Training Your Deaf Dog: Methods and Techniques That Work

Understanding your dog's needs and compensating for their hearing loss is essential for training success.

Published April 19, 2023
Deaf dog training session at the park

Contrary to popular belief, training a deaf dog isn't actually that much more difficult compared to training a dog who hears. The training techniques you need to master aren't necessarily harder to use, but you do need to rely on different techniques that rely on visual cues and body language. Of course, you still need to potty train your hearing-impaired dog and teach them basic obedience. They can learn all of these things, and can express desired behaviors if you figure out how to work with their abilities.

Training a Deaf Dog

When training a deaf dog, you must focus on visual cues rather than vocal commands. This takes some getting used to, for both of you. Use the following techniques to help you along the way:

Gaining Their Attention

Because deaf dogs can't hear your commands, they rely on visual cues like hand signals and your body language to understand what you're asking of them. In order to do this, you need to teach them how to focus on what you're doing. Some people wait for their dogs to look at them for this training, whereas others may use a vibrational collar - not a shock collar - or a flashlight to gain their dog's attention.

To train your dog to focus, reward them any time they look at you. They will learn that looking at you is a positive activity. Once your dog begins looking at you on a regular basis, begin teaching a cue that means "Focus" and remain consistent.

For example, you can use a easily recognizable hand signal to key your dog into your commands. Point at your face in an exaggerated manner. Every time your dog sees the cue for "Focus," and pays attention to you, reward them with a treat (note, it helps if you're closer when first starting out, to treat them quickly). They will learn to associate focus with treats and then regular training can begin. These cues are all useful ways to get attention - and you can train more than one:

Light flashes: Carry a small flashlight with you - not a laser pointer - and shine it to get your dog's attention.

Vibration color: Caution, never use a shock collar that delivers a jolt to get your deaf dog's attention - this will contradict your training. Get a collar that delivers a very gentle buzzing sensation to get your dog's attention.

Touch signal: Very lightly, touch your dog's back in the same spot. When you pair this with reward, they learn to watch you for more commands.

Floor vibrations: Use your foot to tap (or even stomp) on the ground. Your dog's paws are sensitive, and they will quickly learn that you are signaling them when you treat them after.

Quick Tip

Just because your dog is deaf, it doesn't mean you shouldn't say commands aloud. Saying commands in your head may not reflect the body language you're trying to portray.

Visual Cues

You will need to use visual cues with your deaf dog. For example, you can use hand signals, body language, and facial expressions to communicate with your dog. Some people learn and use American Sign Language, also known as ASL, so they have a uniform way of communicating with their dog. This is particularly helpful if you have a lot of people around your dog. However, you can use any signal you can remember for each command.

Sit: Point at ground, away from your body

Stay: Flat palm, held down

Come: Extend hand, palm up, and pull hand in

Point: Indicate where you want your dog to go with your finger

These are just examples. You can use any distinct visual cue your dog can easily recognize to indicate a command. Some trainers have even used blinking lights - one for sit, two for stay, and so on - to convey info to their deaf dogs.

Fast Fact

Dogs are nearly unique in the animal world, in that they have the ability to understand what we mean when we point with our fingers. Even chimpanzees - our closest cousins - can't do this.

Training dog with visual cues

Lure-and-Reward Training

Lure-and-reward training is a form of positive reinforcement and it's actually commonly used with dogs who can hear, too. It's especially effective when paired with hand signals. With this type of training, you can teach your dog to sit by luring them into position with a treat. Lift the treat over their head and your dog will naturally sit to get to the treat. They will associate lifting your palm with a treat and learn how to sit using this technique.

Mark-and-Reward Training

Mark-and-reward training involves pairing a gesture with a behavior you want your dog to complete. For example, you can show your palm to ask your dog to sit. Or, place your hand horizontally to request they lie down. When they perform the behavior, offer a treat. Choose a new gesture for each desired behavior.

Potty Training Deaf Dogs

You can teach your deaf dog to go potty like you would teach others, through positive reinforcement. Get your deaf dog used to going potty outside by rewarding them with treats when they use the bathroom outdoors. This will help them understand that they are doing something good and it will show them where they need to go when they need to relieve themselves.

The trick is consistency. You may need to watch your deaf dog a little more closely than you would a dog who can hear. This way, when you notice your dog - most likely a deaf puppy - indicating they are going to go to the bathroom, you can immediately redirect them gently to go outside. When they do their business in the appropriate place, treat them and praise them immediately.

Quick Tip

Just because your dog or puppy is deaf, doesn't mean they don't understand your praise and affection. Talk to them, smile, show your normal happy emotions, and they will quickly learn you like what they did.

Keep Your Dog on a Leash

It's best to keep your deaf dog on a leash when you're going for a walk unless you're in a fenced-in area. Whether a dog can hear or not, they can become easily distracted. However, unlike a dog who can hear, a deaf dog won't react to a vocal command if they can't see you. For your dog's safety and your sanity, keep your dog on a leash.

White Chihuahua dog on a leash

How to Train Them to Avoid Being Startled

Deaf dogs can be startled easily, because they can't hear the world surrounding them. They aren't as aware as other dogs are about what's going on. You can reduce the risk of startling your deaf puppy or dog by applying gentle touch regularly, then follow the action with a treat.

If your dog is sleeping, place your hand in front of their nose and allow them to wake up to your scent. Then, apply a gentle touch and follow it again with a reward. Practice makes perfect here. With consistency and repitition, your dog will learn to associate unexpected events with positive outcomes.

Training Elderly Dogs Going Deaf

Old dogs can learn new tricks. If your dog has lost, or is currently losing, their hearing due to age, you can begin using visual cues. It's very useful to start early if you suspect your dog is going deaf. This way, you can supplement your training with auditory cues, and your dog will learn to pick up on your related body language a little more easily.

Any dog can learn hand signals. You would train a dog that is losing their hearing the same way you would train a puppy that was born without their hearing. Just make sure that you begin training for your "Focus" command right away, and stay consistent.

Getting Started

Training your deaf dog isn't as difficult as you may have originally thought it would be. You can get started now using a shift in technique, whether you're training a puppy or an adult. Most of what you need to learn is just making adjustments to your training style, and relying on visual cues to supplement auditory cues. Remember to remain patient and don't be too hard on yourself if you forget they can't hear from time to time. This is normal, especially if your dog was once able to hear.

Training Your Deaf Dog: Methods and Techniques That Work