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How to Care for a Deaf Dog [Expert Advice]


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If your woofer was recently diagnosed with hearing loss, you may be feeling confused, overwhelmed, or perhaps even a little frustrated. Whether your deaf pup is barking constantly or you're struggling to teach your dog to respond to hand signals, deafness is a big adjustment for the whole family.

As much as you undoubtedly love your fur-baby, there's no denying that caring for a deaf dog can be challenging at times. To help you and Fido adjust, we consulted a professional dog trainer, Caitlin Crittenden, for expert advice.

Crittenden is the owner and head trainer of Life Dog Training, located in Marietta, GA. She also works with Wag! to answer dog training questions from pet parents like you. Read on to see what she had to say about keeping your deaf dog happy, healthy, and safe.

Remember that you are your dog's ears

If your dog has recently gone partially or fully deaf, you might find yourself mourning. You might feel frustrated that routine things, like going to the dog park, aren't going to be as simple as they once were. Or maybe you're worried your dog is depressed or anxious about losing their hearing.

These are natural reactions, and it's important to give yourself time to feel and process all your emotions. But remember, as a pet parent, it's up to you to accommodate your dog's hearing loss and help them adjust. Because your doggo picks up on your emotions, it’s important that you act positively and enthusiastically. To instill trust and let your dog know everything will be okay, do your best to stay calm and confident when interacting with them.

The responsibility that comes with caring for one of these special pups can certainly be daunting at first. But it's not impossible, and it can even be fun! A deaf dog is just like a hearing pup in all other ways, and alternative methods of communication will begin to seem natural with practice.

woman wearing green coat giving a st. bernese mountain dog a hand signal command

Be proactive about teaching hand signals

Hearing loss can interfere with playing and training as well, but it doesn't have to. Replace "Get your toy!" or "Fetch!" with visual cues and gestures.

"Most dogs actually respond to visual cues even better than verbal commands when both are taught," says Crittenden. "But you will need to be proactive to teach those hand signals ahead of time so you have them when you need to use them."

What hand signals should you teach your deaf dog? Some people use American Sign Language (ASL), while others simply make up their own signals.

Whichever signals you use, the key to success is consistency. Stick to one hand signal per command. For example, when teaching the "down" command, you might point to the floor with your index finger. To avoid confusing your dog, don't use this hand signal to convey any other commands.

Crittenden also recommends working on the "watch me" and "pay attention" commands. These will ensure you can get your dog's attention at any time, while also teaching them to check in with your responses to the environment to learn whether something is safe.

"By teaching all of your basic commands as hand signals instead of verbal commands and getting your dog's attention with a vibration collar when they are not looking at you, you should still be able to communicate well with your dog with practice," says Crittenden.

Try using a vibrating collar for training

Meet Zoe, a deaf German Shepherd who lost her hearing at a young age.

Whenever a visitor came to Zoe's house, the dog would run toward the door and bark. Concerned about this potentially dangerous behavior, Zoe's pet parents submitted a question to Crittenden via Wag!'s training articles:

screenshot of a question about training a deaf dog to stop barking addressed to caitlin crittenden, professional dog trainer who works with wag!

In her answer to the pet parent, Crittenden recommended using a vibrating dog collar. "The vibration would allow you to get her attention, then you can give hand signal commands, including teaching a Quiet command with a hand signal," wrote Crittenden.

Choose a collar with varying vibration levels and intensities, says Crittenden. "Strong vibrations can be stressful at first when new, so start with the lowest sensation you can find for your pup. Give at least an hour break between vibration training sessions, being sure to reward pup after each vibration to help them see the vibration as something good."

The key to getting your dog deaf used to a vibration collar is to go slow, and be patient. "Have [your] pup wear the collar around for a few days with it turned off. Then, in a calm room without a lot of distractions, vibrate the collar once and toss pup a treat."

Repeat this process in short sessions several times a day until your pup forms a positive association with the collar. Then, once your pup is used to the collar, you can start adding in hand signals.

To read Caitlin's full answer, check out our guide on training your deaf dog to stop barking, which is also chock full of tips for training your deaf dog using a vibration collar.

Avoid approaching your woofer from behind

Sneaking up on a deaf woofer can increase anxiety, reactivity, and aggressive behaviors. Minimize startle responses and fearfulness by approaching your dog straight on and using physical touch or vibrations (like walking hard) to let your pup know you're nearby. 

