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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #211

 Calvin demos the aftermath of "Jump!"I didn’t realize until I started preparing this episode how daunting many people find it to have a dog who was born deaf. It’s great to be able to deliver good news! If you’ve been worried that you won’t be able to live with your deaf dog because you can’t teach her anything, or because you’ve heard that deaf dogs are all aggressive, you can kick those anxieties to the curb.

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First, learning. Deaf animals learn the same way hearing animals do – when a behavior is rewarded, the animal learns to do it more often. Behaviors that don’t work tend to fade away. You’ll need to practice communicating without your handy voice, of course. But check this out: my friend Jess has taught her deaf dog, Calvin, dozens of signals and touch cues for all kinds of tricks and good manners: “Let’s go,” “Down,” “Touch [a target]”, “Jump,” “Heel,” “Spin,” “Give five,” “Give ten,” and that’s just the start of the list. Visit a YouTube channel called The Highland Rebels, where you can see a deaf white Pit Bull named Apollo strut his very impressive stuff. For more, see a deaf Boxer named Nitro.

Are Deaf Dogs More Aggressive?

Second, a folktale about deaf dogs is that they’re more likely to bite than dogs with intact hearing, because they’re more easily startled. The Dalmatian Club of America goes so far as to advocate the euthanasia of deaf puppies. (The breed is plagued with hereditary deafness.) I can’t even be polite about this nonsense. Not everybody who lives with a deaf dog believes that they’re easier to startle. But even if they are, it’s easy to alert a deaf dog that you’re coming – stomp on the floor, for instance.

Also, let me point out that deaf dogs are not the only ones who can be startled by a touch when they’re asleep. It’s common for even the most easygoing dogs to snap if you wake them by touching their neck. But you can desensitize your deaf dog – or your hearing dog! – to sudden touches. Here’s how: While he’s awake, lightly touch some part of his body, and then immediately give him a small delicious treat. Repeat many, many, many times over days and weeks to cement the lesson: “Sudden touch = tasty treat on the way.” Touch the same body part every time. 

Communication and Teaching

In the videos I link to, watch for the clear hand and touch signals the humans give in place of verbal cues. Many people borrow hand signals from American Sign Language. As for methods, clicker training and lure-and-reward are the way to go. I’ve gone into detail in other episodes, so here I’ll just point out the obvious – that since a deaf dog can’t hear a clicker, you’ll need a different signal. Some people use the flash of a penlight as their “click”; others worry that it may elicit light-chasing, a common compulsive behavior in dogs. My friend Jess advises staying away from laser lights altogether, and even from penlights if your dog has the tiniest hint of compulsive behavior or comes from a breed prone to it. For any dog, you can use a thumbs-up or a hand flash. The dog has to be watching you, but as Jess points out, “they often are during training.” Jess believes that a thumbs-up comes more naturally to people and that dogs find it easy to recognize.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).