Deaf but not dumb

31st Jul, 2016

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. – Dog Behaviourist

The myth that deaf dogs can’t learn, or are more aggressive than other dogs is simply not true. While they may require more patience with training, and have a few limitations that require management, the bond they form with their owner is often strongly developed and they can lead happy and fulfilled lives.

Some dogs are born deaf, others may have compromised hearing and some lose their hearing with old age. Certain breeds are highly prone to congenital deafness, such as Dalmatians and Australian Shepherds, due to specific genes which are linked with pigmentation. Dalmatian puppies for example, have a 30% chance of being born deaf in one or more ears. Deaf dogs will compensate with enhanced use of sight, smell and touch. Since their communication is highly reliant on body language, we use this to work with them, replacing words with signs. Many trainers use signs and body language as a matter of course, along with words, because it helps to keep the dog focused on us.

Some management is also required. To keep them safe, we usually keep them leashed unless in a safe, fenced, area. A good idea is to have a leash or jacket marked to indicate deafness and possibly a bell or GPS tracker to make it easier to find them. Some people use a torch to signal with, which works well at might. There are also vibration collars to signal a recall but dogs may have difficulty in adjusting to these.

Because the dog cannot hear, it may have a heightened ‘startle response’, which can be defused by tapping the floor – the vibration creates awareness of our presence. Also, one can offer a treat from the side when the dog can’t see you. Other dogs, coming from behind, may cause a startle response and thus playmates should be carefully selected. They may also develop anxiety if they do not know where we are, so establish routines to avoid this. Staying still and avoiding eye contact when the dog bites too hard helps develop bite inhibition.

The most important cues to teach the dog are ‘watch me’, as we want them to maintain eye contact as much as possible, and ‘come’ for recall. It doesn’t matter much what signs you use as long as they are consistent. We use positive reinforcement – rewarding good behaviour with a treat. Thus we cue what we want, mark with a sign such as thumbs up (instead of a clicker or verbal marker), and reward.

The ‘Deaf Dog Education Action Fund’ website – – has lots of useful information, (including sign suggestions) and is strongly recommended.

Testimonial Story

Duke the deaf Saint Dane

Written by JJ Uys

My first memory of Duke was seeing him online, in passing, as I was searching for Great Danes needing homes. Sadly, our Harlequin Dane passed away last year and, after some time, we realised we didn’t like not having a Great Dane in the family. You know, you miss them in the small things, like stopping in your driveway and not seeing a pair of über-excited eyes looking you square in the face.

At first I honestly just gave him a pass. I thought: a deaf dog isn’t something I feel up to, really! After some failed attempts and many enquiries about various Danes, with no success, someone from the Great Dane Rescue Facebook page suggested I contact Uitsig Animal Rescue Centre as they had a young deaf Great Dane who still needed a home. This person encouraged me by writing that deaf dogs weren’t actually that difficult to care for. So, once again, I found Duke online and decided that we should give him a chance by taking my family to go and meet him.

Duke – who is actually three quarters Great Dane and one quarter Saint Bernard – was rescued from unscrupulous backyard breeders, and had stayed at the centre for a while before being fostered by Wynand and Esté Viljoen. They’d done such a sterling job of training Duke with a couple of hand signs that he impressed us with his discipline. Not only that but I could see that his temperament and personality were amazing. We have three girls in our family, all under six years of age, so we needed to be sure that we took in a dog who would be child safe.

Since Duke’s integration into our family, we’ve seen his true colours for ourselves. True to his foster parent’s testimony, he’s a big, clumsy baby boy just loving being around people and taking advantage of every opportunity he gets – and sulking about every opportunity he doesn’t. The hand signs they taught him are a huge asset and reinforcing them with Duke has made life a joy. Discipline training with him needs a lot of repetition and consistency. We don’t always win in this area. If we lose a battle, though, it’s only because we decided that it’s not really worth fighting for. We have a big yard, so calling Duke obviously involves walking everywhere and looking for him. At first this was tedious, but soon we realised that he’d found a favourite spot where you could practically always find him. So now we just cruise along with it, enjoying our deaf Saint Dane!

A big thank you to everyone who played a part in us receiving Duke. Keep up the good work!