, and have trouble developing proper bite inhibition because they can’t hear the yelps from their littermates when they bite too hard.
Other Causes of Deafness
Of course, any dog can become deaf or partially deaf during its lifetime. Causes of this could be toxic chemicals, untreated ear infections, aging, injury, and some drugs. Strain says: “I’ve seen a number of [Labrador retrievers] with hearing loss from guns being fired too close to their heads,” he says. Dogs that go deaf later in life seem to have little trouble adapting to their condition, Strain said. “Usually, the owners are more upset by it than the dog.”
Communicating With a Deaf Dog
If your dog has lost its hearing, you will need to learn new ways to communicate with them other than verbal commands.
Gradual vs. Sudden Hearing Loss in Dogs
When the hearing loss is gradual, you can begin adding hand signals that are associated with verbal commands. The dog will learn the hand signals much quicker this way than without any hearing assistance..
If the hearing loss is sudden, you will have to work much faster to teach the new communication method. If your dog was already well trained before becoming deaf, the new training process will go more smoothly.
Fortunately, dogs don’t dwell on negatives and adapt fairly quickly to new situations out of necessity.
Check-In Behavior With a Deaf Dog
It is important to establish “check-in” behavior with your deaf dog. This means that your dog will look back at you periodically, making eye contact, in order to “check in”. It shows an awareness that both you and your dog are in tune with each another, and that they understand the importance of maintaining visual contact with you.
In order to achieve this type of behavior, it’s essential that every time your dog looks at you, they are rewarded for it (in the period when they’re still learning). In the beginning, you will have to find several ways to get their attention (we will discuss how you can do this later). If they eventually understand that looking in your direction is rewarded, they will start doing it automatically, in which case the check-in behavior will have been established.
How to Keep Your Deaf Dog Safe
Be mindful that a deaf dog (especially a newly deaf dog) is at a higher risk for accidents than hearing dogs. You should make sure that they are always on leash on walks and safely confined when in the yard. Any time the dog has freedom, they should be supervised.
Children should be taught not to approach a deaf dog from behind or unexpectedly; the dog may react differently when suddenly surprised.
You might want to indicate that your dog is deaf on its identification tags (or print the word “deaf” on their collar) along with your contact info. Should your dog get lost, whoever finds them will be better equipped to deal with them.
If getting lost appears to be a potential issue, there are electronic trackers now available, and microchipping is also an option.
Hearing Aids Aren’t an Option
Some dog owners with deaf dogs think they are helping them when they purchase hearing aids. Although it’s done with the best intentions, unfortunately they don’t do much good. Most dogs strongly dislike having anything in their ears, aside from the fact that hearing aids merely increase sound, and if you’re completely deaf, there are no nerve cells left to help you hear.
Can Deaf Dogs Be Trained?
The answer to this question: Yes, absolutely! Training deaf dogs is actually not any harder than training dogs with good hearing.
How Deaf Dogs Have Been Perceived
It might be hard to believe, but there was a time not that long ago in which the only treatment for deaf dogs was to put them down. Sadly, there are still a lot of dogs nowadays that are euthanized as puppies when they turn out to be deaf, even though we’ve learned so much about how to treat deaf dogs. In fact, training deaf dogs isn’t any more difficult than training ‘regular’ dogs. The only difference is that you use hand signals rather than spoken commands.
Training Deaf Dogs vs. Hearing Dogs
A lot of hearing dogs are trained with something called clicker training (also called marker training). This is a scientifically proven, easy method to teach your dog how to follow commands and be obedient (you can read more about positive vs. correction-based training here).
Just because your dog is deaf it doesn’t mean you can’t offer them a similar training approach, because you can. Instead of a clicker, you can use a small keychain flashlight so it isn’t a sound but something visual for them to be taught with. More about the flashlight training in the next section.
How to Train a Deaf Dog
Use Hand Signals
When a dog with good hearing is being trained, they are taught several different words (commands) that correspond to different actions. The same works for deaf dogs, only hand signals are used instead of verbal commands. It’s essential to have a clear hand signal for every single action you want the dog to learn. You can think up these hand signals yourself, and it doesn’t matter what these look like as long as you are consistent.
