My own Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Alfie, became deaf when he was around 2-years old. In his case, it was premature deafness which is common within the breed. Yet another reason to support responsible breeders who carry out all the available health screening programs and breed for the health and temperament of their dogs not their looks.
I digress, when I took Alfie to have the hearing test I was very concerned that he would find the test stressful, as he had to have electrodes put into three areas of his head, however, he coped very well and sat patiently on my lap as the test was carried out. When Alfie was tested he was already profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear anything under 100 decibels, as it is a progressive disease in his case, as the years passed, he became completely deaf.
The realisation that I was now the guardian of a deaf dog was initially a little worrying. Would I be able to let him off lead still? How could I continue working with him? At the time we were doing lots of trick training, heelwork to music, assistance dog training and agility. It was initially daunting but very quickly (and with the support of some fantastic instructors). I transitioned all of Alfie’s previously learnt verbal behaviours on to visual cues and introduced a new marker to replace the previous ‘yes’ or clicker. Deaf dogs can do everything a hearing dog can! For dogs who are born deaf, it is just part of life for them, for Alfie he went through a transitional period of heightened alertness to vibrations whilst he was adapting to being unable to hear.
Training a deaf dog is very similar to training a dog who can hear; here are some top tips.
1. Stay Consistent
Decide on the hand signals you are going to use, practice them without your dog around so that you can make sure you sign it the same way every time. Then make sure everyone who interacts with your dog knows the signs and what behaviours they are for.
2. Be Clear
Keep the rest of your body neutral to make it easy for your dog to focus on the sign you are doing. Try to stick to using one-handed gestures for ones you will need to use whilst your dog is on lead and the rest of your body for signs you will use off the lead. The possibilities are endless.
3. Decide on a marker
Use the marker to signal that your dog has succeeded. I use a thumbs up; you can introduce this the same way you would a clicker, thumbs up then give a small food reward, repeat at least ten times to make sure the thumbs up is paired with food following.
4. Keep Training Short
Train for 5-10 minutes, focusing on one behaviour at a time. Start by concentrating on sit, down & recall. I used my right arm held straight above my head with my palm facing Alfie to signal a Sit. I used my right arm held out directly to the side with my palm facing the ground and brought my arm down to my side to signal a down. These signals are evident at a considerable distance too. I used both arms out to the side palms facing Alfie and waved to signal ‘come’.
5. Proof your New Cues
Practice your new cues in lots of different locations such as separate rooms, then the garden, outside your house then in the park without other dogs around building up distractions of people, other dogs and distance slowly. There is no reason why you wouldn’t let your deaf dog off lead, the same as with a hearing dog, you wouldn’t let them off the lead until you had a reliable recall, so in the meantime use a long line of at least 5-10 meters to help them learn within safe proximity to you and have enriched walks.
6. Remember training should be fun
Training should be enjoyable dor both you and your dog. If you are getting frustrated during a session, then stop, make yourself a cup of tea and consider how you can make it easier for your dog to learn the behaviour you’d like to teach. You could consider taking smaller steps, using a higher value reward, doing shorter sessions or changing the environment to make it easier. Talk to your dog, just because they are deaf doesn’t mean they don’t look to your face for signals, when we express ourselves verbally we put a lot of emotion into our words and dogs read every part of our body language. Alfie could even walk backwards on a verbal cue of ‘back’ just by reading my lips when in a sit in front of me.
Here is a little video of Alfie practising to tidy his toys.