How I Work With Deaf Dogs (Guest Post by Blanche Axton)

Blanche Axton describes her common-sense approach to training deaf dogs and why she doesn’t use vibration collars.

white bulldog
Spanky was a foster for Speaking of Dogs (see URL in bio below). He had been left in a shelter and was young–a couple of years old. He had clearly been pretty humanely handled. Likely deaf from birth, he was a smart and eager boy.

I grew up with deaf dogs and have fostered many. While I haven’t always had a deaf dog in my home, I’ve had quite a few over the years and consider myself pretty good with them. I’m no expert, but I’m not a rank amateur either. So here are some of my thoughts on working with deaf dogs and why I don’t use vibration collars.

Why No Vibration Collars?

  • First, I’ve never seen the need. This is, far and away, the biggest reason I don’t use them. I haven’t needed to. They didn’t exist when I had my first deaf dog so we had to use other methods.
  • I see too many dogs for whom the vibration is an aversive. Let’s be clear, I know they can be used well and conditioned appropriately, but it’s not an easy skill to acquire, requires a fair bit of knowledge about how dogs make associations (often ones we didn’t intend) and requires very good timing.
  • I read more and more that “deaf dogs must be trained to be safe off-leash and have 100% recall.” I have two issues with that. One, even my sighted and hearing dogs are NEVER off leash where they could get away from me and be lost; and two, no dog has 100% recall. It’s a lofty goal and one I strive for, but all dogs have 100% recall until they don’t….and that’s usually a tragedy.
  • I mostly have had small dogs and most vibration collars are bulky and awkward (at least they were the last time I looked at them). And they have to fit tightly…..and I don’t like tight collars on my dogs. I like to condition dogs to having my hands in and around their collars and I don’t want anything to interfere with that….so I haven’t used anything on their necks that could ever be a negative for them.

What To Do Instead?

Annabelle came as a foster for Pugalug Pug Rescue. She was 14 and a half. Family had had her for her whole life but the owners were older. One had passed away and the other was going into a retirement home and she couldn't go. She was likely deaf from age.
Annabelle came as a foster for Pugalug Pug Rescue. She was 14 and a half. The family had had her for her whole life but were older folks. One had passed away and the other was going into a retirement home and she couldn’t go. She was likely deaf from age.

So….what do I do about deaf dogs? I mostly train them the same way I train my hearing dogs….lots and lots and lots of working on “watch me” and “touch”. I mark and reward HEAVILY for offered check-ins. My marker for deaf dogs is a thumbs up. I also train for check-ins.

I train “touch” early and often….and my hand down, palm out, is the signal for touch and often becomes my recall signal…for hearing and deaf alike. Hand goes down, palm out and the dog comes and touches….and I mark and reward. I mark as the dog moves towards me so they begin to associate the movement to me as the ‘right’ thing to do and I pay heavily when they get to me. I also make sure I have hold of their collar before I reinforce so we don’t get dine and dash—another reason I avoid using collars that could impact negatively on the dog’s perception of my hands near their collar or the collar.

Deaf dogs are never off leash in any unfenced area. If we are in an open area, then they are on a long line. Hopefully, I have worked enough on voluntary check-ins that I can get one offered and I can mark and pay it. I also use a very minor (think light pull and release) leash tug as a distance signal to look back at me. I do this so the dog isn’t startled, and I make sure we have some history with gentle leash pressure being a signal to turn back to me. BUT that follows weeks and weeks of working on offered check-ins.

shih tzu
Theo also ended up at the shelter and also was a foster for Speaking of Dogs, but came to me at age 11 with a grade 5 heart murmur, deaf and only one eye. I adopted him since I knew his adoptability was low. Very sweet old shih tzu.

One of the biggest issues I see with deaf dogs is an exaggerated startle response so I strive to counter condition anything that is already startling (waking a dog up, suddenly showing up by them, some kinds of touches, etc) and I strive NOT to add anything that will cause a startle response. I move slowly and deliberately both literally and figuratively with deaf dogs. I want my movements and my actions to be, if not predictable, interesting and non-threatening. While I think working remotely can work and can be done effectively, I prefer not to do this….I prefer a more hands-on approach. My hands are the delivery method of all things good. They signal food, play, toys, fun.

