Clicker Training for Deaf Dogs

For Deaf Dogs?

Really? How can you clicker train a deaf dog? Well, read on, and I'll fill you in!

This idea is not new with me, and I'm not a clicker training expert, but I'd like to present some of the things I have learned so that others can try it too. The first thing I want to do is clarify a common misconception about clicker training - It's not about the clicker! It's unfortuntate that this training method was named after only one of the possible tools. "Marker Training" (or something similar) would have been a better choice, because that is what it is about, marking a specific behavior, to tell the dog exactly what he or she did right, at the exact moment that they did it. It doesn't really matter what you use for the marker (there are a lot of choices that will work just fine), just so that it is quick, accurate, and (preferably) the same every time. Most dog trainers use a little plastic box that was originally a kid's toy, called a "clicker." Dolphins, seals, and other sea animals are taught using a whistle. Some people use a "special word" (usually "yes"), or a squeaky. With a deaf dog, a specific hand sign, or (my favorite) a flashlight is often used. I use the same terms that hearing dog clicker trainers use, because I think it only adds more confusion to call it "flicker training" or any of the other cutsie terms that you might see. So when you see "click" on my website, it means flash, sign, whistle, squeak - whatever applies in your situation.

Another common misunderstanding that the "click" is rewarding all by itself, and then when the dog doesn't seem to respond, people decide that it won't work for them. The very first thing that you need to do when starting to clicker train any animal is to teach them what the click means. It means "what you did right there is what I want, and you get a reward for it."

Gwen, the "frog dog"
flat on her tummy, with legs out straight

The reward can be anything that The Dog likes. It won't work if you decide that you are going to use a thrown ball for a reward, but your dog doesn't like to chase balls. Most trainers use food, because it's easy and most dogs "will work for food," but you could use some type of petting (if your dog finds petting really rewarding), chasing a toy, playing tug, throwing a ball, anything at all that the dog likes. Use "good" treats (small and stinky is usually good). If you are worried about weight gain, mix part of your dogs kibble with the more wonderful treats, and the smell will rub off on them and make them "better" (mixing treats is good anyway, so you have higher value rewards available when you need them.

Remember, the dog determines what is rewarding (not the human). Gwen does not like petting, so I can't use that as a reward (she is more likely to do things "less" often if I forget and pet her too much). But she adores tennis balls, so I often mix food rewards will ball tosses when we are working on something. You must be sure to reward the dog every time you click (even if you clicked the wrong thing), because you risk making the click meaningless again if you aren't consistent.

To begin teaching your dog, get out your chosen clicker and a bunch of yummy treats (or whatever you are using). Click, then give a treat. Do it again. Repeat. After about 5-10 times, when your dog is getting pretty excited about this new game, click and then pause briefly. Most dogs will go "Hey, where's my cookie?" Congradulations, you can start training now! If your dog doesn't do this, repeat a few more times till she does.

Keeping a close eye on things

With a deaf dog, I like to use a small flashlight, but some people have had good luck using a specific hand sign too. I'm not as crazy about that idea, because I think you can run into the "same every time" issue, and the dog must see your hand (so either he is watching it, or you must be quick to get it in his line of vision. I don't recommend lazer pointers. The dot is really too small unless the dog is really watching for it (which is not really what you want for most training), and you can hurt your dogs eyes if you point it at them. Some people have used vibrating collars as well, but if you use it for a clicker, it can't be used for anything else (their most common use is for getting the dog's attention, so you don't want to be telling him "yes, you are right" when what you really want is for him to quit digging in the flower bed!) There is also "lag time" between the moment the button is pushed and the time the dog feels the vibration. You could end up reinforcing the wrong thing!

The drawbacks to using the flashlight are the same problems that you run into with any deaf dog training. First off, they need to be at least kind of looking at you (but a deaf dog can't "listen" if they aren't looking at you anyway). Second, they don't work very well at a distance or in bright light (like a nice sunny day for instance). One other problem that can come up (not always, but you need to watch for it) is the dog getting obsessed with the light, and trying to chase either it or the shadows that it makes. Gwydion had a real problem with it when he came to me (as a 2 year old), and while he's MUCH better now (and the flashlight clicker didn't make it worse), I still need to be careful. The thing to watch for is that the dog should be looking for the flash, not the spot of light. If your dog is watching for the spot, choose something other than a light for your "click." I've also noticed that my dogs will sometimes focus more on the hand holding the clicker if they think they've done something right, rather than looking at me for further info (although their eye contact is generally really good, and the clicker can be used to reinforce that as well).

I've found the best kind of flashlights to use are either the ones that come on keychains, where you squeeze the sides or push a button. You don't want to use one that requires moving a switch or twisting part of the light because they aren't quick enough, and the dog isn't receiving the feedback in time, so the learning process is slowed down. I like the squeeze type, as they are relatively cheap and they are small. I usually buy several at a time because I lose them. When you flash the "clicker," you point it sort of in the dog's general direction, but not directly in her eyes. The dog should be watching for the "flash" not for a spot on the floor or wall.

So what can you teach?

Cute Gwen
Gwen being cute

Using a clicker is a wonderful way to teach your dog "watch me." Start out with a treat in one hand, and your clicker in the other. Show your dog the treat, and then draw it up to your nose. "Click" and give her the cookie. Repeat a few times. Then hold the cookie just to the side of your face. Your dog will probably look at the cookie first, but eventually, she will look at you in disgust to say "hey, gimme the cookie!" Click the instant she looks at you! Gradually lengthen the distance the cookie is held from you, and even hold it behind your back. To discourage your dog from watching the clicker instead, hold the clicker in different places too. I don't teach a sign for "watch me." It is one of the first things I teach, and I want it to be a default behavior (in other words, if they aren't sure what else to do, they look at me).

Another useful thing to teach is a target stick. You can use a short piece of dowel, or you can buy a "real" one if you want to get fancy. Some people use their hands, but I don't think I want my deaf dog to be trying to touch my hands when I'm talking to them. You start out by holding it in front of your dog, and usually they will touch it with their nose just to see what it is. Click and treat! After he seems to know to touch the stick when he sees it, introduce a hand sign, and only click for touching in response to the sign. So what can you do with it once you teach it? You can teach your dog to heel by holding the touch stick so that your dog is in correct heel position. You can teach a dog to jump by leading them over with the stick. They can learn to sit up and beg using a touch stick. Many, many things, only limited by your imagination!

But the results can be phenomenal! Gwen was the first dog I tried clicker training with, and we used it to help her to earn her CGC. We used the clicker/flashlight to learn the "walk nice on a leash" part. I only practiced in class (I know, I know, bad trainer!), and we only had about 5 to 10 minutes in each class. All that I wanted her to learn was to walk nice, not perfect heeling. At the end of the 5 weeks, she had it. She knew that the only way to get that clicker to work was to walk on my left and not get in front of me. And she passed the test!

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