Pet Professional Guild Promotes Force-Free Training Methods for Hearing Impaired Dogs

Photo by Morag Heirs - do not reuse without permission
Farah proudly wears her deaf dog bandana

Tampa, FL – In line with Deaf Dog Awareness Week taking place from 21–27 September, 2014, the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) is highlighting the message that deaf dogs respond equally as well as their hearing counterparts to force-free training.

According to the Deaf Dog Action Fund, deafness occurs in dogs for a number of reasons, including injury, old age, reactions to medications or genetics. Breeds such as Dalmatians and Boxers are more prone to deafness than other breeds, as are white dogs, although any dog can be deaf. Regardless, deaf dogs are just as intelligent and trainable as hearing dogs and can be taught sign language commands.

“Deaf dogs are in many ways the easiest dogs that I have worked (and lived) with,” said PPG Member Morag Heirs PhD. “Deaf dogs are first and foremost dogs – deafness simply means we work harder to communicate with our body language, and accept that our verbal chit-chat is irrelevant. It is incredibly important to use force-free training methods as our hands should always be signals of good stuff and great information for our dogs.”

Establishing lines of communication is crucial with deaf dogs. Heirs recommends contacting an experienced trainer as the first port of call and then starting by creating a clear signal to let the dog know when he has got something right. Signals can include a thumbs up, which can be used as a generic “good dog”; a hand flash/flicker, which can be used instead of a clicker to inform the dog he has performed the correct behavior (always followed by a reward); and a small LED torch flash, which is another useful way of ‘clicking’ the deaf dog during an activity and, if done skillfully means, the handler does not have to be beside the dog. Teaching a simple attention cue such as a tap on the shoulder is also a good idea.

“Most dogs turn when tapped (gently!) so it is easy to pair the tap with a tasty treat,” said Heirs. “This gives us a valuable method of redirecting the dog’s attention and can be helpful with frustrated barkers when we need to move them on to another activity. The next stage would often be to work on a hand target, essential for positions, recall and direction signals later on. These simple exercises begin to build a bridge of communication between handler and dog and help the dog to develop a sense of control and confidence.

“Deaf dogs participate in (and win) at almost any kind of dog sport you can name, from Rally, to Dock Diving, through Agility and into Flyball, not to mention Nosework. Other people might think of these dogs as disabled, but I can assure you they embrace life to the full without wondering about what they might be missing.”


  1. It is never ever a good idea to use a flash light or a LED light (this is very old information)to mark the correct response to a sign command as a “clicker” because many of the deaf dogs are prone to Obsessive Compulsive disorder and by using light of any kind (instead of a simple open hand flash or a thumbs up sign). Using a light of any kind can trigger light and shadow chasing (OCD) which can open the dog and owners up to all kinds of new challenges. You can ask any of the Aussie, Collie, Dane, Boxer or Pit Bull owners and many of them have made this mistake and found out the hard way it is not a good idea. We recommend using your hand to mark the behavior as a visual marker.

    1. Thanks for the comment Christina. While we’re certainly aware that *some* deaf dogs appear to be vulnerable to obsessive type behaviours which can include lights, shadows and other movement, its not true that *all* deaf dogs are vulnerable to these problems. The use of lights to entertain (encouraging the dog to chase the light) or distract dogs may result in unwanted behaviours. What we are suggesting is that for some dogs, the use of short blinks of light can be a valuable training marker particularly when the dog is facing away from the handler or moving towards a target. Suggesting that such a marker should never be used limits communication options. Some deaf dogs (indeed some hearing dogs) find being touched aversive and react in a nervous startle, however we still recommend trying it out as a training method since most dogs respond well.
      These brief suggestions are extracts from longer articles where we deal with the potential for obsessive behaviours and how to minimise them. We’d encourage anyone with questions about which methods are appropriate for their dog to contact an experienced professional who uses force-free methods.

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