Dear Dr. Messer
I have a wonderful little Boston Terrier/French
Bulldog cross that I just found out is profoundly
deaf. It only makes her that much more precious to
me, but I would be interested in an article about the
trials, tribulations, and successes with deaf dogs. I
give her a thumbs-up sign when she does well, but
I’m not sure if I should ever give her a sign for “no,”
or only for good. I am ignoring the people who say a
deaf dog cannot be trained, but I could sure use some
tips.—Alison, by email


You’d be amazed at how common it is for deaf dogs to fool
us into thinking they can hear. Just as deaf humans tend
to capitalize on other senses, most
deaf dogs take full advantage of their
superb sense of smell, sight, and
touch. In fact, they sometimes compensate
so well for lack of hearing
that it even gets them into trouble!

Take Whisper, a 3-year-old
Australian Cattle Dog. Her first owners
had no idea she was deaf, so
pegged her as a “stubborn puppy”
for not coming when called and
“obstinate” for blowing off loud
scolding. When they eventually realized
she could not hear, they handed
her over to a rescue organization.

With over 85 breeds affected by inherited deafness, you
would think that the myths about deaf dogs being untrainable
and making terrible pets would be ancient history, yet
euthanasia is still shockingly common. Lucky for Whisper,
Elise Bonder knew that such claims are nothing short of tall
tales. Adopting Whisper with full knowledge of her deafness,
Bonder was keen to make the few adaptations to standard
training that were needed to bridge communication in
Whisper’s silent world—including learning how to say “no!”
Let’s take a look at how basic training can be tweaked to
help deaf dogs share our lives with all the joy, freedom, and
safety we can offer them.

Signals Instead of Sounds

Whether you want to tell your deaf dog that she’s been good
or naughty, teach her a brand new command or ask her to
follow an old one, the only difference in training is that you
can’t rely on sound to get your message across. The universal
“thumbs-up” signal is a great choice for the most important
message of all—“good girl.” Now you need a clear signal for
the opposite, so that she can benefit, just like a hearing dog,
from knowing when you disapprove.

Whisper learned early on that if she pays attention to
Bonder, there are lots of opportunities to score the good stuff,
but that misdemeanors will be met with

“She knows that a stern frown and
finger wag mean she’s done something
wrong,” says Bonder. Early in training,
this was paired with time outs, but now
the signs alone are enough to send a clear

How many signs can you teach your
dog? Some, like Whisper, boast a vocabulary
of over 20, putting many a hearing
dog to shame.

“Making up new ones for tricks is half
the fun of training. She just learned beg
and I finally decided on this,”—laughing, Bonder holds out a
hat upside down—“as the sign! We put it on Facebook.”
Signs can represent specific commands, like “sit” or
“don’t touch,” or they can give information: that you’ll be
back in just a moment or that someone is at the door. At a
minimum, you will want to teach “watch me,” “come,” and
“stay.” The American Sign Language (ASL) dictionary is fun
to peruse for ideas; just pick out signs you like and create
your own meanings—you aren’t going to find “shake a paw”
in the index!

Regular lure-reward training works very well for teaching action
signs to deaf dogs. For example, you can teach “down” by luring
the dog into position with a treat, and then giving her the treat as
a reward. Gradually phase out the treat and presto: moving your
empty hand in a downwards motion becomes the command signal,
reinforced with life rewards like walks, fetch, and belly rubs.

You can also use signs that have nothing to do with how you
lure her in the teaching phase. For example, give the ASL sign
for bed (resting side of your head against
your open palm) and then lure her there with
encouragement or kibble, rewarding her upon
arrival with whatever turns her crank. Soon
enough, she’ll catch on to the signal without
needing the lure.

Dogs are tremendous visual learners. In fact,
they often pick up on hand signals much faster
than verbal commands. And there are even
advantages to using sign language, according
to Bonder.

“Your training is very resistant to being
ruined by others. You know how everybody always wants to
make your dog sit? You go somewhere and they say sit sit sit and
the dog is thinking I really don’t feel like sitting right now. You
don’t have that problem with deaf dogs, because you essentially
have a secret language.”

Getting Your Dog’s Attention

So, provided you have eye contact when you are trying to communicate,
deaf dogs are hardly at a disadvantage with non-verbal
training. But what about those situations where you don’t have
eye contact?

Truth be told, this is a challenge. While hearing dogs can be
engaged verbally from out of sight, there are limited options for
communicating with a deaf dog that cannot see you. You can
flicker the porch light or shine a flashlight into the yard for “come
in” at night, jiggle the leash for “look at me” on walks, and toss a
lightweight toy into sight or stomp on the floor for “turn to me.”

And then there is the Cadillac of remote technology for deaf
dogs: the vibration collar. Some people use the vibration as
a command for “come,” others for “look at me.” Either is fine
because, once you have eye contact, you can switch to visual signals.
V-collars are a wonderful invention, but don’t be fooled into
thinking that a high-tech device will do the training for you. Even
when a deaf dog has been “paged,” she can be just as selective
as a hearing dog about responding… and we have all seen lots of
dogs with selective hearing! How well she obeys you will depend
on good training, not just a good collar.

In addition, remote collars aren’t for everyone. Some guardians,
like Bonder, are not comfortable relying on technology and prefer
to train up a very reliable check-in instead.

“Whisper just didn’t take notice of the vibration, so I opted to
train her to stay pretty close when off leash, and check in very frequently.
I would always just feed her when she was near me, and
she got the concept that being close to me is good. As her confidence
grew, she ventured out a bit but she’d always look back at
me to check in; if I gave her the thumbs-up, she’d
keep going, if I didn’t do anything, she’d come
back, and I just reinforced that. At home, I taught
her that an open door doesn’t mean she can take
off unless I give her permission.”

