Living with a Deaf Dog
You may have heard that deaf dogs are aggressive, or that they're impossible to train. Actually, deaf dogs learn just as well as hearing dogs do, and they can be wonderful companions.
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Jess tried a vibrating collar as a “clicker” for Calvin. Most dogs easily figure out that a click sound marks their behavior, but Calvin had a hard time learning the same thing about a vibration. Jess reports the same was true for several other deaf dogs she learned about. However, you can teach your dog to look at you when he feels the vibration if you consistently follow the buzz with a treat. Then you can build up to teaching your dog to come to you when “buzzed.”
Some dogs may find the vibe on their neck alarming at first, so if you decide to use a vibrating collar, start by getting your dog comfortable with the sensation near him and then on body parts other than his neck. The trainer Elizabeth Catalano has a nice video showing how she worked with her deaf dog Elassar this way.
Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any high-quality vibration-only collars on the market nowadays – Jess tells me that a couple of years ago she got one of the last – so you’d have to buy a shock collar that includes a vibration feature, and disable the shock. That’s easy enough to do, but many people are reluctant to add to shock-collar sales – a feeling I can get behind. But the ability to get your dog’s attention at a distance is so valuable that I’m not inclined to criticize anyone’s choice.
Should You Let Your Deaf Dog Off Leash?
I mentioned how you can use a vibrating collar to teach your dog to look at you and then to come to you when buzzed. That leads to a big decision faced by many guardians of deaf dogs: Should you ever let your deaf dog off leash in an unfenced area? Some people believe that if your dog can’t hear you calling him, the risk is just too high that he will get lost. Unlike your voice, a vibrating collar provides the dog no clues as to what direction to head in if he can’t see you. Others feel that if you’ve done a good job of teaching your dog to keep an eye on you and check in with you frequently, the risk is manageable.
Needless to say, there’s no data to be had on the subject, only more or less well-informed opinions on both sides. If you’re thinking of allowing your deaf dog off leash in areas that aren’t fenced, consider how close he sticks to you and how much he checks in without any special training. Ask yourself how much squirrels, rabbits, and other animals excite him, and whether you can easily distract him when he picks up a fascinating scent. If he chases animals in your backyard, does he hit your fence running and then pace the spot where his prey disappeared? Does he do that for minutes on end? Even if your dog never looks twice at a squirrel and sticks to you like glue, then if you’re planning to let him off leash, make sure he’s got plenty of ID and a loud bell, and teach that auto-check-in. Teach coming when called. And then teach these behaviors some more.
Jess offered 3 more pointers that I’d like to share: