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Training a Deaf Dog

Cindy Perry shares how she's had agility success with her deaf dog. 

During the summer of 2012, I met Emerson, a five-month-old deaf Aussie puppy, while transporting him, his foster mom and a few other puppies to an adoption event in Flagstaff, Arizona. 

By midday, I was smitten with the little guy and I was wondering if he could be my next agility dog. Within a few days, he came for a sleep over and all went well so my next step was to schedule an eye exam. Although his eyes were not perfect, they were good enough, so Emerson came to live with me and my other dogs. 

I enrolled Emerson in puppy classes immediately and, lucky for us, the instructor's method of teaching revolved around shaping exercises. Very quickly, I learned that shaping works great for training a deaf dog since no verbal cues are given. 

After two sessions of puppy classes, Em and I continued to learn together using shaping for all his foundation and beginner agility training. During this time, I learned that this boy loves to work! His biggest challenge was being a thinker. He was very serious about his learning, so we spent plenty of time playing.  

My first challenge was to decide what hand signals I would use and what they would mean. So I made a list of what I thought would be necessary to use during training and on a course:
  • Sit
  • Wait/stay
  • Down
  • Watch me
  • Break/free
  • Easy/slow
  • Come 
  • Go on
  • Etcetera....
It started to seem overwhelming since I didn't even include any obstacles yet! My list continued to grow with A-frame, tunnel, teeter, dogwalk, jump, weaves and table, not to mention commands like wrap, come in, out and switch. I thought "Oh boy, I'm going to spend a lot of time training all these different signals and then try to use them on a course."

Thankfully, as our training progressed, I learned I do not need a hand signal for every obstacle. Once Em learned an obstacle, it then became a matter of me directing him to that obstacle with my body movements, eye contact and a few hand signals. 

I use a hand signal for sit at the start line and my release, but after that it's up to me to give him clear body movements he can follow. Which brings me to more challenges: being consistent, clear and on time with my cues. If I'm late or lose eye contact with him, there is no verbal cue that will bring him around to me. 

I do believe in talking to my deaf dogs mainly because I think they need to see the animation in my facial features and body language. My expressions let him know how well we are doing or if something has gone wrong. 

It can be a challenge for me to make sure he knows I am happy with him at all times. If I'm too stern or too serious on course, he may think he has done something wrong then it becomes no fun for him. The reason we play agility with our dogs is for both of us to have fun!

The following list includes the hand signals I use frequently in our daily life, during training or on a course:
Honestly, Emerson has been a joy to train over the past two years. Sure, there have been challenges for both us, but overall, I enjoy training, playing and running with this dog so much. 

I'll steal a statement I have heard others say: Emerson is my "heart dog!" I know he has helped me become a much better handler, plus he makes me laugh constantly.

Cindy Perry has been attending agility classes since 2010 and competing in agility since 2012. She currently runs a Pomeranian and an Australian Shepherd. Cindy recently added a Mini American Shepherd puppy to her pack. She enjoys learning all she can about agility and playing with her dogs. 


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