Whisper is never off leash in unsafe areas,
only in places far from traffic and mostly fenced,
but whether you let your dog off leash at all is a
personal choice. While acknowledging the risk
of misadventure, some deaf dog guardians like
Bonder feel that good training combined with
very carefully chosen venues for off-leash romps
is a responsible balance of safety and freedom. There is no right
answer, but also no escaping the fact that you need to take extra
measures to protect your deaf dog from the dangers ordinarily
accompanied by warning sounds, traffic being the most common.
As for the risk of a dog becoming lost and not being able to hear
your call, there is no harm in fitting her with a GPS. Yup, they
make them for pooches—designed for hunting dogs, but who says
they need to be working to wear one?

Special Social Needs

Even the most stellar training cannot make up for the deaf dog’s
inability to perceive natural sounds that have social significance,
so to live with a deaf dog that is safe and secure you need to do
more than just teach sign vocabulary, you’ll also have to meet
some special social needs.

Touch sensitivity: “Oh, it’s just you!”
Deaf dogs often startle to being touched the way a hearing dog
startles to unexpected noise. Most will alert to being touched by
surprise, such as from behind, and then recover, just like a hearing
dog usually recovers from a loud bang. Many and frequent
surprise touches followed by super treats will go a long way
toward creating a touchaholic who is pretty startle-proof, especially
if you start this in puppyhood, as Bonder did.

“I took the time to train Whisper out of it as a puppy. We
would actually wake her up really abruptly, give her hot dogs,
then tell her to go back to bed. She’s never reacted aggressively.”

Some deaf dogs, however, are quite sensitive and need extra
work to avoid being anxious or fearfully aggressive when touched
unexpectedly. If they don’t acclimatize, they may require careful
management for everyone’s wellbeing. Outside
of hot-dog training sessions, the sensitive and
startle-proof alike should be given the courtesy
of a gentle warning, such as blowing an air puff
kiss or tapping the floor, before waking them
from sleep.

Peer pressure: “You talkin’ to me?”

Interestingly, while some deaf dogs seem to be
able to pull the wool over our human eyes, their disability doesn’t
slip by other dogs quite as easily. One of the challenges in living
with a deaf dog is managing her around her own species, as deaf
dogs are often misread as being socially inappropriate and, like
Whisper, can even be attacked for not responding normally to
vocal cues.

“I used to go to the dog park with her and she would get
picked on,” Bonder explains. “A dog would come up behind her
and bark like I wanna play and she’d ignore them because she
can’t hear them, and the dog goes Well, why did you ignore me,
that’s rude! and they’d nail her. I’ve had to pull numerous dogs
off her.”

To keep your dog safe, you must be extra careful about choosing
her playmates and you need to establish a “heads-up” prompt
to warn her when other dogs are approaching from a blind side.
“I’m cautious about who I let her socialize with, and, if a dog
is coming up behind her, I give her a tap and point. It’s a social
‘head’s-up’ that we use for lots of different things.”

Playbiting that hurts: “Did you say ‘ouch’?”

The squeal from a dog or human that lets a pup know she is
playbiting too hard is a useless message to a deaf puppy. Hearing
puppies acting like piranhas will gradually soften their bite in
response to yelps and refusal to play. The deaf puppy needs diligent
feedback of ending play abruptly in response to her hardest
bites, so that her mouth gradually softens. Deaf puppies usually
learn this more slowly than hearing pups, as Whisper’s puppyhood
nickname “gator” suggests, but they are able to learn it
nonetheless. Safe adult dogs with good social
skills can be a big help by using their full spectrum
of body language in teaching the little land
shark to ease up.


The bottom line is that you and your dog will
need to work together to fill in missing information.
Acting as your dog’s ears and taking extra
safety precautions is your part of the deal, and will complement
your dog’s natural inclination to make the most of her sight,
smell, and touch. As Bonder will confirm, deaf dogs are pretty
savvy about capitalizing on their other senses.

“Whisper sleeps in the crook of my legs so, if I move, she
knows. And during the day, she’ll often fall asleep touching my
foot. Sight and smell are huge for her. She likes high spots so she
can see everything. If you take a shower, she’ll stand right outside
so she knows when you get out. It isn’t anxiety—it’s just her own
way of making sure she knows where her people are.”

Not only have Bonder and her deaf dog met the challenges of
day-to-day life, they have also competed in agility. Whisper’s ribbons
are a clear testament to great teamwork, and her success
flies in the face of those who argue that deaf dogs are untrainable.
Her disability actually made her a natural in this fast-paced sport,
according to Bonder.

“If you think about what you are always teaching a deaf dog—
‘follow me,’ ‘look at me’— agility is sooooooo easy: follow me
while jumping over this fun thing, follow me while going through
this cool tunnel. She just loved it! Agility is so based on body language
that deafness was a total moot issue.”

Although Whisper is now retired from agility and flyball,
Bonder keeps her busy with tracking and obedience.

“Every dog wants mental stimulation, physical exercise, affection, and food. They need those things to be happy healthy dogs…in
doing these sports, you are giving your dog what she needs to be a good
canine member of society, and if you do that, you wind up with a dog
that is happy.”

Clearly it takes a bit of extra effort and creativity to train a deaf dog.
And maybe even an extra dose of patience and humility as you navigate
unfamiliar ground. Deaf dogs are different, for certain. But aren’t we all
just a little bit different, yet equally precious?

“For perhaps, if the truth were known, we are all a little blind, a little
deaf, a little handicapped, a little lonely, a little less than perfect. And if
we can learn to appreciate and utilize the dog’s full potential, we will,
together, make it in this life on earth.”
—Author unknown

I wish you a wonderful journey with your precious girl.