by Miriam Orzol
Working with a special needs dog is an incredibly rewarding yet challenging experience for an adopter or foster parent. The biggest challenge is creating effective communication pathways between the dog and the handler. Once the dog and the handler have a system down, the training can progress forward and the relationship can build.
As every dog is an individual, each dog needs a specialized training plan which focuses on building confidence while building on the dog’s weaknesses. Each dog’s temperament, breed tendencies, and personality come into play when designing each dog’s training plans. The dog should always be set up for success, adjusting criteria as needed in order for the dog to progress forward.
Buddy, now Leo, was a 7-week-old Australian Cattle dog that came to Oregon via a SafeHaven Rescue Me transport from ‘Fetch Fido a Flight’ in Oklahoma. Leo presented a training challenge, as he was 100% deaf as far as we could tell. I started fostering him and began teaching him the basic behaviors every puppy should learn and master. I immediately started using hand signals with him, as well as rewarding him for any eye contact he offered me. It’s incredibly important to reward a dog with special needs for checking in with you! A dog with hearing impairment relies on checking in with the handler for the next command and needs to do so often, even with distractions around.
To teach Leo new behaviors, I started by ‘charging up’ or classically conditioning him to the hand signal “Thumbs up,” which signals Leo that a reward is coming. While I did primarily rely on treats to help him learn the desired behaviors, I also used toys, attention and life rewards. Once he understood the “thumbs up” sign, I could begin to lure him into learning the other behaviors I wanted to teach him such as sit, down and spin. I would lure him into the position, then give him the “thumbs up” and reward him. I also taught him his release signal (a small wave of my hand) which meant he could get up from his sit, down, or wait position.
One of the hardest behaviors to teach a hearing-impaired dog is to come when called. In my opinion, there are two things to focus on when working with hearing-impaired dogs. The first is building the desire to ‘check in’ with the handler, by making eye contact or coming all the way to the handler every so often. The other item to focus on is building drive to return to the handler when distractions are present. I often played games with Leo in the living room, kitchen and outside, where I rewarded him for making eye contact, running back to me after exploring something and coming to me when I waved my hand towards me.
Leo had an incredible drive to please his handler and made training enjoyable and enthusiastic. He picked up quickly on new challenges and was intelligent and observant. He had been taught that eye contact was an incredibly important part of reconnecting with the handler, and because of this, he was quite focused even when distractions were present.
Taking Leo home gave me quite an advantage when it came to training. I could be consistent with the expectations I was setting for him, and could work on multiple behaviors in the same day. He soon learned to sit for doors, food bowls, toys, and attention. He learned how to walk politely on leash, he got to socialize with my own dogs and cats and began working on impulse control games, crate training games and arousal levels.