Prioritize physical feedback over verbal feedback

We get so used to telling our fur-babies, "Good puppy!" when they do something right that it can be hard to pivot to other forms of praise when their hearing starts to go. When rewarding your pup for good behavior, remember to prioritize physical affection like petting, scratching, or patting. Treats and toys are also great for positive reinforcement.

sign at the beginning of a long rural driveway that says caution deaf dog

Let your friends, family members, and visitors know your dog is deaf

Be sure to tell everyone who may come into contact with your dog that they're deaf. Teach family members how to signal the dog before approaching. You may also want to consider putting a sign or sticker on your front door that warns visitors to take care when entering it.

Remind guests not to startle your pup by touching them on their heads while they're sleeping. Some dogs will nip if startled in this way, so a soft touch on the shoulder or rump can be safer and gentler.

You may want to teach your dog's hand signals to close friends or family members who visit or interact with your dog often. Not only will this help reinforce your dog's training, but it will also increase their trust of others.

Don't let your dog outside without a leash or supervision

Sadly, many deaf dogs get lost or go missing, and unlike hearing dogs, they're not going to respond when you call out to them. 

The most effective way to prevent your woofer from getting lost is not letting them outside without supervision or something to contain them, like a leash, fence, or runner. You may also need to limit outdoor time to on-leash adventures for sneaky or escape-prone dogs. 

"A deaf dog can't hear 'come', so a leash is really important and should always be used outside," says Crittenden.

But can you let a deaf dog off-leash in certain circumstances? Crittenden says yes, but only if ALL of the following conditions are met:

  • You're in an open location, like a field, where your dog will be able to locate you when they can't hear you.

  • Your dog is wearing a vibration collar so you can get their attention from further away.

  • Your dog has been taught to look at you when they feel the sensation from the vibration collar.

  • You have done a whole lot of work teaching and proofing 'Come' in the past so your dog has a reliable hand signal recall.

Crittenden adds, "Even with the above precautions, there is the added risk that the dog may run off, chasing something like another animal, and get so far away from you that it would be hard for them to relocate you without their hearing. Having a deaf dog off-leash in an unenclosed area is something that needs to be avoided or done with precautions."

veterinarian wearing blue scrubs using a microchip scanner on a large white dog

Microchip your dog

Over 72% of microchipped animals who become lost are reunited with their parents. Conversely, only 33% of dogs without microchips find their way home. Shelters and vet clinics scan strays for microchips upon intake, so microchipping your pet is a great way to ensure your pet makes it home if they ever get lost.

Microchips aren't perfect, though — they're only as good as their parents are about updating the database. A microchip is useless if the contact information in the database has changed. Contrary to popular belief, microchips do not have GPS monitoring capabilities — for that, you'll need a GPS pet tracker.

Invest in a GPS tracker

Speaking of GPS collars, we highly encourage you to invest in one. There are options for any budget, and newer models are water-, dust-, and impact-resistant and allow you to track your pup's real-time location right from your phone.

Like anything, a GPS tracker is only as effective if it is used consistently and correctly, so keep it on your pet, keep it charged, and don't forget to pay for the data plan!

Related: Top 5 Affordable GPS Trackers for Pets

Put some jingle in their step

A bell on the collar is a classic way to keep tabs on your pet. Bells are usually reserved for cats but work just as well for dogs (as long as they aren't super chewers!). With that said, ditch the bell ASAP if your dog attempts to chew it off or eat it.

Keep their ID tags updated

Always keep your woofer's ID tags up to date. We suggest putting your address, contact number, or another family member or friend's contact number on their ID tag so the good samaritans have multiple forms of contact should they find your baby.

Invest in an "I'm deaf" tag for your dog's collar or harness

To alert strangers of your pooch's condition and prevent anyone from scaring them, we recommend getting a special dog tag that says "I'm deaf". You'll find tags, collars, vests, and other accessories made specifically for deaf dogs in big-box pet stores and at major online retailers.

If you'd prefer not to buy something new, you can attach a small note or sign on your dog's collar or harness instead.

Need a helping paw with training your deaf dog? Book a virtual or in-home dog training session with Wag! today.

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© 2024 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.