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Understanding deaf dogs

Recently I had been asked to contribute an article to the AKC delegates regarding my experience and research working with deaf dogs. The following is that article. At the present time, they do not allow deaf dogs to compete in AKC sporting events. For all my deaf dog owners out there, this one is for you! My only hope is to one-day see the AKC award a ribbon to a deaf dog for a sporting event! Keep your paws crossed!

Understanding Deaf Dogs

My work rehabilitating and training dogs for shelters, rescues and clients has given me the pleasure of working with quite a few deaf dogs and their owners and puts me in a unique position to address the ability of deaf dogs to participate in competitive sports. Even though my training and research specialty is aggressive behavior, most of these owners came to me to learn how to communicate successfully with their dogs, rather than for problems with aggression.

Training a deaf dog is no more difficult than training a hearing one. All dogs take approximately two weeks to learn a command solidly; then, another two weeks to learn the command with distractions. In my experience, disabilities do not change this. Many clients with deaf dogs have helped their dogs learn 30 or more commands.

Dogs do not communicate with each other as we do. They use body language and subtle movements rather than “talk” and “praise.” To demonstrate happiness or disapproval, they simply move their bodies. If they are happy, they become soft bodied and wiggle all over, maybe throwing in a play bow. If they are angry they display stiffness, a good hard stare, and, sometimes, a corrective “bite”. Hearing or deaf, all dogs understand these signals. Deaf dogs are usually so tuned-in to their owners that they not only learn hand signals but also take notice of subtle body/facial changes and movement to go along with their commands, making them more forgiving of human error.

In our obedience and agility classes, deaf and hearing dogs learn the same commands. A deaf dog will follow the owner’s eye movements, body shifts, and hand signals; whereas, the hearing dogs generally focus on voices. Obedience competition allows handlers to use hand signals, and the advanced levels require it, so I really see no difference between deaf or hearing dogs in the ring.

The majority of my clients that own a deaf dog, have more than one dog in their household. One of my clients has a deaf Boxer and a hearing Boxer in her residence and takes in fosters for a local rescue group as well. I see no difference in the everyday behavior of hearing and deaf dogs living together. Deaf dogs in a pack are conditioned to be more tuned-in to the other members. They do not “startle” and attack when a pack member approaches. The hearing dogs do not “soft” step around the deaf ones; they do not pamper them; they simply ignore the “disability”.

One of the most commonly expressed reservations about deaf dogs, especially in competition, is their “startle” response, but this is not just an issue with deaf dogs. Personally, I believe saying that only deaf dogs are dangerous because of startle response is naive at best. All dogs have the tendency to show aggression if not given the proper training and boundaries.

Countless owners have contacted me for hearing dogs that “startle” and snap at them or their children. In the absence of any hard data on the incidence of bites from deaf dogs, all I can offer are my own statistics, which I have developed as a result of my working with dogs that have aggression issues for the past 20 years. These dogs consist of a tremendous diversity of breeds with a variety of impairments and behavior issue. This past year alone I have seen over 250 new clients for different types of aggression, including 35 that were child biters. None of these were deaf dogs, although some did bite because they were “startled” by a child.

Because a deaf dog cannot hear you approach, the usual solution to the “startle” response, conditioning a dog to move before you get there or alerting them prior to your arrival, doesn’t work. Instead, you need to use the sensations all puppies use for the first 3 weeks of their life: vibration, touch and smell. Deaf dogs are even more sensitive to these, and they provide many different ways of alerting a deaf dog.

One of my clients places her hand at her deaf dog’s nose to alert her by smell. To teach the dog not to startle at a gentle touch on the shoulder, we have owners gently touch the dog’s shoulder, then quickly deliver a treat along with overly exaggerated, happy facial expressions. If this is practiced daily while the dog is awake, touching the shoulder is viewed as an attention command as well as a reward.

Because deaf dogs are extremely sensitive to vibrations, they can be alerted by heavy steps or stomping on the ground. Some trainers recommend a vibration collar to get the dogs attention with a low-level stimulus. I personally have not needed to use these. I have found all the deaf dogs I work with are focused on their owners and are exceptionally keen to movement, smell, and visual stimuli.

Another common reservation about deaf dogs has to do with getting the dog’s attention when it is off-leash. This is the most common problem all owner’s have, not just those with deaf dogs.

The way we teach the recall command is similar for both deaf and hearing dogs except that the deaf dog is called with a flashing light rather than a verbal command. As the dog comes, the owner play bows and has a happy facial expression and body language and when it gets to the owner, it’s rewarded with treats and praise.

Deafness may actually be an advantage when it comes to the issue of distractions! Deaf dogs are largely unaffected by people cheering loudly and are usually undisturbed by reactive or anxious dogs barking at them. Think about how many owners have been “kicked” out of obedience classes or else dropped out because the dog was too distracted. Of course, any dog can be distracted; this depends on their personality and drives.

My personal experience working with deaf dogs has proven to me that they can be held to the same standard of learning as hearing dogs, and I see no more deaf dogs for aggression problems proportionally than I do hearing ones. What I have witnessed are owners whose dedication to understanding their deaf dog’s language has inspired them to work even further with them.

Owners that choose to compete with their dogs typically have a great working relationship with the dog, and they have strong mutual respect.. This is no different for deaf dog owners, they have the same working relationship, respect and trust for each other.






Bio: Tara Stermer is a member if the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and has specialized in canine body language and aggressive behavior for the last 20 years. For the past two years, she has conducted an online aggression study which has involved hundreds of people throughout the United States and which has a goal of pinpointing specific triggers that cause aggression so they may be prevented or solved. She has worked with a tremendous diversity of breeds, impairments and common behavior issues and studies and researches canine body language in hopes of improving dog/owner relationships and communication

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