How on Earth Can I Potty-Train My Deaf Dog?

I don’t think I’m getting through to her, and I’m going crazy.

A dog, presumably hard of hearing and about to pee, standing next to a couch
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by adogslifephoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Anthony Paz - Photographer/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Beast Mode,

I adopted a fluffy, adorable, 10-month-old little mutt who is deaf. It took me a couple days to figure that out, but the vet confirmed it. The pup seemingly had never seen a leash before me and never knows what to do on walks. She has been with me 11 days and has successfully peed outside twice. That’s it. Everything else keeps happening on my rugs. I’m going crazy!

I’ve praised her plenty with hugs and rubs, but I can’t shriek to interrupt her midstream—or coo after success—and so I’m seemingly not getting through to her. I return to the same spot each day hoping the pee message gets through, and I wander up and down the block hoping she’ll poop. Alas, I am almost always thwarted. I can’t imagine what to do besides constantly taking her out. How on Earth can I potty-train her?

—Urine Trouble and I’m All Out of Ideas

Dear Urine Trouble and I’m All Out of Ideas,

Dogs want to learn. What other creature is so voracious in its quest for knowledge that it will eagerly sniff butts in order to collect data? Inside every pup is a tireless research scientist, and your new friend is just conducting her field study on your rugs. She’s not being bad; she’s just an academic.

You’ve only been at it for 11 days, and you can’t expect to housetrain a dog in such a short amount of time. (If the dog is urinating inside with great frequency, then you should get her checked for a urinary tract infection, in case this didn’t come up during your recent vet trip.) Because the puppy is deaf, you will need to adjust your teaching style to match her strengths. For advice on this, I contacted Christina Lee, the founder of the Virginia-based nonprofit Deaf Dogs Rock.

“I think it is a common misconception that any training of a deaf dog is different than that of a hearing dog,” Lee tells me over email. “I train all my hearing dogs exactly like I would train my deaf dogs, but instead of verbal cues I use sign cues, and instead of the sound of a clicker to mark correct behavior, I use a visual marker like a thumbs-up.” As for how to get started with signs, Lee has a guide on her website. Learning them may be more difficult for you than it will be for the dog, so be sure to keep up with your practice.

You write that you “can’t imagine what to do besides constantly take her out.” Bingo! Potty training means taking them out all the time. It’s a pain, but you struggle now so you can sleep well later. With deaf dogs, Lee recommends following a strict order of operations before going outside. “We put the pup on a leash so I can tap the deaf dog on the shoulder. When the dog looks at me, I give it a ‘go potty’ sign or a ‘go poopy’ sign,” she says. Once the pup does her business outside, you can reward her good behavior with a thumbs-up sign and a treat. If you’re in an enclosed yard, taking them off the leash will also work as a reward. (Or, if you’re on a walk, give them more of a lead so they have greater freedom to explore).

There’s no use in sugarcoating a urine-covered rug: This will be tough. All dogs are different, so there will be unique challenges, but this guide will help you better understand the ins and outs of potty-training a deaf dog. One extremely important thing is to resist negative reinforcement while training your puppy. “We redirect and never punish with our hands,” Lee says. “Deaf dogs have to trust our hands 100 percent of the time, because our hands are our communication.”

There’s no use in getting angry at the dog for peeing inside. If you feel a need to blame anyone, it’s most constructive to pick a bone with yourself. For now, you should keep a steady, vigilant eye on the pup and closely watch for any hints of an imminent tinkle, like her circling or sniffing the ground. That’s your cue to leash her up and begin the “going out” protocol. If she keeps returning to the same spot in your home, make sure you’re using a good, pet-safe cleaning solvent that eliminates urine’s irresistible siren scent.

Housetraining is but one of many academic endeavors that a dog must pursue. You also should continue to do homework as you teach her the ways of the world. Because all training will be accomplished through visual cues, Lee recommends doing “watch me” training, where the dog is taught to keep her eyes on you. She also suggests finding a trainer or a training facility that offers group sessions and focuses on positive reinforcement. The trainer “does not need to have experience with deaf dogs, because the training is basically the same,” she says.

Don’t be intimidated by the road ahead. As Lee explains, “Deaf dogs can have serious advantages over a hearing dog while in training.” For example, “They are not distracted by noise and are much more focused on their handlers.”

You thought you were adopting a dog, but you actually got an attentive study partner. Unlike in school, the homework will only get easier with time.