Deaf Dog Language

Contributed by T. E. Houston

I watch her through the kennel door just as intently as she watches me. She is white, with beautiful dark brown eyes and big ears that give her almost a bull terrier look. The kennel card indicates she is about four months old. She is small, with the lean look I like, more of the old bull and terrier type. She watches me with the "Hey! See, I am being a good girl" appeal, totally ignoring her kennel mates. I am at the city shelter, a depressing place to be. I am sort of looking for another, younger dog to start training as a signal dog. I take out the cute prospect and am totally impressed with her attitude and attentiveness. So after a day's thought (do I really need 4 dogs?), I go to get her. With the start of the weekend I have more time to spend with her and get her introduced to the pack. She seems to be totally exhausted, with a bit of kennel cough from her stay at the shelter. She sleeps through the entire ruckus made by the other three in the group at rabbits, trucks, and just about anything else. By the end of the weekend I have come to the realization that my gorgeous, clever, attentive little girl is deaf!

Communication

People are all too quick to attribute a dog's lack of response to verbal commands as being a lack of intelligence or due to the stubbornness of the dog. The problem lies not with the dog, but with the unwillingness of the owners to learn to communicate.

Deafness is viewed as a problem because the major human communication line between the dog and the owner is disrupted. When we speak to (or yell at) our dogs, we expect them to respond. In a way, the situation is no different than a hearing person talking to a person who is deaf. Deafness is viewed as a disability because the hearing person cannot adequately communicate with the one who is deaf. Hence hearing people think of deafness as a problem. Yet people who are part of the Deaf culture, or who are severely hearing impaired, "hear" perfectly and communicate with others by an expressive form of language that uses hand/arm motions: American Sign Language (ASL).

A non-verbal form of communication is something many hearing people do not even think about. Despite that, our body language speaks volumes: our stance, facial expression, hands, gestures, eyes - our whole body "speaks." Our dogs are very attuned to this non-verbal form of communication. The dogs respond not just to the words we speak, but to our body language, maybe even more so than the words. Our dogs "read" us far better than we can read them. All animals have a very extensive repertoire of non-verbal communication. Watch not only your dogs and cats, but also (if you have the opportunity), a herd of horses in the field or the interaction of wildlife. The body stance (relaxed or rigid), the eyes (soft or hard), the tail (raised or lowered), the flick of the ears (raised or pinned back). All combinations send volumes to other dogs and animals, and to us if we would only "listen."

Training

You start learning how to listen to, instead of yelling at your dog.

Dogs that are deaf have no knowledge or understanding of their deafness. This does not make them incapable of learning, nor are they somehow deficient in the capability of learning. People are all too quick to attribute a dog's lack of response to verbal commands as being a lack of intelligence or due to the stubbornness of the dog. The problem lies not with the dog, but with the unwillingness of the owners to learn to communicate. It is a problem not really all that different from the average dog owner who is not willing to work with or train his hearing dog, and thus can not understand why the dog is "stupid." The deaf dog, like the hearing dog, can read you well. It is up to you to learn an effective method of communicating.

So how do you speak to a deaf dog? It is essentially no different than training or working with a hearing dog. Repetition and consistency in both cases is the key. The deaf dog learns rapidly that your hands "speak." Start your training with lots of treats as you would your hearing dog. You are using similar methods, just substituting hand signals for voice. You can still say the words and put on a happy face, since you want this all to be a positive experience. If you have a secure area to work that is great, otherwise, your deaf dog is on lead. This is where the fun begins as you learn to communicate with your deaf dog. There are, of course, different approaches and ways to go about this. As for any training, figure out what works best for you and your dog. The deaf dog Yahoo list is a very valuable source of experienced deaf dog handlers. Many people will use ASL for teaching, while others will use the general obedience hand signals for many of the basics.

You will learn as you work with your deaf dog that the exercises also help you with training your hearing dogs. You become more aware of your dog's body language, as well as the use of your own, and how it affects your training. You start learning how to listen to, instead of yelling at your dog.

My little deaf girl is four years old now. Working with her is a pleasure and just plain fun. She is feisty, intelligent, confidant, and a quick and attentive learner. She listens and minds better than the hearing dogs. I have learned a lot from her: patience, understanding, how to be a better trainer for my dogs and to be a better "listener."

Further Reading

Canine Body Language

Other Animal Body Language

Human Sign Language