By Urban Bent Studio
Meet Copper. Once a shy young Shetland Sheepdog living on the streets, Copper was fostered by the Hansen family and is now a sociable well adjusted dog living life with his forever family. But it is not just Copper’s past that makes him different from other dogs. This little fellow is deaf and is presumed to have been born that way. Sadly, even in this day and age, a great many misconceptions surround deaf canines, the foremost stigma being that they are aggressive and impossible to train. However, as Copper will attest, such accusations simply are not true.
Linda Hansen, who shows Shetland Sheepdogs and has titles in Rally, Agility, Obedience and Herding categories, contradicts the unflattering myths surrounding canines who are hard of hearing. “It wasn’t about whether or not we could train Copper,” she says. “He was a bright, intelligent, active, high energy, young dog that was quick to learn. It was more about finding the most effective techniques to help him learn what we wanted from him.”

Communication

So how do you begin to communicate with a dog that cannot hear your voice? “You have to think silently,” says Lynn Hyndman, a member of the Canadian Association for Professional Pet Dog Trainers and founder of Dogs in Harmony in Nepean. Hyndman, who offers a variety of private classes, from puppy manners to advanced obedience, says she would incorporate only a few modifications when working with a deaf pupil.
When training a hearing dog basic obedience, you use cue words as commands, such as “sit.” To train a deaf dog, you need to change your cue from an auditory signal to a visual one. Hyndman suggests using standard signals for basic commands such as “sit,” “down,” and “stay,” and then adding signs from the American Sign Language repertoire for more complex tricks. For example, you can pick out signs you like for “shake” and “shake other paw,” but it is important to implement signals with consistent meanings.
There are many ways to teach your dog obedience, but at the end of the day it all comes down to a matter of consistency. Hyndman uses the popular clicker method in her classes, which is used as a tool to mark a specific behaviour that is happening in the moment. “For example, when teaching a dog to sit, you would click when the dog’s tush touches the floor,” explains Hyndman. The pup would then receive a treat and once the behaviour is performed consistently you can phase out the marker and the treat.
Of course, a clicker would not work as a marker when training a deaf dog, so instead Hyndman suggests using a laser light (being extremely careful not to point the light anywhere near the dog’s face.) If laser lights make you a bit antsy, flashlights are also suitable. At the very least you want to be able to communicate to your dog when he has done something good and when he has done something bad. The universal “thumbs up” and “finger wag” are often used for this, but one must not forget body language. All dogs are strong body language communicators and those like Copper are even more attentive to what is expressed through the body, so avoid sending mixed signals when reinforcing or halting a behaviour. Make sure all your attention is focused on the pooch in question. 

By Urban Bent Studio

The Biggest Challenge

According to Hyndman, the biggest challenge when training a deaf dog is not gaining their attention or even keeping their focus, but rather working at a distance from them. In these situations you cannot vocally call or whistle your dog to you, so you want to reinforce a good recall (“come”) from a visual cue. When Hansen wanted Copper’s attention, she would turn the lights in the room on and off. Alternatively, if Copper was not in the room, she would use vibrations to call him by stomping on the floor or tapping walls. It is important to remember that stimulation means nothing to a dog without the proper associations. However, deaf dogs can be trained just as easily as their hearing counterparts.

Keeping Your Pup Safe

Just as hearing dogs startle to loud sudden noises, a deaf dog who is not paying attention to his surroundings may be startled when touched. It is a myth that deaf dogs become aggressive when startled. Just like people, a dog’s reaction depends upon his personality and whether or not he has been conditioned to certain behaviours.
Praise and an abundance of happy things (like treats and belly rubs) can go a long way toward desensitizing your deaf dog to such stimulus. All the same, some owners prefer to give their dog a “heads up” before they touch them, such as stomping on the floor, flicking a light, or tapping a wall to warn them of approaching contact.
The “heads up” cue is also good to establish for social situations. Deaf dogs around their own species are labeled as being socially inappropriate because they fail to respond to verbal cues from other dogs. They are also slow to learn the acceptable “play bite” force, because they can’t hear the yelps of their litter mates. Giving your dogs a “heads up” in this situation can all them to use the appropriate body language when faced with others of their kind and avoid awkward social interactions.
Another great way you can protect your dog is by training them to “check in” with you every so often, by being aware of your constant presence. This is especially important when out of the house. Deaf dogs cannot hear things we take for granted, such as the Doppler effect of a passing car. Keeping your dog on a lead when outside is important to keeping him safe and the sign of a responsible owner (not to mention, it’s the law in many places). You must be their ears and having them know you’re around and “check in” with you gives you an opportunity to warn them of the dangers they cannot hear.

Going to School

If all this training feels a little overwhelming, enrolling in an obedience class is not out of the question. Hyndman believes that should the dog have no behavioural problems, they could do well in either a group or a private class. In addition to strengthening the communication between canine and human and learning amidst plenty of distractions, the class environment is a social environment. It is the perfect place for your dog to learn social cues and “fit in” with hearing dogs.
Over the several months Copper was in foster care with the Hansens, he learned basic obedience and agility. With a little bit of patience, Hansen says, “Copper turned around from a shy dog into an outgoing social guy, who wasn’t ever phased by anything, pretty quickly.”
By Krystine McKinnon