Training a Blind or Deaf Dog

Liz Palika

training blind or deaf dog

A friend’s fourteen year old dog, Walter, has been gradually losing his sight. Diagnosed several years ago with glaucoma, he now also has a couple of other eye problems that are causing him to lose most of his vision. Although he can see a little bit (motion mostly) in the morning and evening when the light isn’t too bright, he can’t see much at all in bright mid-day sun or when it’s dark. It’s amazing how well he’s coping though. With some assistance from his owner, he’s still remarkably active and involved.

Dogs who are visually or hearing impaired can, with a bit of help, do very well. Training doesn’t have to be difficult and owners can actually use some of the same techniques used for dogs who can see and hear. It just requires a bit of ingenuity sometimes.

Training the Blind Dog

Walter’s owner used a lure and reward training technique with him when he was younger and found that it stills works for him now that he doesn’t see well. A lure and reward technique uses a bit of food as a lure to help the dog move or do something and then, when the dog has done it, the food tidbit becomes the reward. This technique works best when a good smelling treat is used as it must be smelly enough, or exciting enough, to get the dog’s attention and for a visually-impaired dog to follow it.

Some owners of blind dogs use the clicker as a marker for good behavior and it can be quite effective. Teach the dog that the sound of the clicker equals a treat and then each time the dog does what you wish, click to mark (or identify) that action. Then reward the dog.

Although both of these training techniques are great for visually-impaired dogs, your voice is one of your most important training tools. As you help your dog make the transition from sighted to non-sighted, or as you work with an already blind dog, use your voice a lot. With various tones of voice and an expanded vocabulary, you can help him through the world.

Walter’s owner has taught him slow, right, left, yes, nope, and a variety of other words so she can help him maneuver. With her help he can move around obstacles in his way inside or outside. She can also help him find his toy or ball. She started with him on leash, used a lure and reward training technique, and then continued to talk to him.

Keep in mind, the visually-impaired dog can’t see hand signals, body motions, or his owner’s smile. However, anything that uses his sense of smell and hearing can be effective. Just keep the training upbeat, fun, and don’t feel sorry for him. He can do this!

Training the Deaf Dog

Matisse is most likely a Beagle/Jack Russell Terrier mix. His owner fostered a pregnant dog from one of her local rescue groups and Matisse is one of the puppies. Born deaf and with some neurological problems, she decided to adopt Matisse as she felt she could help him and she has. Now almost two years old, he’s happy, active, and you’d never know by watching him that he has no hearing at all.

Matisse’s owner used a lure and reward training technique also. By using a treat to get Matisse’s attention and then moving her hand with the treat, she taught him hand signals. He knows all the basic obedience exercises: sit, down, stay, come, heel, and leave it. She’s also taught him a few unique exercises that help the two of them, including “stay close” for when he’s off leash playing. Each hand signal was taught by using the food treat as a lure while making a motion with her hand.

The hand signals you choose to use can be anything you wish although since they are originally taught using the food as a lure, make sure the hand movement makes sense to your dog. Some signals can be small for when your dog is close to you. Others, such as a come, may need to be broader when he’s farther away. Matisse’s owner has been known to jump up and down, and wave both arms over her head when trying to get Matisse’s attention. Then she’ll show him the normal come signal.

Some owners of deaf dogs add a flashlight to gain their dog’s attention at night. For example, if the dog is in the backyard relieving himself before going to bed, a flashlight aimed towards the dog can get his attention. When he’s taught, on leash and with treats, to come when he sees the light from the flashlight, it can be quite effective.

Dogs Can and Do Cope

Visual- and hearing-impaired dogs can and do function extremely well if given some help. You may want to use the leash (or long leash) a bit more. Let them off leash only in safely-fenced areas and watch closely when they play with other dogs. Continue to use some extra special treats too, as both blind and deaf dogs still have their sense of smell.

Keep in mind that even if your dog can’t see or can’t hear, his brain still works very well and he’s able to learn. Walter goes camping regularly, an activity he’s enjoyed throughout his life. He’s just on leash more now. Matisse has attended puppy and basic obedience classes, has passed the Canine Good Citizen class, and is working towards becoming a therapy dog.

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