Caring for Deaf Pets

Will the Rose Ayling-Ellis effect provide a boost for deaf pets too?   Sign language isn’t just for humans – it can work really well to enable us to communicate with our pets too. As the first deaf contestant – and winner of the glitter ball trophy – on BBC1’s hit show, Strictly Come Dancing, Rose Ayling-Ellis has inspired a
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11th January 2022

Will the Rose Ayling-Ellis effect provide a boost for deaf pets too?


Sign language isn’t just for humans – it can work really well to enable us to communicate with our pets too.

As the first deaf contestant – and winner of the glitter ball trophy – on BBC1’s hit show, Strictly Come Dancing, Rose Ayling-Ellis has inspired a surge of people to learn British Sign Language (BSL). One director of a firm offering BSL courses revealed that enrolments went up by more than 2,000%  since she appeared on the show. Throughout the competition, Rose Ayling-Ellis showed that she refused to let her lack of hearing get in the way of achieving her dreams. Anyone hooked on the show will have already grasped the basics of how to sign: ‘thank you’, ‘applause’ and ‘keep dancing’.


The language of signing

The charity Sense defines sign language as a way of communicating using hand gestures and movements, body language and facial expressions, instead of spoken words – an approach that can be really helpful if you have a deaf dog, cat, bunny or other pets, to help you communicate with and understand each other.

This is especially important to ensure pets with hearing issues aren’t misunderstood, as Maria Thompson, writing for the Vet Times explains: “Deaf and hearing-impaired dogs may be getting a rough deal due to limited knowledge and understanding of how to deal with a deaf canine. Many deaf dogs are not recognised as such and, instead, can be wrongly considered wayward or naughty. However, there is hope, as trainers and behaviourists become more aware of the needs of the deaf dog, they are doing their best to increase knowledge and understanding of the topic.”


Sense of smell and eager eyes

Jenny Prevel, founder of dog boutique D for Dog, and proud rescue dog owner, says: “A deaf dog only has one of the five senses missing and can accommodate for this loss much better than you might imagine. With their heightened sense of smell and eager eyes, a dog without hearing can understand, interact and learn just as well as their hearing companions. With a little time and imagination from the owner, deaf dog training is as easy and rewarding as any dog training, if not more so because you have their full focus – and they will be thrilled to finally have communication and fun instruction.”

Dog trainer Karen Lawe, who runs the The Deaf Dog Network Facebook group advises that as dogs use their faces and bodies to communicate to other dogs, it makes perfect sense for humans to use body language to communicate with canines too. A smiley face and thumbs-up, followed by a treat, can be used to show the dog he has done well, whereas a wagging finger and displeased face would mean no. A gentle rub on the shoulder or a hand close to its nose can be used to wake a sleeping dog. Another of Karen’s tips include using a torch at night for recall. She says: “In my home, any deaf dog is taught that the patio light going on and off means come back in from the garden, and a torch flashing indicates the same in other dark environments.”


This approach does, however, take practice. Karen suggests looking at your facial and body expressions in the mirror or on video clips to see what you do when you say certain things, advising: “As silly as it may sound, you should still talk to your deaf dog as you would a dog with hearing, it is more natural.”


Sending out clear signals to deaf cats

According to Cats Protection, a similar method works just as well with cats. The charity states: “Thankfully, deaf cats adapt to their surroundings surprisingly well and easily compensate for their lack of hearing by using their other senses more. For most owners, it can be tricky to tell whether your cat is deaf or just has selective hearing. For example, they may ignore you when called but react quickly at the sound of the biscuit box being rattled! Deaf cats can learn to recognise hand signals or the flashing of a torch if they can’t hear you calling them. Make sure the signal you choose to call your cat is distinct and consistent, so they don’t get confused.”


Body language comes naturally to rabbits

Pet rabbits who are deaf can also find ways to communicate with and understand their human. Although hearing is essential in the wild to evade predators, pet rabbits can utilise their other senses – such as their excellent vision (rabbits have almost 360-degree vision with the exception of two blind spots – one directly in front of their head and another immediately behind their head) along with body language, which, in addition to scent, is one of the main ways that bunnies communicate with each other. So, there’s no reason why hand signals and visual clues can’t work with bunnies too.


The key points to remember when communicating with any deaf pet are:
  • They won’t hear you approaching, so it’s important to take care not to startle them

  • You’ll need to put yourself in their eyeline to get their attention

  • Using positive reinforcement to reward behaviours you want to be repeated and ignoring those you don’t is exactly the same as with a hearing pet


How to train with hand signals

Rehoming charity Battersea advises: “As verbal humans we tend to focus on voice cues, but we also use hand signals and different hand, arm and body gestures alongside these. It’s those gestures which your deaf dog will learn to respond to. When teaching hand signals to a deaf dog, it is important that that they are obvious, clear and consistent. You may need to exaggerate your movements initially and then reduce them to smaller signals over time. It may seem unnecessary to speak when training a deaf dog, but it can actually help the process. Smiling and speaking as you sign, particularly when praising, can help the dog, as they will pick up on your facial expressions and positive body language.”

You can check out Battersea’s brilliant range of practical training tips for deaf dogs, but here are three examples – ‘Good Dog’, ‘Watch Me’, and ‘Sit’, to get you started.


Use this to tell the dog that they have done something positive or that you are happy with.

  • When your dog does something positive, make an ‘O’ with your thumb and index finger and make sure they are looking at you, or can see you.

  • You can use this sign whenever your dog performs a desired behaviour and then reward with a treat. This sign can be used as a form of ‘clicker’ training for a deaf dog and is useful as a basic signal both day to day and when training.



This command is useful to gain and hold your dog’s attention, particularly if they are getting distracted or worried by something in the environment.

  • Show your dog a treat, then hold it out to the side, nearly at arm’s length. Hold the treat between your thumb and middle finger, with your index finger pointing back at your face.

  • Your dog will naturally look over to the treat, but the moment they stop looking at it and make eye contact with you, give them the ‘good dog’ signal and reward them with the treat.

  • Keep practising until the dog is consistently making eye contact when you produce the treat in this way.

  • Over time you can begin to increase the length of time they maintain eye contact before you give them the treat. If they break eye contact, you are moving too quickly.

  • Once this is mastered you can begin using the hand signal without the treat in your hand, but still reward them when they get it right.



As with dogs who can hear, this behaviour is a useful one to ask for as it’s calm and still and should help take the energy out of a situation.

  • Show your dog a treat in your hand and let them put their nose to it.

  • Whilst they’re sniffing the treat, raise your hand up a little and over their head, toward their back. This movement encourages them to look up and put their rear end on the floor.

  • As soon as they reach the sitting position, reward them with the treat.

  • Repeat this until they are doing it consistently. Over time you can start to reduce the amount of direction you give them with your hand signal until eventually you can just make a fist, bend your arm at the elbow and bring your hand up to your shoulder.

  • When your dog sits give them the ‘good dog’ signal and a treat.

  • Gradually you can phase out the treats, so your dog responds just to the hand gesture.


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