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  • Deb Bauer

Can My Deaf Dog be Off Leash?

A blue merle sheltie turns back to look at the camera while walking across a wooden bridge in the woods.  Text says: Can my deaf dog be off leash?  Just like other dogs, deaf dogs should only be allowed off leash freedom in areas that are safe, and after they have been taught skills such as coming when called and offering automatic check-ins.  When your deaf dog has been taught to check in with you frequently, you will have many opportunities on your walk for communication.  This is important for your dog's safety.

I’m often asked if deaf dogs can enjoy off leash playtime and freedom. Two key ingredients for any dog to be given off leash freedom are teaching the dog to pay attention to us and to come back to us when we ask.

Deaf dogs can learn these skills too. The tricky part can be getting a deaf dog’s attention when they aren’t looking in our direction. By teaching our deaf dog to do an automatic check-in with us, we can create frequent periods when our dog will be looking at us. This is key to our communication. Once our dog is looking at us, we can then give other signals to communicate what we want the dog to do.

We can teach our dog to keep an eye on us and to come see what we're doing on a regular basis throughout the day (this is called checking-in with us). The idea is that he will do this on his own without us needing to give a signal (this is the automatic part). Each time he looks at us or comes close to us to check in, we have an opportunity to communicate with a signal cue if we want to. This opens up so many more opportunities for us to be able to communicate clearly and easily with our deaf dog.

Dogs of any age can learn this, and I usually start as soon as a dog enters my home or comes for his first lesson. Create a situation where the dog will remain near you and where there aren't a lot of distractions. Believe it or not, the bathroom is a great place to begin! It's a smaller room, and there aren't usually too many distractions going on. (Although toilet paper can be a huge distraction to some dogs!)

It's important to remember that the idea of this exercise is not to try to get the dog's attention. The idea is for the dog to give you his attention on his own. This can involve patience on the part of the teacher.

Every time your dog turns toward you, give it one of those wonderful treats! Smile and act happy that your dog has noticed you. It won't take long before your dog will be following you around the bathroom, not wanting to look away. When this happens, reward and then end the lesson.

Try to be as aware as you can even during your regular daily activities of your dog - there will be times that he looks at you or comes to see what you're doing. Be ready to reward those times too! You can have containers of treats in various parts of your house or in your pocket.

But you can also reward with other rewards your dog will like - petting, smiling, belly rub, toss a toy, etc. At this point, you will want to continue with your formal bathroom lessons, but also be aware to reward times when your dog checks-in on his own! Your teaching will go much faster that way!

It will take some practice on your part too - you will need to teach yourself to be aware of your dog paying attention. Often, we get busy, and our dog will check in with us, but we may not notice. As he learns to check in, you will also learn to check-in and be aware of your dog’s behavior.

You should find that very quickly your dog won't need to be in the bathroom for lessons anymore. Begin to practice in other places and situations, gradually increasing distractions. When you increase distractions, you may want to use higher value treats in the beginning.

Keep your dog close to you when you are first adding distractions. This may mean using a gate or a leash so your dog can't get to the distractions. Remember, the idea is not for you to ask your dog to pay attention - the idea is for the dog to decide to check in with you. So be patient and be ready as soon as the dog turns toward you, to reward and celebrate!

You will be able to begin to mix up the rewards you use - toys, petting, interactive play, treats. The more you can show your dog that you like him checking in with you, the stronger the behavior will become.

My dogs have been doing check-ins for years, but I will still always acknowledge them for checking in to keep the behavior strong. Sometimes all it takes is a smile and a nod to let them know I noticed, or a scratching behind the ear.

The day that you want to give your dog a signal cue but he is looking the other way and then, in an instant, he looks back to see what you're doing, you can smile - and then give your dog that cue you wanted to give. It's so helpful to have a deaf dog that learns to pay attention without you asking for it.

Teach the automatic check in - you will thank yourself (and your dog) for it soon! I'd be happy to help you teach this life-saving skill to your dog. You can also find a step-by-step teaching plan in the Uniquely Paws-Able - Blind & Deaf Dog Community group.

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