Hand signals for deaf dog

The world changes dramatically for a dog who suddenly loses one of his senses. Our family’s Golden Retriever, Shakira, recently became blind from a devastating disorder that rapidly wiped out her sight. We had mere days to teach her verbal commands to replace visual cues. Reteaching these familiar commands helped us to communicate with Shakira as her sight failed and gave her a set of safe “go-to” behaviors when she was feeling stressed or unsure in her changing world. Reinforcing basic behaviors that your dog already understands can help him adjust to a loss of hearing or vision.

Replace the Cue

Before your dog becomes entirely deaf or blind, take advantage of the fact that he still has his vision or hearing and teach him new commands and cues.

  • Start by using a new cue a couple of seconds before you present the old cue. For instance, for a dog that is going deaf, add in a new visual cue — such as a hand signal — for “sit” before you give the verbal command “sit.”
  • Repeat the sequence of the new signal: the hand movement, a two-second pause and then the word “sit.”
  • Practice the new signal over and over; soon, most dogs will start to respond to the new cue because they remember that the old cue always follows.
  • Use treats during training sessions to keep your dog motivated.
  • If your dog doesn’t respond with the two-second time delay between the new cue and the old cue, extend the wait period to five seconds. This makes it more likely that your dog will respond appropriately to the first cue.

Once your pet starts to respond to the new cue, eliminate the old cue all together. 

Reteach a Behavior

Sometimes changes in a dog’s sight or hearing will leave him unable to respond to commands he previously understood. In these cases, you may need to reteach a behavior from the beginning in a way that compensates for his disability. Try the following steps to reteach “sit” to a dog that is going blind:

  • Use the smell of food to lure him into a sitting position; reward the gradual movement into a sit with treats.
  • As soon as your dog is readily able to respond to the food lure and has repeatedly done sits, teach him to go into the sitting position in response to the word “sit.”
  • Wean him off the food lure by saying “sit” and then waiting a couple of seconds before you present the treat. This prompts your dog to go into the sitting position in response to the word rather than in response to the smell of food.

Clicker Training for Blind and Deaf Dogs

Clicker training is beneficial for dogs who are going blind or deaf because it precisely pinpoints the moment your pet does something correctly. A conventional clicker can be used to teach a sit to a dog who is going blind; for a dog who is going deaf, replace the clicker with a vibrating collar.

  • Teach a sit with clicker training by marking the moment the dog goes into a sit, which most dogs will naturally do, with a click or a gentle buzz from a vibrating collar. Treat immediately after. 
  • When your dog begins to readily go into a sit, add a cue — visual for a deaf dog, verbal for a blind dog — for the behavior.
  • For a dog that is going blind, you can say “sit” as his bottom is going into the sit; for a dog that is going deaf, use a hand signal just as he is about to sit.
  • Once the new cue is associated with the sit, the cue can be done just before your dog is going to do the behavior; eventually the cue can be used to elicit the behavior, while an unprompted sit without the new cue will go unrewarded.

Clicker training is one of the easiest methods to teach advanced training concepts, such as retrieve or roll over, to a deaf or blind dog.  

Living With Disability

Shakira not only has been able to cope with her blindness, but she seems to have just as much zest for life as she did in the days when she had her full sensory capability. Having previously trained behaviors has helped Shakira to communicate with our family and has given her the ability to understand what is being asked of her, which has fostered an environment of protection for her as she learns to trust my family’s direction and let them be her eyes.  
Did I mention that Shakira still gets to enjoy her first love — fetching the tennis ball? She does it all by smell and voice direction from my dad. Check out this video to see her amazing ability.