Tips for Training the Special Needs Dog

All dogs benefit from basic obedience training, including those that are labeled as special needs dogs. It doesn’t need to be the precise obedience as seen in the show ring to be considered an important skill. For all dogs, special needs or not, learning to live in our world and behave appropriately keeps them safe.

Training a deaf or blind dog is similar to training one that hears or sees, with a few adjustments. The special needs dog has no idea it is missing anything, and your job is to communicate what behaviors you want from the dog and which ones you don’t want, just as it would be with any dog. Giving them that valuable information is accomplished through basic training, and by giving them feedback for behaviors they offer.

All dogs communicate primarily through body language and facial expression, not verbally, which helps them learn hand signals from us quickly. This is why I incorporate hand signals into all basic training. Owners of deaf dogs commonly use American Sign Language, also known as ASL. Dictionaries with illustrations of the hand signals are available, as are websites with video of signs in action. For basic commands, I use already established training hand signals. For anything beyond that, I recommend using ASL signs.

To accomplish the basics for deaf and blind dogs, I recommend using lure-reward method training. The dog learns positions by following the treat or toy with its nose until it reaches the position we want to reinforce, initially using a modified version of the hand signal we will use later.

For a reward marker, something to let your dog know you are happy with her for a particular behavior or action, I use a thumbs up as a hand signal paired with a smile and a verbal “yes.” For a non-reward marker, you can use a wagging index finger and a neutral or frowning facial expression. Verbally, say “uh-uh,” or “no”. Don’t use a hard stare as discipline because our goal is to foster good eye contact with a deaf dog. Although direct eye contact between dogs can mean a threat or a challenge, teach yours that it is not a threat when that eye contact comes from you. I like to teach the dog to “check in” by making eye contact with her regularly and rewarding all eye contact she gives to me. This way she can also be given direction if needed.

You can wave, flick the lights off and on, or stomp on the floor to get her attention. If outside, you can toss a stone or stick in front of her and tap her on the back to teach her to give you attention from a distance. When she looks at you, reward her; smile, be happy and add the thumbs up hand signal, then give a tidbit or play a game with her. Reward her extra whenever she comes to you for that attention. You can also use this response to begin installing a recall, or to practice the exercise.

When on leash, a Gentle Leader head collar may be appropriate for some deaf dogs, allowing you to turn them toward you for eye contact if you want their attention. This is especially helpful if the dog is easily distracted and doesn’t look at you when you tap her to get her attention. For the pushed in face breeds, a snoot loop fits their shortened snout better, or use the Gentle Leader easy walk harness, which turns the dog’s whole body when they pull against the leash.

I continue to use both verbal praise and verbal cues along with my hand signals with deaf dogs. Since dogs already communicate with facial expressions, I believe they learn to read our verbal cues as well. Holding back verbally also changes our body language, and silence can then become a distraction during training sessions. Speaking to her during training will also help our deaf dog know how people will act around her in everyday situations. Having people act normally, instead of specific to her being deaf will help her behave appropriately in response.

A blind dog can also be trained using the lure method. His nose still works so treats will get his attention. Some blind dogs may prefer to work for a squeaky toy. Instead of hand signals, you will need to use your verbal cues. Small amounts of scent can be used as a way to mark boundaries, off limit areas, safe zones or even toys for blind dogs.

A head collar may be used to help direct a blind dog to a safe direction or to give you extra control over his muzzle if his is especially “mouthy”. Introduce a head collar slowly, however, with lots of treats to keep it a positive experience. I recommend lots of facial massages before and after using the head collar. This helps relax the dog and desensitize him to something being on his face. It is also a great way to keep the use of the head collar positive.

Find a word, “stop” or “whoa”, to let your dog know he must stop walking instantly. This becomes important if there is something hazardous in front of him. I prefer these words to “stay” which we may use in non-emergency situations daily. A slow down word is also useful, “easy,” for instance.

Bells attached to the collars of other dogs in the house can help the blind dog know where they are in the home. This can be very helpful in play situations to prevent unintended body slamming. If the dog is also deaf, you can tap his body or gently tug the leash in a Morse code fashion as another way to get information to him about what we need him to do to keep him safe.

For a dog that is both deaf and blind, lots of treats or hands-on rewarding will be necessary. You may even need to physically put him into positions gently at times. Patience and consistency is the key when working with dogs, and these traits become especially important when we are teaching a dog with special needs.

For safety reasons, I highly recommend teaching both deaf and blind dogs to be accepting of being startled. No matter how many precautions you take, there will be an inadvertent instance where someone startles your dog. People trip and fall, unattended kids run up to dogs quickly, and things get dropped. To prevent a bite reaction or any misunderstandings, we need to desensitize our dogs as much as possible to that eventuality. Practice startling your dog in a controlled environment the dog feels safe in. Have an extra yummy treat at the ready to give immediately to your dog when it turns or wakes up quickly. The idea is to teach the dog that good things come from being startled. Practice it regularly so the dog learns a good response physically and emotionally as a habit.

Deafness or blindness is not as much of a disability to the dog as we may think. To the dog, it is simply what it knows. For a dog that suddenly loses its sight or hearing to trauma, there will be an adjustment period. Most can do well once they realize how those things have changed with some patience on our part. It simply falls back to proper guidance and setting rules, which all dogs need in the first place.

All of the basic rules apply to deaf and blind dogs the same way they apply for dogs that can see and hear. If a dog jumps on people and in return receives attention, that dog will continue to jump. If a dog pulls on his leash and the leash holder follows, that dog learns to keep pulling because pulling works. Don’t buy into their “special needs” as an excuse to let them get away with inappropriate behavior. Letting them get away with bad behavior that could put them at risk does them a huge disservice after all.

Be consistent and set rules for your dog. Allowing the dog to do something the wrong way, even once, teaches him that the behavior is acceptable. Dogs are like sponges. They are always soaking up information and learning, whether we are actively teaching them or not.

Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.

Helpful resources for training special needs dogs include: “Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book” and “How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks,” by Ian Dunbar. Both are excellent books on lure reward training with photos. Caroline Levine’s DVD “New Skills for blind dogs” is also recommended. Website resources include and