Deaf Dogs and Training by Dr. David Sands

There are several dog breeds carrying a genetic pre-disposition to deafness. Sound-signalling and voice-instruction communication are redundant for them. Deafness means that other primary senses – smell, touch, taste and sight – become enhanced and more significant for a different approach to training.

Talk to the Hand
Those dog breeds known to be carrying a defective gene for deafness are in gundogs primarily, especially the English Setter, in livestock control breeds or pastoral and working dog groups, such as the Australian cattle dog and shepherd, boxer, border, rough and smooth collies and Old English sheepdog. In the terrier group it is in the English bull and miniature bull and finally, in the miniature poodle.

Owners with a dog that is partially or completely deaf from an early puppy stage will usually adapt to a situation when sound becomes irrelevant for communication. Dog and owner become conditioned to ‘sign language’ or touch in order to find a practical way around the disadvantage. As is common with humans who have some sort of sensory disadvantage, other senses become heightened to compensate. In the case of many of the working breeds, they appear to settle when they come to recognise visual cues, which is perfectly understandable when an innate skill that comes from centuries of selective-breeding for livestock-control is taken into consideration. Think of a farmer waving a stick guiding a dog for clockwise or anticlockwise for come by and away and then hand signals can start to be fun. It is when a dog, without the ability to hear dangerous sounds or listen to verbal instructions, is presenting unwanted behaviours that deafness can become a disadvantage.

Good Vibrations
Some of my earliest cases of behavioural issues relating to hearing-impaired dogs involved English bull terriers. In one household two bitches were triggered into aggression when the hearing dog of the two reacted to unusual sounds and began barking. The increasing noise-sensitivity had reached the phobic stage where hyperactivity and tail chasing in a dog OCD-like condition caused the dog without hearing to panic, resulting in inter-specific aggression. Both dogs were strongly attached to the client and owner separation related issues, including destructiveness, inappropriate urination and repetitive barking, were also being presented during absence. It soon became clear that both dogs were easily aroused and when over-stimulated, fight or flight adrenaline was causing a range of progressive stress related conditions.

One of the first products I introduced to clients as a useful tool for communicating with the deaf dog was a remote-controlled vibrating collar known as the Pet Pager. In circumstances where visual contact had been obscured or lost altogether, such as during an off-lead walk when the dog enters dense vegetation, the collar could be used as an owner contact reminder. The collar would be initially used around the home and with close contact where a food treat would be offered for attention and recall to an owner’s side. Sessions arranged around the home would eventually condition the dog to the vibration and reward. This system worked successfully in promoting positive contact, but at first it was not clear if the system could be used to interrupt the initial hyperactivity that would eventually progress to an aggression episode.

The hearing dog was trained (conditioned) to the clicker (reward) and training discs (removal of reward) over a week in separate sessions; the latter was successfully used to signal a required cessation of barking. Once the dog stopped vocalising, the clicker was sounded to reward the result. It was important that the owner did not shout or physically interrupt the early stage of the mode of behaviour, because this dramatic attention was reinforcing other fixative behaviours such as tail chasing. The dogs were also encouraged to sleep and rest in separate travel crates to help reduce a cycle of reinforcement between them. The vibrating collar was used to attract the deaf dog’s attention. The offer of a food reward to come away from the hearing dog (when hyperactive behaviour commenced) was successful in preventing the behaviour from escalating into any form of aggression. Other methods to reduce noise sensitivity contributed to the successful reduction in unwanted behaviour.

A Sign of the Times
When a deaf dog shares a home with a dog that enjoys normal hearing it is usually the case that training challenges are overcome through a ‘learning and following’ process. When retrieval games are introduced the hearing dog often provides the competition in which both dogs try to out compete each other for the prize of a retrieval toy. These games can be useful for introducing hand signals into basic training. Bringing a hand flat to chest when a dog is approaching can be conditioned and then used for the ‘come’ signal. Game over is hands brought in a horizontal movement together and then quickly spread out away from each other in a swift sideways movement.

Owen, a young Border collie who is deaf, has cat bells attached to his collar so that if he vanishes into the undergrowth the sound informs Rachel, his owner, where he is. Another idea introduced by Rachel is a bandana on which “I am a deaf dog” is written, that informs other dog walkers instantly the reason Owen may not react to voice interaction. Rachel has chosen not to inform her parents that Owen is deaf in a fun experiment to see when or if they ever realise he has an issue. In a recent episode, her mother shouted ‘off’ at the top of her voice and Rachel, almost cracking with laughter, then advised her to gently put the dog on the floor. Rachel has also taught Owen to touch-target her hand in a single training session. Her hearing dog is learning many new games and tricks using this method and her hope is that it will help to mentally stimulate him.

