Talking To Deaf Dogs
Training deaf puppies and dogs using a visual language.

Deaf dog training at a public marina.


Deaf Puppy Basics | Some important first steps with my deaf puppy

June 17, 2020 Talking To Deaf Dogs

Below are things I focused with my deaf puppy. Note that each puppy/dog is different. There is a genetic foundation to temperament and life experiences also shape a dog. As with all dogs, some are naturally more easy, while others require a lot of work to get them to an acceptable level. I've experienced both ends of this spectrum. Seek a qualified instructor or behavioral trainer who can evaluate your puppy and guide you with the best methods to help your individual puppy to become a great companion.

  1. The first two things I teach a deaf puppy are...
    #1 My "yes" marker
    I use a thumbs-up, a happy face, even jazz hands, AND I give a tiny treat. You can load your "yes" marker the same way you would a clicker.

    Puppy looks at you = Yes! marker + treat. Repeat quickly in a row 10 times so the puppy associates Yes! with something good.

    #2 Capturing freely offered watchfulness... checking-in
    Communication can only begin with our deaf puppies when their eyes are on us. When I see puppy giving me a quick look or watching me from across the room, I excitedly mark this behavior and reward it so it will happen more often. This is called checking-in.
  2. A gentle mouth...
    We worked on a "gentle" mouth. Deaf puppies can be too rough with their mouths. Ralphie took treats using his teeth (my cuticles were killing me) and he also bit my other dogs too hard during play... they were beginning to dislike him. He wasn't being mean, it's just he didn't get the auditory feed back that hearing puppies get... that loud "yipe, yipe, yipe" that usually triggers all play to stop.

    I had to back up. I first worked with him taking treats from me gently. I sat on the floor and offered little pieces of food, one piece at a time. I offered them from an open palm so he would be more apt to lick. When he licked, I gave my "yes" marker. There were times that I also tucked food between two fingers and again offered my open palm. His licks would get me to release the food. When he was more consistently offering the desired licks, I introduced his "gentle" cue with a thumbs-up when he licked.

    Next, I moved to offering pieces of food between my index finger and thumb. If I got his lick, the food was released. If I got his teeth, I signed "gentle" and offered it again. If he again gave me teeth, I offered the food tucked between 2 fingers from my open palm, then marked the lick when he offered it. After a few licks, we would again try the food between finger and thumb. Note that with excitement, Ralphie would get more rough with his mouth and he needed to be reminded to not bite. So once this behavior has been learned in a calm setting, I introduced excitement, still asking for a gentle mouth.

    I later took this learned "gentle" sign/cue and shadowed his play with the other dogs. If he was being gentle with his mouth, I would intermittently sign "gentle/thumbs-up" and reward both dogs with tiny food treats. If he was too rough, I reminded him to be "gentle" as he was playing. If he continued to be too rough, he was pulled from play so I had his focus, he was asked to "gentle", then immediately allowed to go back and play. I feel dogs need to go right back in so we can again ask for the desired behavior or reward when it's being offered. The exception is when the dog/dogs are too excited or over stimulated. In those instances, the game just needs to end so the dogs can calm/settle, to also prevent the other dog from overcorrecting the deaf puppy. Remember that puppies go through natural fear stages and there's a thing called single event learning... it's important to offer positive experiences as puppy learn limits. A gentle mouth during play didn't happen overnight but Ralphie learned bite inhibition, to not to bite the other dogs so hard.
  3. Lessening the natural startle reflex.
    I used the gotcha-game. Kind strangers in my town also helped conditioned Ralphie to an unexpected touch. The first time it happened out in public, he startled and whipped around, saw it was a human, greeted them wiggling all over. I got so I would mark the unexpected touch with food to make it even more of a positive experience for him.

    We also worked on awakening a sleeping deaf puppy. Some will just stretch and slowly awaken, some may react negatively to being disturbed and may lash out so you have to be careful. For Ralphie, he jumps up wondering where's the food and what we're going to do. As a puppy, I awakened him by putting food at his nose and gently stroking his shoulder. This is what this dog looks like after being conditioned as a puppy to awaken with touch and food...
  4. Early socialization with careful exposure to life and visuals...
    A dog's temperament has a genetic foundation and it's formed by life's experiences. For me, it's all about giving puppies positive experiences in more controlled environments. Ralphie, my deaf puppy, was concerned by some things I hadn't expected. One was black shoes that were off the floor (on a table, on a man in a wheelchair with his legs off the floor). Another was large outdoor electrical boxes near commercial buildings.

    Be observant of things that seem to concern your puppy, respect a puppy's limits. I slowly counter condition if there is any fear. Seek professional guidance quickly if you notice a problem so you can help your puppy/dog become a happier companion.

    I highly recommend dog behavior articles by Dr. Jen. The one below will help you to better understand behaviors that require help from a professional behavioral trainer. I had purchased a 10 week old puppy that lunged at my vet during a simple meet and greet. This is not normal behavior. It's important to quickly get professional help.

    Will My Puppy Grow Out Of This? Early Intervention For Behavior Issues
    by Dr. Jennifer Summerfield
  5. Recognize normal fear periods in puppy development and adjust training and conditioning during these times. I back off on new experiences and focus on things the puppy already enjoys and is confident in doing.

