For a couple of wonderful years in the early 2010s, I was a proud foster mom for the amazing senior dog rescue group Muttville in San Francisco, CA. Besides the fact that they were all over the age of seven, most of the dogs had something else in common: they were deaf.
The idea of adopting or fostering a deaf dog may sound intimidating but, the truth is, there isn’t much difference between deaf dogs and hearing dogs. In fact, there are some bonuses—deaf dogs, for example, don’t mind the fireworks on the 4th of July.
Even when it comes to training, there isn’t much difference between deaf and hearing dogs. Both are most easily able to learn new cues if they are taught using hand signals first. English, after all, isn’t a dog’s native language.
To train a deaf dog, you really only need two things: 1) a set of consistent hand signals to use as cues, and 2) a way to let your dog know when they’ve gotten something right. For deaf dogs, we use visual markers to let them know they’ve succeeded. Common visual markers include a thumbs up or a “hand flash” (opening your fist into a flat palm and then balling it up again). These visual markers must be consistently followed by a reward in order to make them meaningful.
Hand signals for cues
You can use just about any hand signal to cue your dog to sit, stay, or do other basic behaviors—some people even use American Sign Language! The key is to be consistent. If a stop sign hand means “stay,” you have to use a different hand signal for “come.”
Some of the most common hand signals include:
- Sit: flat hand, palm facing up, rising a few inches up in the air
- Down: flat hand, palm facing down, lowering a few inches towards the ground
- Stay: stop sign hand (flat hand with fingers facing up)
- Touch: flat hand with fingers facing horizontally
- Come: open your arms wide as if you were about to give a hug
- Spin: drawing a circle with the fingers
- Heel: tap your hip with your fingers
- Look at me: point to your eyes
- Go to bed: point to the bed
Getting your dog’s attention
Hand signals are great if your dog is already looking at you, but how do you get a dog’s attention if you can’t call their name? How you deal with this will depend on the context, so it’s best to have several methods to inform your dog you want their attention. In order to make these cues valuable, you’ll need to practice them frequently, following the cue immediately with your visual marker (e.g. thumbs up) and a reward.
To get your dog’s attention at home
- Stomp your feet near your dog (not too close!) so they feel a vibration
- If it’s dark out, flip the lights on and off
To get your dog’s attention when they’re sleeping
- Gently blow on their fur
To get your dog’s attention outside
- Use a vibrating collar (NOT an e-collar that emits a shock)
To get your dog’s attention anywhere (when awake)
- Tap them gently on the shoulder
With a little effort, you can communicate with a deaf dog just as effectively as a hearing one. Just remember that compassion and patience are always a dog trainer’s most powerful tools.