Information Box – Case File on ‘Owen’
‘Owen’ is a smooth-coated border collie, born on a working farm near Swansea on 14th February 2010. He was kept back from the litter to train as a working sheep dog. At approx 13 weeks old the farmer realised that Owen was deaf and rather than drown or shoot him he took the dog to Bridgend (South Wales) Dog’s Trust. Owen is currently an entire male. The Dog’s Trust provided a neutering voucher and they insisted that he must not be castrated sooner than 14th Aug 2010 or later than 14 Sep 2010. The Dog’s Trust also micro-chipped Owen and arranged 4 weeks free PetPlan Insurance cover and a 15 kg bag of Arden Grange ‘kibble’.

In the final part, Dr David Sands discusses the practical pros and cons to owning Owen ‘the deaf dog’ and how Rachel is coming to terms with various aspects of his development and training.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Colin Tennant for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Animal Behaviour

Lessons from a Deaf Dog by Barbara Sykes

Our little deaf rescue dog Drift has a home. He is now safe and happy along with Bobby, one of his friends from the barn they were rescued from, but he has left a legacy of unbelievable knowledge behind that I, for one, will never forget and will always be grateful to him for.

Over the years we have rescued deaf dogs, all of which have had behavioural problems and most of which have stemmed from not enough management and far too much toy orientated information. Hearing dogs that get wound up by just seeing a toy can be difficult to manage, but when a dog is deaf it is very difficult to break through its barrier of manic focus on the toy to get some attention and some manners from it.

In many cases owners have tried to get the dog’s attention by showing it a toy or a treat, which in theory gets the dog’s attention thus encouraging it to engage in some form of communication. However, what has happened in the case of our rescues has been quite different in practice. The dog becomes so focused on its treat that it completely bypasses the owner and any contact they try to make. A deaf dog can only know there is something on offer if it can see it, because it can’t hear any noise; consequently it begins to look for some kind of object as a permanent form of entertainment rather than trying to communicate with a living being. Some of the deaf dogs we have taken in have been hyper, some have been so ball or toy orientated that they haven’t known how to relax and enjoy human company. Many have become tail chasers as they seek to keep themselves entertained, having been denied the simple pleasures of a human and companion dog relationship. In all cases they have been dependant on some form of object, game, toy or ball to form any kind of communication.

We don’t communicate with toys, but use ourselves and our body language. With Drift we had a dog so natural and so responsive that in many cases he became our dog mentor in return for our human mentoring.

Drift was about nine months old when he came to us and he had spent most of his life shut in a barn. He had not been physically abused, but he had been neglected, was undernourished and like the other dogs that came in with him, he was a pack dog.

Puppies will form a puppy pack and when they leave to go into their new homes they need the same kind of mentoring and boundaries that they have received from birth from their mother. Drift was still part of a pack, but was now in adolescence so we gave him the same kind of instruction we would give to a puppy. He needed to know that he could trust us as well as a form of communication with us. He was used to trusting Ben and Bobby as they had been his ‘ears’ for a long time, so when he was given a pen of his own he needed someone else he could rely on and someone he could understand.

Right from the beginning I only spoke my thoughts to Drift, I never even attempted to call him or to give him verbal instruction. The body changes with each thought process and a dog will pick up on body smell and posture, but sometimes our thoughts are masked or are not clear enough. For that reason I spoke many of my thoughts aloud, not so that he could pick up sounds, but so he could ‘hear’ with his nose. When I went into his pen I didn’t just think that I loved him, that he was special and that he was safe. I said it quietly to myself. This put my body into the right kind of ‘smell frame’ – for want of a better explanation – then I would stand in the doorway with my back to him, talk to him for a moment and then walk out into the building. It wasn’t long before Drift followed me out.

This was the format for quite some time; we didn’t even try to advance to another stage. It was nearly two months before Drift was ready for a new learning curve, but in that time he had learned to walk on a loose lead. When he was unsure of anything he stood behind me and when he did walk freely around me he never went more than a couple of strides in front and he always kept an eye on me to make sure his ‘safety net’ was still in tact. When Drift sat down I began using a hand signal and each time he came to me I welcomed him with my body language; it wasn’t long before the hand and body signals preceded the action.

What amazed me were other people’s reactions to his progress or rather in their eyes, lack of it. Remarks such as, “you’ve had him for three months and he doesn’t know anything yet” or “so what else does he know, he needs to learn tricks to keep him busy”. Then the one that really got to me, “you can’t use those hand signals they’re not the proper ones”.

One – after three months he knew a lot, in fact he knew all he needed to know. He walked well on a lead, off the lead he rarely left my side and when he did he kept a close eye on me. He came when I signalled him and he both gave and received lots of love.

