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.
In the eyes of the law, dogs, like all animals except for humans, are considered property. Legislatively speaking, when you bring an animal into your home, you own it like you do a chair or a blender. If this animal harms someone, you are legally liable. Because humans couldn't possibly function without a judicial system, and holding an animal morally and/or legally responsible for damages is obviously ridiculous, considering an animal property is a happy medium reached to include animals in our society.
While laws aren't up for debate, moral responsibility is. I'm of the personal opinion that the answer is still the dog owner. I would be lying if I denied that a couple of situations have gotten out of hand on my watch, and I take full responsibility for the outcome of these events. Luckily nobody was ever hurt, just startled, but I still accept that if I had acted 100% responsibly, these situations could've been avoided. All that to say that I'm not typing from atop my high horse, I've made mistakes.
I'm not a particularly imaginative person when it comes to blog posts. I generally draw from my work as a dog trainer, which comes with its fair share of dispelling long-standing myths about dog behaviour, so this one is seriously overdue.
Growling. There are a couple of different kinds of growl, pretty easily distinguishable by the context in which they are displayed, but I want to focus on growling meant to create distance between the growling dog and the recipient of this vocalization. This is the growl that, unheeded, can lead to a bite, the one that sends countless dogs to shelters, and more unfortunately still, into the hands of an inexperienced dog trainer, who sees growling as a hierarchical transgression to be dealt with with an iron fist.
As of October 3rd, 2016, Montreal becomes yet another North American region to ban pit bull (or “pit bull type”) dogs. Canadian or not, if you’re a dog-lover, you’ll doubtlessly have heard of this ban, and are likely outraged and disappointed in Montreal’s city council.
Before I started to train dogs professionally, I worked with horses. Anyone who works with horses quickly learns about a behavioural phenomenon known as the opposition reflex. It's that (pesky) habit of horses to push against a force: try to push a horse who hasn't been trained to yield to pressure, and he'll push more of his weight against your hand.
When I started having to explain certain behaviours to dog owners, I transferred the concept of the opposition reflex from horses to dogs. I knew that it wasn't a reflex by definition, as one requisite for a movement to be considered a reflex is its involuntary nature, but it was a really easy way to explain why animals inherently resist pressure, and therefore why you shouldn't attempt to train a dog by pushing and pulling the animal into position. With horses, this isn't a particularly common technique for obvious reasons, but with dogs, it very much is.