If you are feeling uncreative, you can also use American Sign Language to communicate with your dog. Eventually, deaf dogs usually master about 20 hand signals. Of course, you have to work your way up slowly and make sure that they fully understand each one before moving on to the next. Start with simple things such as teaching them how to sit, come, no, stop, and down. The key to success is clear and consistent hand signals.
Use a Flashlight
An alternative to the hand signal way of training your deaf dog is mini flashlights that come on a keyring and are available at your local department store. If you’ve ever heard of the clicker training for pets, you could think of that instead of the clicker, you use the mini flashlight. Be aware not to purchase a laser pointer for safety reasons! You can pair the offering of a treat equally as you would pair a clicker and a treat. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you direct the flashlight somewhere, make sure to direct it at the dog’s face or in front of them. Don’t flash it into their face from a very close distance.
- Pair the brief flashes of the flashlight with a treat; this way, the dog will associate the flash with something good.
- As soon as the dog looks at you to wait for a treat after he sees the flashlight, the “clicker” (flashlight in this case) has been charged, and you can move on towards further steps in the training.
- Don’t ever let the dog chase the flash because then it will lose its value as a signal marker.
If you’re at home, you don’t constantly have to use the flashlight to get their attention. There are different ways to get them to look up. Here’s how you can teach them:
- Flash the light of the room until the dog looks up (it doesn’t matter which direction they look).
- If the dog looks up, toss them a treat.
- Continue this for a few sessions, and then change to only rewarding them with a treat when they look at you.
- If you desire, you can continue this training to make them come to you. In that case, you will have to switch over to only rewarding them when they come as close as you desire.
- As soon as they fully understand this training, you can also use the porch light when they are outside to get the same results as when you’re inside.
Be mindful not to use the light as a way to get their attention if they did something wrong since this will encourage bad behavior.
Make Your Dog Startle Proof
There is a misconception about deaf dogs being more aggressive. It is true, however, that if dogs are startled, they could come off as aggressive, and they are more likely to bite. Deaf dogs are startled easier since they cannot hear anything, so it’s evident why this conclusion was drawn. Luckily, you can teach your puppy to respond calmly when startled.
If you have a deaf puppy, wake them up regularly (for a while) with a yummy treat ready for them right away. What will happen is that they will start to associate being startled and/or awakened with something good. You can also stomp your foot somewhere near them (they will feel the vibrations) or bump into a chair to “startle” them. Other than this handy trick, there really aren’t any other adjustments necessary for a deaf dog.
Note: When starting to train a deaf dog (or any dog), it’s important to keep your training periods short (three to five minutes each time) and limit training to only a few sessions a day. At the beginning of their training, start with a relaxed environment with little to no distractions.
Puppies that can hear us automatically look up whenever they hear the sound of a human voice. They find it very rewarding to receive human attention in return. Puppies that can’t hear don’t automatically have this experience, and waiting for them to look up at you can be a long process. In this scenario, you should prompt the puppy for their attention. As soon as they’ve discovered that attention is what they will receive, you should stop prompting.
If your dog is within reach, you can quickly get their attention. However, if they aren’t, it can be a little less easy to fetch them. When it’s dark outside, you can flash your porch lights (if you have them) or use a flashlight to get their attention. During the day or when they’re close-by, it could be waving hands, gentle pressure on the collar, tap on the back, or a stomp on the floor. Either way, it’s important to pick several signs that all say, “Hey, look over here!”
Give a Rump Tap
A pat on the rear end, or in other words, a “rump tap,” is used as a signal for attention, similar to the command “look here” or the name of the dog if they weren’t deaf. Here’s how to do it:
- The starting point is the dog looking away and being mildly distracted. As soon as you observe the dog going to look back at you, give them a quick and firm (but gentle!) double tap on the back (end). If you’re not sure how much pressure to use, think of how you would tap someone on the shoulder and follow that lead.
