As with humans, dogs have five senses: Sight, hearing, touch, taste and olfactory (sense of smell). Several of their senses are far better than those of humans, such as their ability to hear at least twice as well as us, see movement at a greater distance and detect odors over 100,000 times better than we can.
When most dogs are trained they learn to respond to visual and/or verbal cues; hand signals and voice commands. The normal methods of teaching your dog cannot be utilized if your dog has a disability, however. A blind dog cannot see the visual cues and body language. A deaf dog cannot hear you tell him to come to you from any distance.
A dog who is born blind, deaf or both can often still lead a fulfilling life using his other senses. Few dogs are born without the ability to feel or taste, though some can be born without the ability to smell very well. A dog who does not have the ability to smell or taste is still easily trained using visual and verbal cues. Whereas, a dog who is blind must learn using only verbal cues and a dog who is deaf must learn with visual cues.
Using the dog’s strengths in the training process allows the trainer to use positive reinforcement to ensure the sessions remain enjoyable and productive. A blind dog can still hear a cue, follow the scent of a treat and feel the handlers touch. It is easy to lure the dog into any position with the food, mark the success with a specific sound and then give him the reward. A deaf dog can see the treats and learn to read the handlers’ visual cues, eagerly awaiting a visual marker of a good job with the reward to follow. Training is such a manner allows for a positive response and expedites the learning process.
What about the dog who is both deaf and blind? He cannot see or hear his trainer. But he can still smell, taste and feel. Remember the dog’s ability to smell at least 100,000 times better than we can? This opens up a whole new sensory experience that we can’t possibly imagine.
Dogs learn through repetition, trial and error and recognition. They have a great ability to memorize and associate. These attributes all come into play during the training process. For example, you use a tennis ball to reward your dog for coming to you. As many dogs love the tennis ball more than life itself, they will be aware that whenever you pick up the ball, or even go near it, you want him to come to you. Since this action has been rewarded by be given the ball, your dog will eagerly respond. Dogs will always repeat rewarding behaviors, whether these behaviors are actually rewards from you or a reward that is obtained in another fashion. A blind and deaf dog will learn to recognize a specific stroke on his body; a touch cue. He will seek out the source of a particular delectable odor; olfactory sense. And finally, will be rewarded through his sense of taste; a food reward.
A blond and deaf dog will learn to follow the smell of a treat to heel. As he’s heeling he’ll feel and smell his trainer at his side. As he looks upward toward the source of the treat, his rear end will drop down. A great physical cue for this is to touch under his chin, lifting his head slightly toward the source of the smell, and then following with giving the dog the treat. It is similar for the down. Gradually lower the treat just under the dog’s nose, making his head drop. Gradually increase the movement with each success and the dog will soon learn to go down. A great cue for this, slight pressure on his withers as he follows the smell of the treat downwards.
How can you possibly teach a blind and deaf dog to come when called? Easy. Dogs feel ground vibration. A dog who cannot hear can still feel the ground vibrate and recognize the meanings of different vibrations. He can learn to recognize the specific vibration of his human companions. Learning that moving toward the vibration will be rewarding, he will naturally come when he feels the presence of his people.
Regardless of disability there is always a means to enhance the learning process using the dog’s strengths through positive training techniques. All dogs can learn, even those who cannot function with all five senses.