Training a Hearing Impaired Dog

By Nicole Wright, Unleashed Joy Dog Trainer

I recently had the opportunity to work with a hearing-impaired dog while taking a training course. It may have been the most rewarding training experience I’ve had yet.

At first, we didn’t know she was hearing-impaired. I’m going to share some details about how we discovered this (and how I felt before we did) in the hope that this could help someone who might someday find herself in a similar situation. If you’re not interested in the backstory and just want to read about how we can use visual signals to communicate with hearing-impaired dogs, skip ahead about six paragraphs!

The Story of a Hearing Impaired Dog

Let’s call this sweet dog “Sandy”. I was instantly drawn in by her puppy charm, her wrinkly thinking face, and her pretty eyes. I knew I wanted to be paired with her for this course. When we started working together, though, I started questioning why I even thought I could become a trainer in the first place. I kind of thought she was blowing me off. “I must be a terrible trainer!” I thought. She largely ignored me.

There are many reasons a dog might ignore our cues. Usually it’s because the dog is confused. Maybe we haven’t put in the time and consistency in training the behavior yet. Maybe we are asking for the behavior in a different context and the dog needs a quick refresher to realize what we want. Or maybe the surrounding environment is just too distracting or stressful to our dog, and his emotions are playing a bigger role in his behavior than his thinking mind is at the moment. (It’s for these reasons that I don’t get frustrated with dogs. It’s my responsibility to take the time to set them up to learn new behaviors and be successful. It really is. They’re not born knowing what we want from them and sometimes WE don’t even know exactly what we want from them until we really think about it.)

Or, maybe, we might be working with a 10-month old dog that has gone those whole 10 months without anyone realizing she can’t hear them. Take a moment to think about the ramifications of that for a dog. Whew. Her prior owners must have thought all of those thoughts us dog nerds know aren’t true. “She’s so stubborn!” “She just doesn’t WANT to do it!” “She’s stupid.” Meanwhile, this poor dog has no idea what is going on and the world is a confusing and probably pretty scary place.

I would try to get Sandy’s attention with a kissy noise or an upbeat “bupbupbup!” sound. Nothing. I would lure her eyes to mine using a yummy hot dog, and she’d follow it but never really let her eye contact linger on me. I’m most familiar with training my own dog, Luna, who will abandon most any other thing she’s doing to investigate the kissy noise, and who will lavish me with her attention all the time, just waiting for whatever we are going to do next. With Sandy, I tried everything to get her attention. I made ridiculous, silly noises to try to compete with the distracting, new environment we were in. I tried charging the clicker; pairing each “click!” with a treat. I tried “charging” the kissy noises and her name the same way. We worked outdoors. We worked indoors. Maybe some of you would have considered a hearing impairment by now, but it didn’t yet occur to me. I spent about 15 minutes trying to lure Sandy into a sit.

One of those times, her cute little butt backed right up into a noisy metal trashcan. When I first start working with a new dog, I often instinctively reach into my treat pouch immediately after a potentially startling noise to toss the dog a treat or two, in case they are sound sensitive. Sandy didn’t even seem to notice. Hmm..did she not hear that? Maybe she hasn’t heard us all along? That would sure explain a lot. We started experimenting with different sounds; louder versions of our voices, yelling, high-pitched whistles, clapping, dropping something heavy. Largely no response from Sandy. A couple times she would briefly stop what she was doing, appearing to register a sound, but couldn’t seem to localize it.

Once we realized that Sandy had a hearing impairment, we could really get started with training, and, as so often happens during reward-based training; building confidence and a stronger relationship.

How to Communicate with a Hearing-Impaired Dog

We can communicate with a hearing-impaired dog by following the same principles that we use to communicate with hearing dogs. In positive reinforcement-based dog training, we often use a clicker to mark the exact moment that the dog does the behavior that we’re looking for. It is important to be able to clearly communicate to our dogs the behaviors that we like. With Sandy, we substituted a visual marker for the clicker. We used an open hand flash. Picture a high-five with your fingers spread apart.

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This was Sandy’s version of a “click!”, meaning “Yes! Great job, that’s just what I was hoping you would do!” Once she learned that this open hand flash meant a yummy treat was on the way right afterward, she was adorably wagging in anticipation! (Read more about “charging the clicker” in Jessica Ring’s post.) Once Sandy learned that this open hand flash meant a yummy treat was on the way right afterward, she would start wagging her tail in anticipation! This was a huge breakthrough! She was learning that humans could communicate with her. We started to “get” each other.

Next I taught her a cue for attention by gently tapping her on the hip with a finger and using my open hand flash to mark the moment when she looked at me, treating right after. This is similar to how we would make a hearing dog’s name meaningful to them; say their name, wait for eye contact (or lure eye contact with a treat if necessary), “click”, treat.

We came up with a whole slew of hand signals for other behaviors throughout the course. Sandy eagerly learned sit, down, wait, leave it, drop it, loose leash walking, recalls, and touch. She nailed them. It took me a little while to adjust to the mechanics of using a hand flash in place of a clicker and using visual signals in place of verbal cues, but, just like learning any new skill, muscle memory eventually kicked in and it started to feel natural. So natural, in fact, that some hand flashes popped right out me when I got back home and started working with Luna.

As an example, here the hand signal we used for sit:

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It was a joy to work with Sandy. Just like working with a hearing dog, I had many moments that were satisfying, a few that were a little frustrating, a bunch that were hilarious, and some that made me feel like hearts were flying right out of my chest. (Ok, maybe it was a liiiitle more emotional than the average training session that first time she caught on to our signals.) She taught me way more than I taught her. We were able to show her that humans can be a source of information, guidance, and FUN. It was heart-warming to see her clearly enjoying learning and working for that open hand flash. I encouraged anyone working with Sandy for the first time to initially show her that they “got her” by charging the hand flash again. You could see her absolutely light up when a new person would do a couple hand flashes paired with treats. (I imagine that this “Oh my gosh, humans can be really cool and this totally makes sense!” response could also occur when introducing a dog initially trained with aversives to force-free training.) And isn’t this just what we want to see emanating from our dogs? A happy confidence?