Just like people, dogs can be both blind and deaf. And, just like people, this doesn’t mean a death sentence or horrible behavioral issues for your dog. There are many great ways to accommodate your dog’s unique condition. While a dog can become deaf or blind at any age, puppies generally are the ones that require training. However, these techniques can be used on a dog of any age as long as they are willing to learn. Finding a way to communicate effectively with blind or deaf dogs, and figuring out how to use these cues can ensure successful training!
The Prevalence of Blind and Deaf Dogs
Deafness and blindness at birth are most commonly associated with dogs that have a white-coat or other genetic recessive trait. This is due to recessive genes linked to coat-color and other preferred breed looks. Certain breeds that are bred for certain color characteristics (such as the double-merle coat in Australian Shepherds and Border Collies) or that have predominantly white coats can have a higher incidence of acquiring both recessive genes leading to deafness or blindness.
Deafness can be acquired via congenital issues (illness, infections, toxin exposure). It can also be acquired via a recessive gene common to dogs with white-colored coats, however, dogs born of any breed or coat color can have deaf genes. Dalmatians have the highest breed incidence of deafness according to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.
Blindness can also be acquired or congenital and can occur in any dog breed. Congenital blindness is most common in flat-faced or brachycephalic breeds such as pugs and bulldogs. Dogs with longer hair that covers their eyes may also be prone to issues that can lead to acquired blindness.
While it is rare for a dog to have both conditions, there are dogs that can acquire both blindness and deafness. However, don’t despair! These dogs are as trainable and eager to please as their seeing and hearing cousins.
Using Cues for Deaf Dogs
While deaf dogs can’t hear verbal cues such as “Sit” or “Stay”, they can easily pick up on hand signals. This is very much like a canine sign language. Hand signals are also great for any dog when training something that requires distance.
Treats: For any dog, high-value treats are great training tools. Dogs are very motivated by smelly, and tasty items. These can be utilized to encourage your dog to pick up a new trick more quickly. A high-value treat is something small and easy to eat, such as a piece of cut up hotdog, freeze-dried liver, or another soft chewable treat.
Hand Signals: Hands signals are an easy way to help your dog understand what you are asking them to do. Instead of using a verbal cue, such as “Sit”, you can instead use a hand signal. A signal for “Sit” could be a hand balled up to indicate the command. There are numerous online guides that have charts of hand signals that can be used. However, as long as you are consistent with your dog, any signal can be used.
A Basic Trick Example: Teaching “Sit” to your deaf dog is easy! Start by having a treat in your hand. Give your hand signal for “Sit” and then take the treat and place it over your dog’s nose. Lure them into a sitting position by bringing the treat backward toward their tail. Once they sit, give them a pet, and the treat! You’ll want to repeat any new trick 10-20 times to help them associate the signal with the command.
Using Cues for Blind Dogs
Blind dogs, on the other hand, can’t use hand signals for training, but can still use verbal cues to follow along. Using the luring method of using treats to lure your dog into position can also help overcome your dog’s inability to see when training.
Treats: As with deaf and dogs able to hear, blind dogs are usually great at smelling tasty treats! A high-value treat is again an excellent choice for training your blind dog. You want to make sure the high-value treat you pick is something smelly in addition to tasty, such as chopped hotdogs, as the smell will help when luring your dog into position for each trick.
Clicker and Verbal Cues: Verbal cues such as “Sit” are great to use for a blind dog. Clicker training is also an excellent way to help your blind dog understand what they’re doing is correct. Clickers don’t give commands, but instead are used to indicate praise or that the right command was performed.
To use the clicker, you will first want to “prime” it, or associate it with a treat. Simply click and treat about 20 times until your dog learns that a clicker = treat. From there, the click can be used right before you praise and treat your dog for a job well done. Clickers can also be used to shape behaviors without the use of visual cues, however, that is a much larger topic than the scope of this article!
A Basic Trick Example: Teaching “Sit” to your blind dog is also easy. Using the luring method, you can get them into a sitting position quickly. Start by luring your dog into position using a high-value treat. Place the treat over their nose, and then bring it backward toward their tail. Once your dog sits, praise and reward! After you’ve learned them into position a few times, you can then add in the verbal cue “Sit” before each luring attempt. Be sure to practice at least 10-20 times so your dog can associate the cue with the command.
Help! My Dog Is Blind AND Deaf!
In some cases, you may acquire a dog that is both blind and deaf. The above techniques can be modified to accommodate for your dog’s specific needs. Instead of using hand signals or verbal cues, touch cues can be used. These involve touching your dog in a specific location (such as the top of the head when you want your dog to sit) before luring your dog into position with a high-value treat. Again, as long as you are consistent on your cues, your dog will learn to associate touch in certain locations with the command you want.
Beyond the Basics
While the examples above are for basic tricks such as “Sit”, these techniques can be applied to any training project. Adding in additional hand or verbal cues for more advanced tricks, or just for everyday situations (such as sitting at the door when a guest comes by) can help ensure your dog understands what you want.
All dogs, regardless of deafness or blindness, can also benefit from a basic obedience class. These structured classes help with additional life skills such as socializing with other dogs. The structured environment and supervision of a professional is also useful for cementing any techniques with extra guidance. Be sure to let your instructor know your dog is deaf or blind prior to class starting. They may be able to help you formulate additional cues or training techniques specific to your dog’s needs.
As with any dog, whether they are deaf, blind, or neither, consistent routine is the biggest key to easier training. All dogs benefit from a routine, and keeping this routine will help your dog adjust to your schedule. Exercising the brain and body is also great for preventing behavioral issues in any dog. Once you have a technique down, the rest of your training should go smoothly!