I can’t take full credit for it. I have to give that to another trainer and good friend of mine, the person who said as I stood outside the back of my station wagon this past Saturday waffling over whether or not to just try the collar on my dog, “Just put it on and see what happens”
I argued with him, of course, that nothing at home had happened when I put it on, that my dog was showing no response and no reaction to the collar whatsoever. But I relented with the reasoning that if nothing good was happening with it at home, trying it once or twice as we ambled about the open field in the foothills couldn’t do any harm either. So I tightened the collar around Kodi’s neck and I hung the remote around my own neck alongside my camera.
I tucked an open mini roll of roll-over treat in my pocket and we started off across the field, mountains to the left, frozen creek to the right. I was wary about the creek, and about the possibility that a predator, bear or mountain lion, might erupt from the bush but I had resisted taking Kodi to the foothills longer than I could stand. None of these things had ever bothered me in the past, if I perceived or even suspected danger I would just call and he would come.
At short range, though this collar gives me a mile to play with, I hit the button while he was sniffing a bit of long grass and to my utter shock , he jumped. Then he looked at me and I hastily gave him the hand signal for “come”. He trotted over and received a bite of the roll-over treat as a reward for coming, along with lavish praise from me. We had trained on the collar at home for weeks with not so much as an ear twitch from him, but out here not only had he felt it, but he’d been startled by it!
Here I have to pause to clarify something, I was wrong when I said that trying the collar out in the field could do no harm. The fact that Kodi startled in response to the collar is extremely important, because it could have been extremely dangerous. Kodi’s first response to being startled by something (and I mean he hit the ceiling) was to stop what he was doing and look for me for reassurance. This is because Kodi and I have always had an extremely close working bond. Whenever he is unsure about anything, even though it’s rare that he’s unsure, he looks first to me for guidance. My other dog, Badger, on the other hand, has a very strong flight response. If he had startled in the same way that Kodi had his first response would have been to bolt, blindly, in a random direction. In this case that means I could have lost him onto the road, into the brush, or into the frozen creek. So, for those of you reading this to seek help for training or re-training your own deaf dog, it doesn’t matter how much ground work you have done with the collar at home, please put your dog on a long line before you try the collar in the real world and make sure you are in a safe area, such as a large fenced space.
The collar worked consistently for the duration of our walk, which lasted a few hours. The first few trials I would trigger the collar for a very short burst. If I received no response I would trigger it again, Kodi would look at me, and I would give him a hand signal for the come command. Once he started jumping the gun, and coming before I had the chance to give him the hand signal (after three or four trials for Kodi) I stopped giving Kodi the hand signal at all and sure enough, quick dog that he is, he responded to the collar as if it were itself a “come” command. That is to say, he’d feel it, ignore it for half a second while he finished sniffing, and then he’d come. This is par for the course for Kodi’s come command, as he’s always been a little lax in it compared to Badger’s turn on a dime response to the same cue.
I probably triggered the collar less than fifteen times during the two hours or so we were out there. It pulled him away from the edge of the creek, away from the road, and away from smells that he loved. The only thing I couldn’t pull him away from with the collar was the cow paddy he was rolling in towards the end of the walk. The rolling caused the collar to shift and once again he could not feel it through his hair, so I had to catch up to him physically and adjust the collar before we could return to normal use. That, so far, seems like it will be the only difference between his old “come” command, and the collar, every so often it will slip.
So, why, you might want to know, could Kodi learn to respond to the collar in less than fifteen repetitions over the course of one session when I had no response after weeks of work with the same collar and the same rewards at home? Of course I asked myself the same question.
Here is what probably happened:
Kodi is about 10.5 years past the daily “training session” stage of his life. I can’t remember the last time I sat down in the house with the goal of teaching Kodi something new. We have, in the last 10 years, attended classes and learned new things like flyball, agility, new tricks, and even a bit of disc, but all of these classes and training that went with them took place outside of the home. Any training that Kodi receives inside the home is part of his daily routine and reinforcement of his house manners. The older he gets, the less reinforcement he needs.
As you will see from the videos that will be going up shortly, the biggest challenge I had was getting Kodi’s attention off of me, or rather, off of the treats I’m trying to pair with the collar. Treats are extremely high value to Kodi because he does not get them on a regular basis. While using a high value reward is important when teaching something new, in this situation, they were too much. As a result he was so intently focused on every twitch of my body and every possibility that I may be going for a treat, that I had managed to block the sensation from the collar. I was wrong, the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t feeling the new collar through his hair (though that was definitely a factor with the first) it was that he wasn’t perceiving the collar because he was in too intense of a training situation to worry about it. He knew I wanted something, but he was too worried about what it was and how he was going to get his treat, to make a passive connection with the collar.