Two – he certainly didn’t need ‘tricks’ to keep him busy, he was happy being my pal.

Three – as long as the dog understands the signals given what does it matter if they are not the ‘proper ones’? I was told I had to lift my hand for him to sit, but to me that wasn’t natural. All I did was allow my body to carry out my thoughts and then encourage Drift to apply my body language to his actions.

After a trip to the vet to remove a hernia, Drift moved into the house. In a cage in my hall he was a clean and peaceful chap and when I let him out he either followed me round or played with the other dogs. After about a week his confidence grew and he became more than a little cheeky. On one occasion he sneaked under the yard gate and set off down the drive, there was no way I could call him back, but there was no need to worry; as soon as he realised he was on his own and outside of my protective pack area he came racing back as if he had a mad dog chasing him. Drift soon discovered which of my house-dogs would encourage him to play and which would put a definite stop to any of his antics. He was almost becoming one of the family and for that reason he was moved back into an outside pen. We had already asked ourselves if we should keep him and could we justify denying him a relationship with someone where there were less or no other dogs vying for attention? In the end we decided he would stay with us until the right home turned up for him and if it didn’t, then we had gained another resident.

Once again we received criticism, because we should be letting him go to someone who would ‘work’ him. He should be doing agility or something to keep him occupied. Drift didn’t need occupying, he was perfectly capable of amusing himself and he was extremely content. We were never short of people wanting to adopt him, but the reasons were often totally unacceptable to us. From wanting a deaf dog so it wouldn’t be scared of fireworks, to feeling the need to have a challenge. We also had someone who thought it would be good to have a deaf dog as the one they already had was blind so they could help each other. There were also some really good potential guardians for him whose circumstances were just not right at that time to take on such a commitment. So we waited. What we needed was someone who wanted Drift, not because he was deaf, but because they loved him. Finally his forever home turned up with two smashing people who not only loved Drift, but also our Bobby. So they are now together on a smallholding, forever friends and with nobody putting great expectations on them; they don’t have to ‘do’ or keep human beings entertained. They can simply be themselves and that’s what every dog deserves.

The one thing we all need to remember is that being deaf is not a problem for a dog, it doesn’t know any other way of living. Having a deaf dog is not a problem. The problem is the complicated way we humans try to deal with it.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Barbara Sykes for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training

Owning a Hearing Impaired Dog by Dr. David Sands

Owning a hearing-impaired dog immediately rules out sound-signalling and voice instructions for training. Methods linked with additional primary senses, including smell, touch, taste and sight become important for a different approach to communication.

The pros and cons of owning a deaf dog
Rachel, one of my favourite clients, is a professional dog-walker. She already owns a rescue dog called ‘Selma’. This dog, a five-year-old neutered terrier/collie crossbreed, has been a successful adoption for the past three years and she has wanted to obtain a second dog for some time.

When Owen was 15 weeks old, a friend of hers at Fly-Ball (Blackpool) was asked to foster him as she already owned a deaf dog. The re-homing officer at The Dogs Trust knew that Owen needed someone with experience to provide basic training prior to re-homing. Rachel was introduced to Owen tow days later and within a week he was with her on a trial session, a situation she requested because she needed to know how Selma would cope with a ‘special needs’ dog. Her confidence about re-homing a second dog had been shaken, because a recently fostered dog had begun to bite out at her on a daily basis and was subsequently euthanised. Thankfully, Selma and Owen immediately socialised. Rachel soon realised that a deaf dog was almost a physically normal dog needing slight adjustments to his training plan, because of his lack of hearing ability.

In no real order of positives, Rachel is extremely pleased that Owen has none of the following unwanted behaviours or conditions that she has experienced with rescue dogs in the past including ‘noise phobias’, guarding the door (barking at the door bell or a knock at the door), postman-syndrome issues, reactive-barking at any of the neighbours’ dogs, howling or barking in reaction to telephone/TV/music noises or barking during the night as she crashes around going to the loo! The main issues Rachel has asked for my assistance on have been distance recall-difficulties and attracting his attention when visual contact has been lost. This means guidance for accurately correcting bad behaviour at a distance and perhaps a not too obvious issue, battling other people’s prejudices about her dog.

A client’s great expectations
Rachel wanted Owen to go off-lead as soon as possible and as she explained, even more so than a hearing dog, because she wanted him to learn the concept of walking in a ‘social group’ with other dogs without having his confidence eroded. She had been informed by her ‘deaf dog mentor’ that dogs like Owen often lack confidence to wander too far and regularly check back to see that they are still safely linked with their owner. This proved true as Owen could be seen cautiously staying close to her, never more than a few metres away and her continually needing to establish that her other dog, Selma was close by. Rachel bought the cat bells straight away so that if Owen disappeared into the foliage she wouldn’t over-react and start scrambling through brambles to find him. As an sound signal, the bells proved themselves to be invaluable, because not only does she remain calm if Owen goes off to explore into the woods or down an over grown river bank, but even as he bounces here and there as she is walking, Rachel can hear exactly where he is at most times.