    Puppies generally go through 2 natural fear stages... I've been told by a behavioral trainer that there may actually be more. Seek help to address any fear issues quickly, never force a puppy to face his or her fears.
  6. Watch for too much focus on things like shadows, flashing lights, reflections and quickly redirect the puppy's attention to something else or simply block the source of the visual stimuli.
  7. Incorporate basic training into everyday life. I start the day I bring a new puppy home. Just brief sessions of this interactive play a few times throughout the day... 1-3 minutes durations depending on the puppy's age. I use tiny treats or the puppy's premeasured daily food rations. I believe this approach provides for faster learning and better retention, too.
  8. I work on getting a dog used to being handled and groomed, comfortable with having his/her body touched and examined. This means ears, mouth, feet, fanny. Coat maintenance will be a life long necessity, especially with dogs like Ralphie, so I start conditioning day one with brief play-grooming sessions and tiny treats. I give the puppy a toy or chew they only get during grooming sessions. My early grooming tools are a wide tooth comb, a gentle brush and cardboard fingernail file that I swipe once over each toe nail. When we're done, any toy/chew is put away for the next time so the puppy will learn to look forward to these sessions.

    Note: If you have a deaf dog that has longer hair on his/her head, the hair must be either put up in a topknot or trimmed. Our deaf dogs need to be able to see us so we can communicate with them. If I leave Ralphie's hair down, he's not only deaf but also vision impaired or blind so get the hair out of their eyes.
  9. I teach a puppy/dog to swap or exchange what he/she has for something much better. I will often then give the item right back to the puppy.

    I allow puppies/dogs to eat in peace, no pestering a dog while he/she is eating. I do not take the food bowl away/give it back/take it away... I look at that as teasing. I do not put my hands in the bowl while the puppy is eating to show simply that I can... I feel that's just disrespectful and can cause a dog stress or behavior challenges.

    I will however approach with super good foods like meats, cheese, etc. to drop near and later in their bowl so the puppy will learn that my approach is nonthreatening and is actually something to look forward to.

    *Side Note: About 19 years ago, I had been instructed by one of my vets to put my hand in the bowl of my Cattledog-mix while she was eating. At that time, it was believed to be the "I'm boss" approach. That girl had been orphaned at about 5-6 weeks so she missed out on many important early lessons from her mom/littermates. Messing with her food was not the right thing to do... it was a breach of trust that I later corrected.
  10. Exercises for building or retaining confidence. Also working on gradually being able to put distance between us in an attempt to head off separation anxiety. I often take my deaf dog to work with me. It's a pretty large building, a main floor and downstairs. If he's sleeping, I will often gently touch him to let him know I'm moving away from him. The times I don't, he'll pop up and search for me... I'll usually wave to catch his field of vision. It's more of a simple courtesy to let him know I'm leaving the area. With repetition, he's learned my work ritual so there are now times he'll just lie down in my office and wait for me to finish, trusting that I'll return. Trust is something that is built over time and showing by example.

    My deaf dog has bonded so closely to me. I should have had others handle him for walks, training, etc. My husband wasn't strong enough to handle him so I did all the training. When in public, Ralphie doesn't like to leave me. If I go into a store and he stays in the car with my husband or on the sidewalk with an instructor, he will make the most god-awful sounds until I'm out of sight. But when we are getting ready to go somewhere and I have to run back in the house for something or back into work to grab a tote I have by the door, he sits quietly and watches for me to return. I took him everywhere when he was a puppy and I think he just doesn't like to miss out on the fun.
  11. House training. A similar approach to the one outlined below has worked for all of my puppies... deaf, blind and puppies with all senses.
  12. In early training, I redirect away from undesired behaviors... replace an undesired behavior with desirable one. In other words, if the puppy is chewing on the curtains, I use a toy to take the puppy's attention away from the curtains. Carry a favorite toy in your pocket so you can quickly redirect away from something else. You can also use treats to ask for other behaviors and reward them.

    Later, in more advanced training, I teach “no/stop-it” meaning that is not the behavior I want. THEN immediately redirect by asking for a desired behavior. I use an index finger wag as my "not that" marker, then mark a desired behavior with a thumbs-up and treat.
  13. Recall...
    I teach a dog that "come" is a good thing and that it doesn't always mean the fun ends. But come always means the puppy must come to me. If the puppy doesn't, I will go out with a leash and get him/her and we will be trying it again. There's a fine line though... you don't want "come" to become a fun game of chase as perceived by the puppy. If a puppy doesn't come, the next time they go outside on a long line with me at the other end so we can practice come-go-play and I have a way to retrieve the puppy.

    Come looks like this for my puppies...
    I call the puppy to the door.
    Touch the collar or neck as I reward with a tiny treat.
    Then allow the puppy to go back outside to play.

    I will also call a puppy to the door on occasion and show them more fun is going to happen when we get inside, past the door.

    Remember that we have no recall if our deaf puppy/dog gets out of a secured area if the dog is heading away from us. Also, any dog can choose to blow off a recall and it has ended tragically. When not in a secured area, use a leash or long training lead. Examples of recall-
  14. Focus on the available senses and much less on what's missing. We can communicate using a visual language if a dog has normal vision. We can lure using treats, we can communicate through touch, we can capture behaviors so they will happen again. Deafness isn't really a disability but rather a difference. An example of early training-


Copyright 2022 Jaclin Dunne. All rights reserved. Shared are opinions only based on my life with my individual deaf dogs and numerous dogs in general. Consult with your personal trainer or behaviorist to better understand what is a best approach for your individual deaf dog.