Agility for special needs dogs? Absolutely!

  People ask me all the time if special needs dogs (deaf, blind and deaf-blind dogs), can lead a normal life.  Shelters rarely put them up for adoption, breeders tend to kill them at a young age (although this is never admitted), and rescues tend to have very strict limitations for any potential adopters, if they even do take one on. My question is, why? Why not give them a chance to lead a normal life?  I own special needs dogs, and I have been training them without any issues for many years.

Why would it shock or amaze anyone that a dog that cannot hear or see could do agility? Why do people think it is impossible to teach obedience to them? They adapt and can be conditioned, just like their seeing and hearing brothers and sisters. Other dogs do not see them any differently and I strongly believe we need to learn from our canine loved ones.

In April of 2012, I was asked if Charlie, a deaf-blind dog, could enroll in our basic agility class. Of course I said yes! I have fought for, and stood behind my deaf dogs for years.  I would never deny an owner or their dog, the right to reach their full potential.

A colleague of mine asked me how I would teach a deaf-blind dog agility; my answer was, “he has a nose, I will use it.”  It is the first thing a dog relies on, and their most powerful sense. If we teach dogs how to find the slightest traces of drugs that are masked by other scents, or people lost for days; why not use it to train them in other ways too.

So Charlie enrolled in our basic agility class with four other classmates that could see and hear. We taught him how to maneuver the obstacles by different scents; carefully thought out as to what effect they would have on the dog (relaxing, exciting, non-offensive).  He performed all of the equipment and learned them at the same pace as his classmates.

His owner asked if I would consider doing an all special needs agility class, so again I said of course. I love all dogs and when I decided to get into this field, it was to help all of them; so why would I exclude special needs from any activities? I know my deaf boxer Flinn and my deaf-blind dog Gaia have no idea they have a disability. They adapt, as should we.

Fast-forward to July 2012 and I had my first all special needs agility class starting, three deaf-blind dogs, and one bilateral deaf dog.  I could not have been happier to see how involved the owners were and how much the dogs enjoyed the class.  On August 4th, in just 6 short weeks, the class graduated. A very special moment for the dogs, the owners, myself and hopefully for the special needs dogs sitting in shelters waiting to be adopted.

Below is a picture of the graduating class, I am very proud of all of them and I look forward to getting more information out there in hopes that others will do the same. Open your classes and doors to our special needs, adopt them out, let them lead the normal lives they deserve to have.


Congratulations Flinn, Boomer, Charlie and Lucy. ( And their parents for giving them this opportunity!)

Painting by Stephanie Conrad of The Pet Studio- ( I will cherish it, thank you)

For more information about how to train your special needs pet, please email

hugs to your furbabies,


Deaf, Blind & Deaf and Blind dogs. They deserve a chance.

Deaf, blind and deaf & blind dogs. They deserve a chance.

  For the last 23 years, I have been working with all types of issues in the canine world. I use the tag line, “specializing in misunderstood dogs” because so many people truly do not know how to communicate with our canine family members. Through the years, I have been asked to take on dogs that range from “rage” point, to rude dogs, to disabled dogs. They all have a special place in my heart, but my disabled dogs hold the record for most “misunderstood” dogs out there.

  I am continuously called by shelters about dogs that will be killed simply because they have a disability.  This hits a very hard nerve in me, because I have heard so many people tell me the human species is by far the most compassionate, caring species out there. Really?  How can we claim to be compassionate when we will kill an innocent animal because they cannot hear, or possibly cannot see? Dogs are amazing creatures, we all know this. They do not hold on to their “disability”, they simply adjust and carry on just as any other dog will.

  I had been asked to write an article about deaf dogs and aggression for the AKC delegates when they were fighting to get deaf dogs in agility competition. I did so last year, but still today I receive calls about dogs that will be killed in our shelters, for no other reason than loss of hearing. These dogs are friendly towards people and dogs, have a zest for life just as their hearing brothers and sisters, but yet they are the first to be killed because of a disability we believe can make them “unpredictable”.

  I have dealt with thousands of dogs for aggression issues; they come in all shapes and sizes. No specific breed, no specific sex, and certainly not all of them are disabled. ANY dog can and will show aggression if not trained properly, even a Golden Retriever.  To simply use a disability as an excuse to kill, is quite frankly, ridiculous.  The big issue people have with disabled dogs, the dreaded “startle aggression” that they say, “all disabled dogs have”.  This type of aggression is not just seen in disabled dogs as so many people want you to believe. How many of you have older dogs that sleep soundly or have lost their hearing and have snapped or growled at you for moving too closely.  Some of my clients have young healthy dogs that will do the same thing. Why? Simple, they have not been conditioned properly to expect the unexpected.  We never think about this until a problem erupts.