Owen has an ID tag that reads ‘I’M DEAF’ rather than the usual family name, because Rachel is convinced that if he ever goes missing and is found people will exercise some common sense. Rachel also obtained an embroidered bandanna that reads ‘I’M DEAF’ – again in the hope that when he encounters other dog owners on walks they will try to be more forgiving with their body language and hopefully understand why Rachel does not whistle or call him back!

Rachel informs me that Owen travels well in her car and mostly sleeps. He does not appear disturbed by the motion or moving scenery or to be concerned by people passing, approaching or entering the car. She believes this is probably because he has been desensitised, together with her work experience as a dog walker and her interest in Fly-Ball as a hobby. Rachel developed a hand signal for entering and leaving the car.

Don’t fear the reflection
One current aspect of his development that concerned Rachel, is that Owen is quick to present fear-based hyperactivity when visually disturbed by reflections. We have established a distraction method using a favourite tennis ball to change this behaviour. She also suggests that Owen does not have what she calls an ‘off button’. He enjoys a long walk, a play-session, training, food and yet still has the energy to throw his toys around for an hour after she is exhausted. Rachel believes that Owen doesn’t hear the difference between the exciting times (wind blowing/river running/dogs barking on walks) and the calm relaxing times (TV or book reading) so may not settle as quickly as normal dogs. My view is that as a working breed not ‘tasked’ Owen has the potential to seek out displaced behaviour and is easily over-stimulated. Taking into account his impairment and that he is quickly aroused, my advice has been to give him regular time-out sessions in a crate and this system should change this presentation.

Developing a happy relationship
Owning a dog that is not interested in ‘sounds’ means Rachel searches for visually stimulating toys. She ignores squeakers or rattlers and looks for interactive items that are textural and unusual in form. She encourages Owen to be tennis ball-focused so that his attention is on her or Selma when they come across distractions such as people picnicking, other dogs playing games and livestock. Retrieving a ball provides extra physical exercise and Fly-Ball sessions are waiting for the dog when he reaches 12 months.

Owen has been taken to a few local training classes, but she found trainers are not experienced with deaf dogs. They do understand that she wants to socialise Owen into dog-oriented environments so that she can work on his attention-focus when there are other distractions. She has reported that during group training sessions Owen can be the most attentive dog in the room, because once he is looking at her, all the other normal distractions (barking/talking/clicking) are not an issue.

In my few observational sessions with Owen it has become obvious that he learns from the other dog, Selma. Rachel notes too that he follows her cue of ‘when to get interactive’ or when to charge to the bottom of the garden (on the refuge collection day), when to recall and when to ‘walk on’. On my first photographic session, when Rachel had the dog for a trial period, I could see that Owen watches Selma’s body language when she was chasing balls. Rachel now informs me that this behaviour can sometimes have a negative effect in terms of faulty-learning. Owen has begun to focus similar behaviour on other dogs encountered on walks when they are being played with and getting his attention in these situations has become difficult. The unwanted behaviour of selective-hearing seen in dogs that challenge ‘recall’ has become ‘selective-eye contact’ in Owen. Selma’s contribution in training Owen is that her excellent recall helps to bring them both back to her.

I asked a vet colleague, Michael Clarke MRCVS, about standard test for deafness in dogs and he replied:

Hi David, basically in practice there isn’t much we can do, we rely on what owners tell us and stuff like dropping keys on the floor and seeing if we get a response! We always examine the ear too, but usually there is not a lot to see. There are some electronic hearing testing centres, I don’t exactly know how they work and there are very few, I think only 2, in the UK

Dr David Sands would like to thank Rachel Smith for discussions and information provided on Owen for these articles. My services were provided free to her hopefully in order to understand and improve behavioural treatment for hearing-impaired dogs. Rachel has informed me that it is not possible to obtain third party insurance for a deaf dog like Owen. It is said that such insurance may become a legal compulsory requirement for dog owners in the future and it is not obvious how this obstacle will be overcome.

List of visual commands and cues:

‘Clicker marker’ or ‘good boy’ – thumbs up/broad smile

‘Come’ – arms out wide, tap chest, arms out wide again

‘Send away’ – throw arm out from knee (horizontally) in direction he is required to go

‘Sit’ – lift hand from horizontal to vertical, palm facing body

‘Down’ – hand flat on floor

‘Game over’ – crossed hands at the chest, moving one over the other in a sideways movement.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of David Sands for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Animal Behaviour