Deaf pets make wonderful companions and are actually not all that different from hearing pets. In fact, some of the things that make pets who are deaf (or have significant hearing loss) unique may be what make them the right pet for your home! Let’s learn a bit more about them. While this article will focus on deaf dogs, much of the information may apply to other species as well!
Preparing Your Home
You’ll prepare to own a deaf pet the same way you would any other pet! Research the supplies you’ll need that are appropriate for that species at their current age and energy levels. Make sure you have the essential items they need (beds, bowls, housing, toys and food) and also some of the tools you might need for your life together — like a front-clip harness for walking, training treats and a pouch to hold them, and enrichment activities to keep them busy and out of trouble when you can’t be interacting with them. While it will take some time to really get to know each other and what your shared and independent interests are, try to plan ahead for what you might need. Deaf pets won’t require any modifications to your home or living space unless there are other medical or behavioral concerns.
When You First Come Home
Most pets are understandably a little nervous or uncertain when they first come to a new home — after all, they don’t realize it’s “home” just yet! Even pets who act really happy to be somewhere are likely still experiencing some degree of nervous excitement about all the newness and should be given time to settle in and get comfortable. Deaf pets may show a similar range of excitement as other pets, and many will choose to stay close to family members during this time — people and/or other pets!
For dogs who are feeling more overwhelmed, it may appear that they are acting “clingy” but what they’re doing is looking to those familiar with the environment to learn cues for how they can navigate it and what they can expect. Think of yourself as a tour guide for your pet (or their service person!) as they become comfortable with their new home, the humans and animals living there, and everyone’s routines and behaviors.
Oftentimes as they become more settled in and familiar with the routines, this behavior will decrease in relative intensity. Changes to the routine or environment can be stressful for any pet, and this can lead to changes in behavior as well. Many deaf pets will become less “sticky” as they get settled into the home, but this may also depend on the individual's personality and previous history. It’s important to remember that if you move or are in a new environment with your pet, you will likely see these behaviors return.
Living With a Deaf Pet
Deaf pets can be affectionate, loving and playful just like any hearing pet, but it’s important to remember that they may startle more easily if they don’t expect something. To get their attention, tap on a nearby surface so they can feel the vibrations and turn toward them. Or approach and initiate an interaction from where they can see you as opposed to coming up from behind. As with any pet, being awoken suddenly can be scary, so get their attention gently from a few feet away so they have space to wake up and take in their environment. Tugging gently at some blankets can be one way to wake them without startling them.
If you have young children, make sure to teach them how best to approach the pet — from the front or front angles. This includes during play! If they’re running closely past the pet and coming from behind, that can be scary! This can be true for hearing pets as well. Using baby gates to separate the two during high-energy playtimes can be the safest way to manage interactions.
Be mindful of coming and going! When you enter or leave a space, make sure your pet is aware and sees you. This can help decrease the potential for being startled if you approach them or anxious if they turn around and find you gone. Many deaf pets will become anxious if they wake up or turn around and find that you’ve left the home or even the room. Giving them a heads up can help avoid many potentially problematic behaviors and stressful situations for both you and your pet.
If you live in a noisy environment — urban areas, near transportation centers like airports or train stations, on or near a military base, near construction, with loud neighbors and other pets or with vocal wildlife — deaf pets will do very well as they won’t be bothered by or barking at those sounds! They may still react to things they can smell, so if the window is open, the smell of another animal might get their attention. That’s not to say deaf pet are silent! Many still vocalize and typically sound like other members of their species.
Many deaf pets will prefer to stay close to or within sight of their families when they go out of the home, such as to a park or beach. Dog parks may be challenging for deaf dogs as they may become startled by approaches and interactions that are initiated out of view. It is critical to understand that dog sociability varies by individual and changes over their course of their lives as well as across different contexts and environments. As with any pet you’re wishing to socialize with others, start with interactions with one known individual at a time who is interested in other dogs (dog social, tolerant or selective), and then try them in small groups (dogs prefer to play in pairs, so if possible, arrange playgroups accordingly). If that goes well, then you can try a dog park. Visit at a quieter time of day and be sure to stay near your dog. It may also be very helpful to have one of their dog friends along with them as a kind of buddy system. If you do let your deaf dog off leash, make sure they are in an enclosed area!
Identification matters! Putting “I’m deaf” on pet tags, as well as leashes and harnesses, can make a difference! In the event your pet becomes separated from you, this helps those who find them better understand their needs or behavior. On a walk, seeing this may make someone more mindful of how they or their pets interact with yours. Another good tip is to add “deaf” or “I’m deaf” to their name when you register their microchips in the event they are ever lost and found without their tags.
Training Deaf Pets
Training is essentially the same as for hearing pets, except that your behavior markers (like a clicker) and cues (like “sit”) are mostly visual instead of verbal. Since many pets are trained with both verbal and visual cues anyway, it really is quite similar, so no specialized training or “deaf dog trainer” is required!
