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Working with a Deaf Dog in Agility

This week is National Deaf Dog Awareness Week. Learn more about training a deaf dog to compete with you in agility.


Running a deaf dog in agility can be a blast, but it does take special training and handling techniques. While there are challenges, you will build your skills and have such fun. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when working with deaf agility dogs.

First, training. With a deaf dog, you will need to develop a new way of giving praise. "Good dog!" won't work. Teach a hand signal - usually a thumbs up - that means the same thing. Do this by pairing the gesture with a food reward, a happy face, petting and just generally being happy with her. Soon the gesture will be a marker for a job well done. Of course, the concepts of operant conditioning are wonderful tools for working with deaf dogs. You will just have to be more creative in building a marker that the dog will be able to recognize since she can't hear a clicker. 

In all the training work that you do, always build in handler focus. You will need the dog to constantly check in with you or you will have few opportunities to communicate. Treat frequently from your hand, especially right before you feel you might lose connection with your dog, such as in a jump run where she will be running away from you. When you do lose connection, which will probably happen more often than with a hearing dog, reward her for looking for you and coming back. Deaf dogs often see their handlers as their security and guide, so they will have a tendency to check in with you more than other dogs. Definitely support and encourage that behavior in the ring.

Since deaf dogs do not communicate with their handlers well when they are far away, they have a tendency to get the zoomies and run when they have some distance. In your training, focus on restraint exercises and reward them for close-in control work. Many deaf dogs have confidence issues due to a life where they are more often startled and receive fewer cues about what is around them. Through training and socialization, concentrate on building confidence, fun and success while helping her see you as her guide and partner.

There is always a question about whether or not you should use your voice when working with a deaf dog. Our natural tendency is often to keep right on talking, mostly since we are such verbal animals. Some feel we should still talk as this will allow us to be more natural in our expressions and thought process. Others feel that by cutting out the chatter we concentrate more on the non-verbal signals we are giving. My suggestion is to try both and see what works best for you. You can build non-verbal gestures as behavior cues in the same way that you teach verbal cues.

Now, handling. You will need to handle a deaf dog very differently in the agility ring. Try to stay in the dog's line of sight as much as possible. Give cues early, aiming for at least one obstacle ahead. She will need to know where she is going and what to do next before she takes her eyes off you. Give obvious and consistent cues so you both know what is expected. Be mindful before sending her ahead of you and only do so after giving a definitive "send" cue. 

Concentrate on handling the line, not the dog. Be willing to break the obvious course-flow if you need to reconnect or to reset the line to ease tricky handling later in the course. Remember to emphasize the connection between you and the dog, especially after that connection is broken by a tunnel or a turn away. 

Since much of it was built around working with a deaf dog, the One Mind Dog system is a natural handling system for running these dogs. Through OMD you will learn many very powerful tools.

What you will get. Of course there are challenges with running a deaf dog in agility. For instance, you will only have a recall or a call-off if you are in the dog's line of sight. You won't have the use of verbal cues and other handling techniques that work behind the dog. There are often new challenges when it comes to course analysis. However, the rewards are amazing! Your dog will be less distractible and have a built-in handler focus. There is purity in your communication and depth to your bond with your dog that is immeasurable. It will make you a better trainer, handler and partner in all that you do with your dogs. My love for agility has definitely grown through running a deaf dog and I consider myself very lucky to have such an awesome partner to play with!

Robin Stawasz has an Animal Science degree from Cornell University and worked at the Behavior Clinic at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked as an Animal Behaviorist specializing in dog aggression. She has been training for over 30 years and is currently most active in CPE agility running a wide variety of rescue dogs. She is now partnered with beloved special needs dogs, including an epileptic Border Collie, a deaf and partially blind Aussie and a blind Border Collie. 

Photo Credit: Robin Stawasz pictured with her dogs B, D, Loki, Z and K.

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