TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
I have a 4-year-old dog that I got as a puppy. Recently she got very sick, had a high fever and was treated with several strong medications. As a result, she has completely lost her hearing. She seems somewhat disoriented and stays very close to me. Before this happened, she slept in a crate in my bedroom, but now she barks and whines until I let her get in my bed. I think I need to operate under the assumption that her hearing will not return, but don’t know how to start training a deaf dog!
Having a deaf dog is not as daunting as it may seem. Her situation is unusual and must be very scary, so be patient and give her time to adjust. You will also need time to adapt and change old habits. Simply calling your dog’s name to get her attention isn’t going to work anymore.
I recommend getting a good quality vibration collar for attention and recall. Using a vibration collar will allow her the freedom to walk off leash, but she must always be safely away from cars. Shock collars can be used in vibration only mode, but you can also get one that is made for vibration only. I prefer the latter so I don’t accidentally shock the dog. Begin training by pushing the button to make the collar vibrate and then feed her a good treat. Do several repetitions in a row and repeat the exercise until she looks at you expectantly when she feels the vibration.
Dogs learn and respond to hand signals much better than verbal cues. The hardest part will likely be retraining yourself. Effective trainers use consistent verbal and non-verbal cues, so you will need to clearly define the hand signals you plan to use and teach them to her in a consistent way. If you need help getting started, find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) who has experience working with deaf dogs.
I follow the same process to teach any new cue. First you need to get your dog to do a behavior. Luring with a treat is an effective method for teaching many behaviors. Hold a treat by the dog’s mouth and slowly move it until the dog achieves the desired position then immediately feed the treat. Repeat this until you can easily lure the dog into position. Only add a cue when you can reliably lure the behavior thus ensuring it will be associated with the motion. In your case, the cue will be a specific hand signal. After many repetitions, start to pause after giving the cue/signal to give her a chance to think about what she is being asked to do. Slowly wean the her off the treat reward, only paying her when she does an excellent version of the behavior.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.