Markers: For deaf dogs, a thumbs-up works just as well as any auditory marker, such as a clicker or a verbal marker like “yep” or “yes.” This should be used at the moment a desired behavior occurs and immediately followed by reinforcement, like a treat or something else the pet enjoys. By conditioning a pet to expect something good to happen when the marker occurs, they learn that the marker is an indication of a valuable behavior!
Cues: Cues are what immediately precedes the behavior, such as asking for a “sit” before the dog sits. We only add a verbal cue when the pet has begun performing a behavior with a (recommended) 80% consistency. Prior to that, we can use combinations of luring, capturing (marking the moment a behavior occurs naturally) and visual cues like hand signals. For deaf dogs, we just skip adding the verbal cue, but all the other pieces — luring, capturing and hand signals — are all the same! As far as hand signals go, the options are endless, as long as the signal is distinct and your pet can distinguish it. Some people will use American Sign Language (ASL) for their visual cues, while others use some of the traditional hand signals used with pet training. What you use is personal choice — there is no right or wrong.
For deaf dogs, gentle touch may also be used as a cue. For example, a gentle 1-2 finger touch (similar to the pressure you might use to touch your eyelid) at a consistent spot on the flank or the edge of an ear can be used to ask for focus or direct their attention toward you. Similarly, you can also use vibrations if you’re on a hard surface to get their attention, though this works better for some pets (and on some surfaces) than others. If you’re walking, a gentle 1-2 tap (similar pressure to double clicking on a mouse or typing on a keyboard) on a leash under a little tension will often be enough to encourage them to turn to look at you. Practice conditioning this behavior in a quiet environment like your living room so they don’t have as many distractions around!
Using light as a primary training cue for deaf pets is often not recommended and some, such as laser pointers, can be distracting, will lead to problematic behavior (in some pets) and can potentially be dangerous if shined into the eyes. Light can be a useful tool at night, for example, turning a light in the yard on and off in a conditioned pattern that indicates it’s time to come in, or turning a light on or off when you enter or leave a room can give them some information about your whereabouts (if they’re awake and alert), but because we will not always have a light reliably on hand or in the event that the pet’s vision or environmental conditions are poor, it is very important to use these cues only as a backup, an attention getter when circumstances allow or in specific situations as described.
Vibration collars can also be used as a cue for some dogs, and some trainers will recommend using vibration collars — these are collars that DO NOT produce a shock, are NEVER used to correct or stop behavior, and the training process is based on conditioning your dog to see the gentle vibration as a cue designed to have them look for you. Tools like this are useful for getting your dog’s attention at a distance but should not be used unless a trained professional has taught you how to safely and humanely condition your dog to the vibration so it does not elicit a fearful response or is perceived as punishment.
Training methods and philosophy: Did you know that behavior is never random? It’s always designed to make something happen or to achieve a particular outcome. Animals learn based on the outcomes of their behavior. When we want a behavior to continue, we use positive reinforcement to teach the pet that whatever they just did is valuable and worth doing again! When our pets are engaging in behaviors we want to decrease, our goal is to redirect them before the behavior happens (and reward any desired results) or to ignore the bad behavior when it happens and then quickly redirect them and positively reinforce any desired behavior! This way your pet can learn which behaviors are valuable and achieve the desired outcomes, and which do not. Positive reinforcement training has been shown scientifically to be the most effective and humane method for behavioral training from basic to severe behaviors!
San Diego Humane Society strongly discourages the use of “positive punishment” to address behavioral concerns. Positive punishment uses fear, pain and manipulation, to stop or suppress symptoms of behavior, such as barking, but does not address the cause or teach other appropriate coping mechanisms or skills. This may cause more severe behavioral problems in addition to breaking down the trust between a pet and owner.
Reinforcement and rewards: Deaf pets like the same things as any other pets. Offer them species-appropriate food rewards as well as play, affection and praise — yes, even verbal praise! Why verbal praise, you ask? Well, for most of us, talking to our pets is natural so stopping that behavior might have you behaving in a way that seems more unnatural. Behave as you normally would including talking to them and making a verbal fuss. Verbal praise is so much more than your voice! Your pet will see how your facial expressions and body language change when you’re excited or happy, and many deaf pets will react favorably to that expression — provided they’re not shy and overwhelmed by excitable behavior. If you’ve ever watched people communicate using sign language, you’ve probably noticed it’s extremely expressive — the body language between the communicators is just as expressive and important as the signs themselves, if not more so!
Another important reward for all pets (and people) is one you might not expect — taking a break or allowing the pet to do something different. Think of those breaks or pauses as a “reset” so your pet can sniff something unfamiliar, move to a place they feel safe, play with a toy for a moment or shake it off. Then they have a better chance of being able to succeed with the original task. It’s a little step that can make a big difference! If your pet is displaying signs of stress or being distracted, sometimes the best thing is to give them a moment to take a break until they are ready to work again!
Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team
Questions About Public Classes
San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.
Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.
Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398.
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