Communicating with Deaf Pets

Guest Post – Stormi King

Stormi King

It's not uncommon for owners of deaf dogs to hear myths claiming deaf dogs are more likely to behave this way or that, or that they are difficult or impossible to train. But are they really? Does their inability to hear really inhibit their ability to learn?

We humans are such strong verbal communicators that it seems to most of us such a foreign concept to not have the ability to hear the world around us. It's so easy for us to forget - we communicate non-verbally all the time! Think of how many occasions you and a friend have exchanged glances without needing to speak a word. In fact most species we closely share our world with have limited and minimal verbal communication and rely heavily on the subtleties of body language and visual cues to communicate and learn. When was the last time you watched two dogs greet at the dog park and strike up a conversation about last night’s Seahawks game?

Canines and felines alike do a great deal of communicating when they interact with the world around them, but they do so with body language and visual cues. Ever notice how when you reach for your pup's leash she dances around in excitement? This is because your dog has learned the visual cue of your reaching for that leash always predicts something fun is about to happen! All animals, including us, are learning visually every moment our eyes are open, so it’s no wonder why teaching an animal a hand signal to cue a behavior is just as easy as, if not easier than, a verbal word. We're speaking their language, so to speak.

Even with pets that have perfectly fine hearing, teaching hand signals to cue different behaviors can be beneficial for both dog and human, aiding in both clarity of communication and convenience. When you stop to visit with a friend while on a walk with your dog, think of how much easier it is to ask your pup for a sit with a simple hand gesture rather than having to break from your conversation. If you live or work in a high-rise building with an elevator, a simple point of the hand can come to mean “please go wait in the corner” while others enter and exit the elevator. With many basic obedience skills such as "sit", "down", or "stand", we can begin teaching these cues with visual lures that are easily transitioned into hand cues that can be used on their own or interchangeably with verbal cues. And, as sad as it may be to think of, our best friends do grow old and, just like us humans, hearing can be one of the first senses that begins to falter with old age. Having a dog that is already familiar with hand cues can make this transition much easier for the both of you.

Training deaf dogs really isn't all that different from training hearing dogs. The same principles of learning and behavior apply to all animals, whether they can hear or not. Our dogs don't naturally speak English, and we talk to them all the time! 99% of what comes out of our mouths has about the same intelligibility to our dogs as the teachers on the Charlie Brown cartoons. It's only when we put meaning to our words by rewarding the desired behavior that our cues develop any relevance to them. Hand signals work in much the same way, and our dogs clue into the subtleties of our body language long before they learn our vocabulary. Visual cues are absolutely present in all of our training, deaf dog or not, and whether or not we even realize it. For any owner who has ever taught their dog the “sit” command, there is a very high probability that you can approach your dog and square your body and that bum will hit the ground without you even having to say a word. Your dog isn’t a mind reader; he has learned that body posture is predictably followed by you asking “sit”. Our dogs are incredibly tuned into our movements, more so than we give them credit for.

We all train our dogs with our own body language without even knowing it, so when you think about it, using visual cues doesn’t seem like such a strange concept after all, does it?