When I took him out of that intense training situation and put him into a situation where he is normally allowed to just relax and wander, responding only to the occasional command for his own safety, the collar suddenly became something very out of the ordinary and worthy of his attention. Once he acknowledged that the collar existed all I had to do was pair it with that super high value reward. The connection now goes like this: Collar = Come = Reward
Kodi officially has a working “hearing aid”
For Kodi, skipping steps that didn’t make sense to him, or that he could not acknowledge, worked, but here is the breakdown for how I would (and was) start the training on any deaf client who came into my office. I always adjust training to the individual dog and you may need to add or remove steps according to your dog’s needs, again, a professional trainer can help you with that.
Training the Deaf Dog to Come
- Remote Controlled Vibration or other low stimulus collar. My preference is vibration.
- High value reward
- Long Line (attach only to a separate collar or harness, not the remote collar)
- A “come” or other recall command that is paired with a hand signal.
- If your dog is not currently deaf, or is just starting to go deaf, and you have not paired your recall with a consistent hand signal please do so immediately.
- If your dog has come to you already deaf, or has already gone completely deaf before you had the chance to train the recall with the hand signal, please do so before adding the collar.
- A local trainer, such as myself, would be happy to help you teach your dog a silent recall.
Step One: Get the dog used to the collar
- Put the collar on your dog as you would his regular collar. No need to fit it properly at this stage because you won’t be using it.
- Remote collars fit much snugger than your daily ID carrying collar so to help your dog adjust to wearing it tighten it gradually over time instead of just slapping it on him all at once.
- Let the dog where the new collar for periods of time throughout the day, but never leave it on him unsupervised.
Step Two: Associate the Stimulus with a Reward
- Read your instruction manual. Understand how to charge and turn on your collar.
- Test your collar before putting it on your dog.
- Know what each button on your remote does and does not do.
- Follow the instructions for your collar to fit it properly and find the lowest level of stimulation that your dog will feel.
- With your dog in front of you, press the button to activate the collar, release the button, reward your dog. Repeat.
- The goal of this exercise is to teach your dog that the collar is a positive thing, and that when he feels it he should look to you in search of a reward.
- We know we have completed this step when the dog responds to the collar with the expectation of the reward (increased alertness, directing his eyes to your hands or where you are keeping your reward)
- Repeat this step until the association is firmly in place, use different areas around the home, yard, and outside, remember to keep your dog leashed in case the collar spooks them. Reward for EVERY activation of the collar.
Step Three: Eye Contact
- The purpose of this step is to teach your dog to look for you when he feels the stimulus under increasing levels of outside distraction.
- We have already taught the dog in step one that the stimulus means a reward, so naturally when he feels the stimulus he should look for his reward, which comes from you.
- With your dog on a leash, starting relatively short at around 6 feet, go to an area of mild distraction and wait for your dog to become interested in something else.
- Press the collar button, and when your dog turns to face you, reward. Allow you dog to become distracted again. Repeat.
- Gradually increase the intensity of surrounding distractions. Reward your dog for EVERY correct response during this step.
- Once your dog is consistently looking away from distraction, to you, in response to the collar, move on to the next step. The dog does not have to look at your face, he just has to look at your person.
Step Four: Pairing with the Recall
- Switch to the long line (30 ft is usually good)
- Starting at a shorter distance allow the dog to wander a bit, then trigger the collar. When the dog looks up for his reward, add the hand signal for your recall command. Reward the dog for successful completion of the command.
- Repeat. Collar-Recall-Reward.
- Gradually increase distance and distraction until the dog is responding to the paired cues at the full length of the line.
Step Five: Removing the hand signal
- Still on the long line, press the button on your remote. Wait. If the dog does not respond by coming to you without the hand signal, go back and keep working at Step Four.
- If the dog responds to the collar by completing his recall without the use of the hand signal reward lavishly. Repeat.
- It will never hurt to throw the hand signal in along with the collar, but the reason I want the dog to respond without the hand signal is because there will be times when your dog cannot see you. Either he’s over a hill, around a corner, or in the bush where he had no clear sight line to you. I want the collar to mean “come and find me” not just “look in the general direction you think I am and wait for further instruction”
Eventually you will work towards having the long line off. This is permitted once the dog is consistently responding to the collar by returning to you despite high levels of distraction and greater distance. A good intermediate step is to allow the dog to drag the line, that way he has the freedom to wander but in the situation where the collar fails you can step on the line to catch him or get his attention. The rewards, while they never go away, eventually become more sporadic as well. I always reward my dogs for coming by giving them lavish amounts of praise and approval when they do, but I don’t always give them a treat. Using a high value reward like a treat on occasion is a great way to maintain drive for a command, but once the dog has learned and enjoys doing the command verbal praise and if your dog likes, physical touch, can be just as valid as a reward for good behaviour. If you ever notice a decrease in your dog’s response, step up the reward a bit for a while and remind him why he likes the job so much.
So there you have it, training the deaf dog to come in response to a vibration or other stimulation. I’ll have a video of these steps up for you soon! Here is a picture of Kodi enjoying his friends and freedom, off leash and safe with his new hearing aid on.