- As soon as the dog’s head faces yours, flash and treat them.
- You should repeat this practice various times during several sessions.
- If you want to know if the dog understands, test them by tapping them when they’re not looking. If eight out of ten times they respond correctly, they understand. If they don’t (yet), keep on practicing until they do.
- When the dog is successful, ask for their attention randomly, and you can gradually include several distractions.
Use the Leash Signal
After you’ve taught your dog the “rump tap,” you can follow up with the leash signal by gently putting pressure on the collar, which can be a great way of getting your dog’s attention. It works equally to saying a dog’s name if they were able to hear. Make sure your dog is wearing a flat buckle collar, and never pull them so hard that you can pull them around. So, here is how it goes:
- Get your dog on a leash and have them within reach.
- Tug very gently on the leash twice (gently meaning that you lift the collar up just slightly, but so the dog still notices).
- If your dog looks back at you now, flash and treat them.
- If he doesn’t look back, follow along with the rump tap that the dog already knows.
- As soon as the dog looks back now, flash and treat them.
- Repeat this several times, increase the time between the rump tap and the leash signal.
- The dog will start associating the leash signal with the rump tap, and at some point, they will look back at you if you do the leash signal without the rump tap.
- As soon as your dog responds well to only the leash signal (without the rump tap), gradually start doing it when they are further away with another leash. As soon as they respond desirable with any leash or any situation, they’ve fully mastered it.
It is super important to remember that it isn’t a command with the leash signal, but it’s a signal. If you’re not gentle enough, the dog can experience the leash signal as a punishment, which is undesirable. That’s why it’s so important to gently (!) tug the leash twice (!), so they will understand the difference between a harder, single tug that is meant to change their direction and a random pressure on the leash.
Keep giving them treats generously until they’ve fully mastered the skill.
Stomp on the Floor
This one can only be used when you’re inside of a specific range and you are dealing with particular floors. Just like the other signals I’ve mentioned, it can easily be trained. Due to the vibrations it brings along, it will get the dog’s attention. It’s just one of the many ways to get your dog’s attention. Since their other senses are more heightened, they will sense such things also a lot quicker than other dogs might.
Wave at Them
If your dog is out of reach and none of the above tricks work, you can try waving at them. Dogs have a wider field of peripheral vision than us humans, so often, when we think they can’t see us waving, they actually can. Here is how you go about teaching them:
- Start with a position where the dog is facing you.
- Wave at the dog with fingers spread wide, position your hand slightly above their vision field. The movement of your hand should catch his attention.
- As soon as they look at your hand (or towards your hand), flash and treat them.
- Repeat this numerous times.
- After a while, position your hand in different directions; from the side, the back, or higher up. When they pay attention to your hand, treat them generously.
- Continue this practice in continuously different situations and environments, continuing to treat them generously when they pay attention to your hand.
- As soon as the dog is able to ignore any distractions and immediately gives your hand attention, you can try it at different distances. Remember that if you are further away, you might need to make your wave larger for them to see it.
- If you are outside during the day and you are not that close to each other, you can use hand signals instead of the flashlight.
There are times when you may have to physically touch a deaf dog to get their attention. The most common is when they start barking enthusiastically at something and are too focused to respond to visual signals.
Another essential skill to teach your deaf dog is the recall. “Recall” means your dog comes when called. When working on longer-distance recalls, for safety reasons it should be within a fenced area or you’re using a long 50 foot leash. At the beginning of your teaching, however, you want to start off training in close proximity and a low-distraction setting. Make sure to use same type of visual cues to let your dog know to come to you.
The same process of positive reinforcement with rewards is used, and gradually increasing the distance you call them from once the dog is successful at the current distance. Eventually, you can introduce distractions to make the recall more reliable.
Deaf dogs can have extraordinary lives and are just as able to communicate with us as non-deaf dogs; they simply have a slightly different way of getting there. If we are well-informed about how best to approach deaf dogs and how to teach them to communicate with us, we can develop the best possible relationship with them.