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But How Do I Get His Attention? Clicker Training Tips for the Deaf Dog Owner

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Clicker training for all

As clicker training becomes a more popular and widely-used method of dog training, many pet dog owners are interested in learning more about it. Positive reinforcement training methods are generally described as requiring the sound of a clicker or a marker word. Understandably, training instructors and owners of deaf dogs may not know exactly how to utilize clicker training for these special dogs. In fact, a common lament of deaf dog owners is, "Sure, I would like to train my dog, but if he can't hear me, how do I get his attention?"

dog listening

Flash—one silent marker signal

Establishing a marker signal for a deaf dog is a good place to start training. One tool that works well in place of a clicker is the flash from a pocket-sized key ring flashlight, the kind with the button on the top. The key ring attaches nicely to a wrist coil, and the topside button is easier to use than a regular penlight with the switch on the end. This type of flashlight can be purchased at your local department store. For safety reasons, the light from a laser pointer is not a good choice as a marker signal.

Pair the flash of the flashlight with the presentation of a treat in the same way you would pair the clicker and a treat.

  • From his side or front, point the flashlight in the direction of the dog's face (be careful not to be too close).
  • Briefly flash the light and then feed the dog a treat, several times over a number of sessions. This is known as "loading the flashlight"—the light from the flashlight, which previously had no special meaning, is paired with a treat and comes to predict that a treat is on the way.
  • Soon the dog will look at you, expecting the treat, when he sees the flash. When this happens, you will know it is time to move forward with training.

The flash can be seen by the dog from a number of angles, making the flashlight an ideal marker when you begin shaping behaviors. (Don't allow the dog to chase the light as a game or reward, or it will lose its value as a marker signal.)

The flash can be seen by the dog from a number of angles, making the flashlight an ideal marker when you begin shaping behaviors.

Hand signals work, too

Using a hand signal—such as a thumbs-up—as a "click" is a great idea. A hand signal allows you to "click" your deaf dog during the day, at a distance, or when training where the flashlight is not easy to see. Load the thumbs-up, or other hand signal, as you would the flashlight.

Attention, please!

Hearing puppies automatically look up at the sound of a human voice, and find this action highly rewarded with human attention. Deaf puppies do not have that experience, and may never look up at you. Since waiting for a deaf dog's attention may be a lengthy process, prompting a puppy for his attention may be necessary at first. Prompting should be discontinued as soon as your puppy gets the idea that looking at you pays handsomely!

When cueing a deaf dog for attention, have a number of signals to use in a variety of situations. The signals should all mean, "Hey, look at me." Attention cues that are used often include a rump tap, gentle pressure in the collar, a waved hand, a flickering room or porch light, and a stomp on the floor. These cues, described below, are just suggestions; feel free to use any cue that is distinct, easy for the dog to understand, and simple for you to remember. Be creative!

Remember to keep training sessions short, each no more than three to five minutes long, and, as with any dog, limit training to just a few sessions per day. Begin working with your dog in a relaxed and low, or no, distraction environment.

Getting a deaf dog's attention is easiest when the dog is within reach.

Getting a deaf dog's attention is easiest when the dog is within reach. If you are close enough to reach your dog, cue for attention by giving him a gentle, but deliberate, double tap on the rump or flank using one or two fingers. Here's how:

  • Have the dog tethered close to you.
  • Toss a toy out in front of the dog, or have another person create a mild distraction.
  • Wait for the dog to look back at you—flash (or use another marker signal) and treat as soon as he responds!
  • If the dog does not look back at you directly, flash and treat any movement of his head in your direction. When he understands that the flash equals a treat, he is likely to turn his head toward the flash (and you) to collect his treat.
  • Repeat this sequence several times. Soon you may have trouble getting the dog to look away so that you can begin adding the cue!

A pat on the back (back-end, that is)

The "rump tap" cue for attention can be added in the same way the verbal cue "see here" (or saying the dog's name) is added when training hearing dogs.

  • Start with the dog looking away. Create a mild distraction if needed. Just when you see that the dog is going to look back at you, give him a quick and firm, but gentle, double tap on the flank or back end. Use the same amount pressure you would use to tap someone on the shoulder to get his or her attention.
  • Flash and treat as the dog's head comes around to face you.
  • Repeat the exercise a number of times over several sessions.
  • Test your dog's understanding of the tap cue by tapping him when he is not looking. If he responds correctly eight times out of ten (within 3 seconds of the tap), he's got it! If not, go back to tapping him just before he looks at you for a few more sessions.
  • When your dog is successful, ask for his attention at random times, gradually working in increased distractions.

Move on to a leash cue

Transfer this signal to a cue for getting your dog's attention using distinct pressure on the collar via the leash. The leash cue acts the same way as saying the dog's name works for a hearing dog. Teach this cue to your dog using a flat-buckle collar. The pressure on the collar should never be hard enough to move your dog, nor should the pressure be used to pull him around in your direction.

