Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
In the past two months, I’ve received calls and or emails from two different shelters asking me for advice on training a dog who is both blind and deaf. There are terrific web sites for training blind dogs and for training deaf dogs, but I’m not aware of a web site devoted to training a dog who is both. I thought that publishing some ideas here (ideas I have gathered from many other sources) would not only help other rescue workers, but I’m hoping that it will generate a dialog on how to best train these dogs who not only have the misfortune to find themselves deaf and blind, but homeless as well. Let me be clear, I’m not stating a position on whether these dogs should take up precious rescue resources when plenty of “able bodied” dogs are euthanized every year. That’s a debate for another time. The reality is that some rescues will take these dogs, do their best, and try to place them (or not). So, how do we train these dogs?
Work to Eat: It can be incredibly difficult to exercise a dog who is both deaf and blind so environmental enrichment is absolutely necessary to lower anxiety and tire out the dog’s brain. Don’t feed any food out of a bowl and make sure all the dog’s calories come out of toys or by hand in training. There are an amazing array of work to eat puzzles on the market now.
Stay on a Mat: An excellent way to position (and keep track of) a blind/deaf dog is with a mat. You can reinforce him every time the dog finds the mat. You can make it easier for the dog by scenting these surfaces. According to many people, lavender is the “relaxation” scent. Make sure you dilute the scents with water and spray them on the surfaces. If you can smell it, it’s probably way too strong for the dog. Finding the mat and staying there is the first thing I teach these dogs. Safety first! Giving a dog frozen stuffed Kongs on the mat will help build the dog’s duration on the mat. If the dog rolls the Kong off the mat, lure the dog back to the mat with the Kong (hopefully he doesn’t guard Kongs).
Follow the Carpet: Make paths out of carpet runners or other substrate material and teach the dog to walk on the path. Following the path keeps the dog safe and out of trouble (hopefully). Again, you can scent these paths to help the dog along.
Condition a Marker: You’ve got to come up with a touch somewhere on the dog’s body to let him know he’s getting it right and that’s why he’s getting the food. Decide on a body part (I like the neck for this). Touch the dog in exactly the same way and in the same place each time (decide if you want to use a tap, short touch, long touch, or stroke). Condition this marker just like you would if you were charging a clicker. Touch/food, touch/food as randomly as possible (try not to fall into a pattern). I’ve used vibration collars with deaf dogs to get their attention so I can give them the “thumbs up” but they can be pricey and frankly, any piece of equipment has the potential to be lost or broken. I’ve had trouble convincing owners that they want to have that big remote handy at all times. If you do use a vibration collar (I would use it to train the dog to find his mat), make sure to introduce it to the dog carefully. You want the “page” to predict a treat, not startle the dog into a panic.
Target Train: Teach the dog to touch a target with his nose. Scent the target so that he can find it. I like using something sturdy like a wooden spoon because you can tap it on the floor and the dog should pick up on the vibration. This is an excellent way to lead a dog around so you don’t have to be hauling him around by his collar all the time.
Training Behaviors: With a dog who is both deaf and blind, I think that lure/reward training is the way to go since shaping can be next to impossible if your “clicker” is a touch to the dog’s body:
- Lure the dog into a sit.
- When his butt hits the floor, touch him in his “clicker spot” to let him know he got it right.
- Give him the treat.
Once he’s offering sits voluntarily, you can add the cue. I like a tap on the butt for this, it seems a natural to me. You insert any cue whether it’s verbal, a hand signal, or a touch in the same way:
- Tap him on the butt.
- Wait a few seconds (at first he won’t know what it means), then lure him into the sit.
- Touch him on his “clicker spot” to let him know he got it right.
- Give him a treat.
Over time, he’ll figure out that the tap on his butt means “if I sit, I’ll get a treat”. You can repeat this with any behavior you want him to learn as long as the behavior can be lured.
Anyone out there with “special needs” dogs? Are there dog trainers reading this with experience training dogs who are both blind and deaf? I’d love to hear all the creative ideas out there!