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It’s All in the Management

By Dr. Morag Heirs

training deaf dogs
Clear start and stop signals are invaluable when working with deaf dogs © Morag Heirs

When you are dealing with a deaf puppy or an adolescent deaf dog in a rescue environment, mouthing and nipping is often high on the list of problem behaviors.

Do deaf dogs and puppies mouth, nip or grab more than hearing dogs? The honest answer here is that we just do not know.

Anecdotally, based on the requests for help we see on forums and websites, mouthing, nipping and/or grabbing does not seem to be more of a problem for deaf dogs than it is with any other dog or puppy.

What is certainly more common is that new owners worry about how they will handle mouthing with a deaf puppy.

Our handling may be more ‘hands-on’ with a deaf dog, making it extremely important that the deaf dog is not touch sensitive or reacting badly when touched. We have covered teaching a simple tap for attention, and a Gotcha! collar or harness grab previously (see Gadgets and Gizmos, BARKS from the Guild, October 2014, pp. 30-32).

Getting lots of practice with these exercises can definitely reduce reactive nipping and mouthing.

Here in the UK, we are seeing increasing numbers of deaf Staffordshire bull terriers, American bull dogs and Jack Russell terriers in rescue both as pups and as adolescents. It can certainly feel more challenging to deal with these dogs when they are deaf and mouthing hard, but we often see mouthing problems in these breeds even when they can hear us.

A combination of frustration, kennel stress and a lack of effective communication strategies seems particularly likely to lead to forceful mouthing.

Anecdotally, my training colleague, Clare Ross, and I find that dogs who are both deaf and partially sighted/blind do seem to mouth and grab more frequently, and with less care. We use a range of long-handled tug toys when working with these dogs.

Does the deafness interfere with learning to mouth gently? Some people have suggested that because the deaf puppy cannot hear his siblings squeal in pain when he bites too hard that the he will struggle to learn bite inhibition.

While this may be true, a lot of the early learning actually occurs when the pup is suckling for milk. If the puppy is too forceful with those needle sharp teeth then mom will simply move away. Later on when the puppy is playing with his brothers and sisters, it is not just the squeals of pain that tell him his bites were too hard – it is also the fact that his siblings get up and leave.

In our puppy classes, we find that relatively few of the pups reduce their play biting in response to a human squealing in pain. Perhaps the sounds are less important than we previously thought.

The communication that the puppy might miss out on though is the low grumbling or growling an older dog might use to indicate displeasure. If the puppy is attached to the older dog’s ear, leg or tail, then the puppy may still feel the vibration and be able to learn what it means.

How can we best deal with mouthing and nipping in deaf dogs?

Just as with any puppy, the constant refrain is going to be management, management, management. Particularly for new or less experienced owners, the idea of management might need some explanation and demonstration.

We use our first week of puppy class to really emphasize this point. After some exciting but managed play sessions and a brief clicker introduction, we get all the pups to settle on a blanket and provide tasty chews. We then chat to the owners about the common puppy issues.

Management Reminders

  • Identify key problem times of the day (early morning, children coming home, evening zoomie time etc.)
  • Prompt owners to create good management plans (restricting access to tempting slippers/feet, providing suitable alternatives)
  • Help owners learn how to identify the warning signs of over-excited play or the jumping that often pre-empts mouthing, and make sure everyone has a consistent response
  • If the owners are really struggling, have them keep a diary of incidents for one or two days so you can review this with themOccasionally, it might be more than regular puppy mouthing. It can be really helpful to visit the client at home or have them send you some video footage if they or you are at all concerned.


Sometimes our management is not perfect and we find ourselves in a position where we can already see the teeth closing in. Or perhaps the deaf dog grabs a sleeve and is hanging on. Just as with our hearing dogs, we can often interrupt the unwanted behavior to ask for something more desirable.

If the deaf dog has a reliable sit signal (and you have a free hand) go ahead and ask for the sit. Do make sure you have a plan for what to do next, e.g. offer an alternative tug, encourage the dog towards a food toy or ask for a calm settle. If we have not planned ahead, then the dog will likely sit and then reattach to us.

If the deaf dog has a solid and positive association with being gently tapped as an attention request, you can use this. This can be particularly helpful if the dog is mouthing or grabbing at a visitor. You can tap the dog on his side to ask him to reorient to you, reward, AND then make sure you have a plan of what to do next.

If you have already taught the dog to recognize the feeling of a treat thrown to gently touch his shoulder (so dog then looks down for the food), you can also use this as a way to interrupt the grabbing or mouthing. While being aware of potential resource guarding issues, this can work well as a way to interrupt overly enthusiastic mouthing in dog to dog play.

Finally, with some deaf dogs, interrupting the excited mouthing very early on with a simple tap followed by a food reward, and then using gentle restraining pressure can be an effective way to help the dog relax and settle. As always, this is not a technique to use with a touch-sensitive dog, and be cautious in trying it out. We are in no way pinning the dog or forcibly restraining him.

Teaching Gentle Mouth Skills

Any of the standard protocols for teaching gentle mouthing and awareness of teeth generally work just as well with deaf dogs. For example, helping owners play tug games with their dogs, but stopping the game if the teeth make contact with human skin (reducing tolerance levels as pup gets older); and the exercise where a handful of kibble is held in a closed fist and each piece is released as the dog licks or nuzzles rather than bites or chews at the hand.

Rough playing or roughhousing with a dog can be rather a controversial area and often, as trainers, we might advise regular pet owners to avoid this kind of interaction to prevent future problems. When working with sports or competition dogs, this kind of physical play may be more appropriate or desirable.

Much as with a hearing dog, the key is to have very clear start and stop signals. With one deaf collie, I used a “crocodile mouth snapping” sort of sign (made with both hands simultaneously) to indicate the start of a rough game. Since I never taught this sign to anyone else and we put a lot of self-control in place, it allowed us to play a favorite game but very safely.

ALSpro Online Sign Language Dictionary is the author’s favorite online sign language dictionary and is good for getting ideas for signs and seeing the visual of how to move your hands.
Blind Dog Information
Blind Dog Rescue UK
Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF) is very accessible and sells bandanas to alert people to a dog’s deafness.
Deaf Dog Network and Deaf Dog Network on Facebook both include a collection of videos of teaching signs.
Eaton, B. (2005) Hear Hear. Reedprint: One of the best available books on living with and training a deaf dog.
Heirs, M. (n.d.). Basic Sign Language. Association of Pet Behavior Counsellors (APBC)
Heirs, M. (2014, October). Gadgets and Gizmos. BARKS from the Guild, pp. 30-32
Living with a Blind Dog is a simple summary of living with a blind dog

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.35-37. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
Morag K. Heirs Ph.D MSc MA(Hons)(SocSci) PGCAP is a clinical animal behaviorist who runs Well Connected Canine Ltd. in York, England. She has been working in academia while also running her own successful businesses since 1999, and knows that it’s not enough just to be good at the job. Marketing, pricing, client communication and building a strong reputation all take a different set of skills. Her aim with this article is to help you love your behavior or training business just a little bit more.

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