  • Have your dog on leash and within reach.
  • Give two very gentle tugs on the leash (in other words, lift the leash just enough to take up the slack twice in succession).
  • Your dog may look back at you. Great! Flash and treat. You are ahead of the game.
  • If the dog does not look back, immediately follow the leash cue with the double tap on the rump (an attention cue your dog already knows).
  • Flash and treat when your dog turns to look at you.
  • Repeat this several times. Soon your dog will begin to anticipate that the rump tap follows the leash cue, and will look back after the leash cue as, or before, you tap him.
  • At this point, increase the time between the leash cue and the tap to allow your dog to respond to the leash cue only.
  • When your dog is responding reliably to the leash cue alone, gradually begin cueing attention with the leash from further away, until your dog responds correctly from the end of whatever lead you use.
  • Refine the response to include moving toward you by having the dog come to you for his treat, or use the signal strictly for attention by tossing the treat to where he is, discouraging movement toward you.
Remember that the pressure on the collar is a cue and not a command.

For some dogs a tug on the collar may be an aversive, meaning they see it as a punishment. It is important to remember that the pressure on the collar is a cue and not a command. It is not an attempt to guide your dog or change his direction.

A very gentle double tug will help your dog distinguish between random pressure on the leash and a cue for attention. As your dog learns to walk on a loose leash, remember to carry treats with you. At some point during the walk your dog will look back at you. Until this behavior is offered frequently, mark and reward it generously! Soon your deaf dog will be looking back at you reliably, also known as "checking in." A dog that checks in with you on walks is much easier to signal other behaviors.

Unreachable? Wave!

If the deaf dog is just out of reach, waving a hand at him, fingers outstretched, makes a good attention cue.

  • Start with the dog facing you.
  • Wave your open hand, fingers outstretched, just above his line of sight. The movement should capture his attention.
  • When he looks toward your hand, flash and treat.
  • Repeat several times.
  • Introduce the hand wave from higher up and from the side and rear. Flash and treat generously for attention to your hand.
  • Cue for the dog's attention with the hand wave in increasingly distracting environments.
  • When your dog is reliable about ignoring distractions and looking at your hand when you wave it, gradually begin to cue your dog's attention from a distance.
  • As the distance increases, you may need to make the wave larger so that it is easier for your dog to see.
  • Use your thumbs-up instead of the flashlight when working on this exercise outside during the day.
Dogs have a wider field of peripheral vision than humans.

Dogs have a wider field of peripheral vision than humans. Waving your hand at your dog, even when you think he cannot see you, will often prompt him to turn around. If there is light behind you, the shadow of your waving hand may be enough to get him to look back at you.

At-home flashing

At night, the flash and treat routine transfers well to using lights in the house to get your dog's attention.

  • Stand in the doorway of the room and flick the light switch on and off until your dog looks up (in any direction).
  • Toss him a treat, rewarding attention to the light. You may need to work on your aim or use slightly larger treats than normal to be sure your dog sees the tossed treat.
  • Over a number of sessions, refine the response by tossing the treat only when the dog turns his head in your direction.
  • Finally, reserve the reward for when he looks to you in the doorway. At this point, signal him to come or make the treat toss shorter and shorter until he comes to where you are standing for his reward.
  • Once this response is established in the house, use the porch light the same way when the dog is outdoors after dark and you want to call him inside.

Early in this training, always have the treat ready to reward attention to the light. Be careful using the light as an attention getter when the dog is being naughty. He may try to be naughty just to get you to flash the light!

Paired with the hand wave, tossing an object in the dog's direction can work well for getting his attention at a greater distance.

Stomp—or toss

Pairing a treat with a stomp on the floor is another useful way to get your dog's attention from a distance, but it is limited in range and to certain floor types. A floor stomp cue can be trained just like other signals.

One last way to get a deaf dog's attention from a distance is to toss things in his direction, aiming for his feet or field of vision (not his body, of course). Start working up close, where your aim is likely to be better, and then flash and treat for looking up and/or looking to find you. Paired with the hand wave, tossing an object in the dog's direction can work well for getting his attention at a greater distance: You toss something that lands near the dog. The dog looks up. You wave your hand at the dog. Your dog looks at you and then, having his attention, you give him his next cue.

Hidden benefit

But what do you do when your dog is out of sight in the house or out in the yard in the middle of the day with nothing suitable to throw in his direction? Well, owning a deaf dog is not for the lazy. Just think of all the extra calories you are burning every time you have to go and get him!


About the author
User picture

Margaret Elliott is a Karen Pryor Academy graduate, and a family pet dog trainer. She teaches clicker classes at the Cyclone Country Kennel Club and the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. Margaret is an avid competitor in agility and obedience with her deaf dog, Yuki, and her two hearing dogs, Taiki and Rei.

Sophie my deaf puppy

We just found out that our 9 week old puppy is deaf it was heart breaking to all of us, but now we are ready to do whatever we can to help our little precous puppy. We all adore her she was the only puppy our  2yr. old lahsa apso had. So we bonded the minute this puppy came into our lives.

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

Great article

I just found this! and I think it's an excellent resource. Owners of deaf dogs often just don't know where to start, and some feel doomed even before they begin. This is my new favorite quick-start for those people!

As I've been fortunate enough to see Yuki in action, I can say that Margaret's recommendations really do work. Yuki has as impressive a repertoire as any hearing dog!

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 CD-H CGC BH RN CD WAC ATT(UDC) AD
  • Inky (couch dog!)

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