I’ve never entirely understood why training deaf dogs has been seen as some uniquely difficult or complex skill. It really is no different from training a hearing dog with hand signals. I start all my dogs, hearing or not, with hand signals. And I’m already very quiet with my dogs when we are training (you wouldn’t know that watching any videos I post, but without a camera on me, I’m very quiet). Can you mess up training a deaf dog? Sure. Can it have bigger fallout than with a hearing dog? Probably. But it’s not necessarily a hard thing to do. It requires thought, attention to detail and a knowledge of body language, how dogs learn and striving for positive associations, but that’s pretty much my goal and method with any dog in my care.

About Blanche

Blanche Axton has been involved with dogs her whole life–from the Dalmatians her family raised and showed to working with canine rescue as an adult. Over the years, she has trained some of her dogs in agility, tracking, herding and therapy work. She volunteered as a therapy dog evaluator with Therapeutic Paws of Canada for several years. Blanche currently coordinates Pugalug Pug Rescue, fosters pugs and sits on the Board of Directors. She also fosters for an all breed rescue called Speaking of Dogs. She teaches Basic Obedience, Leash skills, Recall and Recreational Agility at DogGone Right. She is an advocate for appropriate nutrition for dogs, positive focused training and the importance of understanding canine behaviour and communication. She currently shares her home with pugs, a Japanese chin and one ginger cat.

Photo credits:

  • Spanky the bulldog–Blanche Axton
  • Theo the shih tzu–Tanya MacAusland Amyote
  • Annabelle the pug: Jess Albrecht of Wags to Wishes Photography

Thanks Blanche! –Eileen

5 thoughts on “How I Work With Deaf Dogs (Guest Post by Blanche Axton)

  1. I have a double Merle Sheltie that has been deaf since birth as well as vision impaired. The tips given in this article are basically what I have followed the past 13 years with great success. Great article!

  2. Always glad to find an article on deafies that I can agree with. This is pretty much exactly how I work with my girl Haven (fully deaf, blind on the right).

    I’m frustrated by how often vibration collars get brought up in conversations about deaf dogs. It seems like people who have never owned a deafie automatically leap to that as the first solution for all problems, even among well-educated owners. Because of how broadly they’re recommended, I’ve tried three different brands of vibe collar to condition as a marker signal (click) and wasn’t satisfied with any of them. In addition to the reasons Blanche mentioned above, there’s also often a significant delay between pushing the button and the collar activating, even in the more expensive models. Might not be a huge difference if you’re using it as a recall or a positive interrupter (two other uses I see mentioned often), but for a marker signal, a one-second delay it makes it pretty much worthless for catching tiny behaviors. My thumbs-up is faster and doesn’t require batteries 😉

    Also so glad to find an article that doesn’t suggest a flashlight as a marker. That seems to go wrong more often than it goes right.

    The only place where I differ from Blanche is the comment about startle response. Neither my own deafie nor any that I’ve worked with have had abnormal startle responses. If anything, I’d say they’ve had *less* of a startle response than the average dog. Maybe a difference between acquired and congenital deafness? All the ones I’ve worked with have been congenitally deaf, but I could see how a dog who used to be able to hear and now can’t anymore might be more prone to startle than the average dog.

    1. The exaggerated startle responses I see may be related to the fact that most of the deaf dogs I work with get to me via the shelter system….so I wouldn’t be surprised if the startle responses I see are acquired as opposed to inborn.

      The deaf dogs I grew up with were born deaf and never had a reason to startle due to my family’s knowledge of working with deafies.

      I also have had a fair few dogs come to me for fostering where NO ONE realized the dog was deaf until I pointed it out….they got tagged as stubborn, willful, etc. and so may have been subjected to some not great handling and treatment.

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