Recently, I started working with a deaf dog and her wonderful handler. This isn't my first hearing-impaired dog 'student,' but it's been a while since the last one, and the importance of communication is never greater in a verbal animal, such as a human, than when you have to communicate in a non-verbal manner. With few minor adjustments, working with a deaf dog is actually very similar to working with a hearing dog, except for the disadvantage of not being able to communicate with your dog unless they're looking at you, a problem remedied in more modern times with a vibration collar*.
This post isn't about how to train a deaf dog, there are many resources on that, it's about the (seemingly) surprising trend that people have an easier time training deaf dogs compared to hearing ones. The reason for this is simple: 98% of obedience problems stem from miscommunication and confusion. I know how tempting it is to label "more difficult" dogs as stubborn, unintelligent, or any other adjective ascribed to transfer the blame onto to them, but the truth is that, time and time again, the "problem" dog I have in front of me is confused, not willful or stupid.
If dogs are so smart, then why all the confusion? The reason is a simple language barrier: humans are verbal, we communicate primarily through spoken word, meanwhile, dogs are nonverbal, they communicate primarily through body language. The common form of DIY dog training is based on teaching a dog to respond to verbal cues right from the beginning, using more or less kind methods, without teaching them what we want through body language.
We throw hours of speech at them, from "come," "sit," and "stay," to full diatribes, attempting to get the message across. We repeat the same words over and over, "Fido? Fido. FIDO!" and expect them to glean any sort of meaning from all these words, as though the key to learning the definition of a word is to just have it repeated to you ad nauseam.
This is actually where most people decide that their dog needs a stronger hand, and start to incorporate aversives (prong, choke or shock collars, for example) into their training. While these can be used to maintain a behaviour in a dog that may otherwise be more motivated to do something else: chasing a squirrel vs. recalling back to you for a tasty treat, it is certainly not a correct, effective or humane way to teach a behaviour.
Today, once again, I got to see some of that behaviour science at work: many words were said to the dog, and none of these got a response. Hearing or no hearing, she responded exactly like most dogs I work with: so used to hearing words with no clear outcome, that they soon become almost, well, deaf to them. As soon as clear body language was used, the animal complied confidently with what was being asked.
And here is where handlers of deaf dogs end up with the advantage: forced to only communicate through body language, they say so much less to their dogs. Unlike spoken word, we are much more consistent with our body language, and don't throw it around as liberally. This particular handler said, "come" to her dog twice before just clapping her hands to her thighs (the recall cue,) the latter of which got the immediate desired response. Because these handlers are aware that they cannot recall a dog that isn't paying attention to them, they don't contaminate the recall cue by using it over and over, with the outcome decided by chance. This is the same for the dog's name, "quiet," and the ubiquitous "no!" Dogs can be taught what all these words mean, and many more, but most live their life thinking that those are just some of the many meaningless sounds that humans make.
Make no mistake, I'm not suggesting that it's impossible to contaminate or dilute a body language cue, it's just much more difficult. Even people who aren't naturally very good at communicating with animals tend to have an easier time with teaching body language cues than they do curbing the urge to keep gabbing at their dog.
Adding verbal cues into dog training is something humans do for themselves, it doesn't really simplify or ameliorate life for the dog in any way. Teach a dog in their language, and you'll have much more success and less frustration -- and this includes when it comes time to finally insert verbal cues into your dog's training.
Good luck, and happy training!
* Some dogs are very sensitive to the feeling of a stimulus, vibration or otherwise, on their neck, so be aware of you dog's sensitivity and desensitize accordingly. The vibration is supposed to be a cue for your dog, like saying their name, not punishment. If it is viewed as punishment, you run the risk of the dog developing learned helplessness, which is essentially shutting down and giving up on trying to figure out how to avoid the punishment. Reinforcement and punishment are subjective: just because you don't see something as punishing, doesn't mean the dog won't. Don't assume that your dog will get over the perceived unpleasantness.