  I assess many rescue and shelter dogs for adoptability and on my assessment test I include a series of “startle” items, as most behaviorists will. Why, because ANY dog can have “startle” aggression. It is not limited to disabled dogs. If one of these dogs, mostly healthy, hearing and seeing dogs, shows startle aggression, we start them on a behavior modification program. So why would you not offer the same options and opportunity to a disabled dog?  

 Maybe it is because you are nervous they will “runaway” and not come back. So I ask you,  how many shelters are full of hearing dogs that have strayed from their owners? How many dogs are constantly being chased around dog parks because they won’t come back to their owners once off leash? This is not an excuse to kill. Just as their hearing and seeing relatives, disabled dogs can and should learn a solid recall before being allowed off leash.

  Our deaf dogs are taught how to recall to us by using a flashing light. In the daytime we use a laser light to get their focus and draw them to us. This is taught similarly to using a clicker or a verbal cue.  No dog is born with the knowledge of the recall command, it has to be taught; whether they are deaf, blind or healthy. Some dogs, deaf or not, can never achieve off leash privileges due to how they are driven.

   In my experience working with ALL dogs, I can honestly say that disabled dogs have more focus and trust in their humans, than the majority of other dogs.  

 A good friend of mine recently shot a video of our disabled fosters to show the world how EVERY dog deserves a chance at loving home, I hope you enjoy it.

Understanding Deaf Dogs

  Recently I had been asked to contribute an article to the AKC delegates regarding my experience and research working with deaf dogs.  The following is that article.   At the present time, they do not allow deaf dogs to compete in AKC sporting events.  For all my deaf dog owners out there, this one is for you! My only hope is to one-day see the AKC award a ribbon to a deaf dog for a sporting event! Keep your paws crossed!

 Understanding Deaf Dogs

  My work rehabilitating and training dogs for shelters, rescues and clients has given me the pleasure of working with quite a few deaf dogs and their owners and puts me in a unique position to address the ability of deaf dogs to participate in competitive sports.  Even though my training and research specialty is aggressive behavior, most of these owners came to me to learn how to communicate successfully with their dogs, rather than for problems with aggression.

   Training a deaf dog is no more difficult than training a hearing one. All dogs take approximately two weeks to learn a command solidly; then, another two weeks to learn the command with distractions. In my experience, disabilities do not change this. Many clients with deaf dogs have helped their dogs learn 30 or more commands. 

  Dogs do not communicate with each other as we do.  They use body language and subtle movements rather than “talk” and “praise.” To demonstrate happiness or disapproval, they simply move their bodies.  If they are happy, they become soft bodied and wiggle all over, maybe throwing in a play bow.  If they are angry they display stiffness, a good hard stare, and, sometimes, a corrective “bite”.  Hearing or deaf, all dogs understand these signals.  Deaf dogs are usually so tuned-in to their owners that they not only learn hand signals but also take notice of subtle body/facial changes and movement to go along with their commands, making them more forgiving of human error.

  In our obedience and agility classes, deaf and hearing dogs learn the same commands. A deaf dog will follow the owner’s eye movements, body shifts, and hand signals; whereas, the hearing dogs generally focus on voices. Obedience competition allows handlers to use hand signals, and the advanced levels require it, so I really see no difference between deaf or hearing dogs in the ring.   

  The majority of my clients that own a deaf dog, have more than one dog in their household.  One of my clients has a deaf Boxer and a hearing Boxer in her residence and takes in fosters for a local rescue group as well. I see no difference in the everyday behavior of hearing and deaf dogs living together.  Deaf dogs in a pack are conditioned to be more tuned-in to the other members. They do not “startle” and attack when a pack member approaches.  The hearing dogs do not “soft” step around the deaf ones; they do not pamper them; they simply ignore the “disability”.

    One of the most commonly expressed reservations about deaf dogs, especially in competition, is their “startle” response, but this is not just an issue with deaf dogs.  Personally, I believe saying that only deaf dogs are dangerous because of startle response is naive at best.  All dogs have the tendency to show aggression if not given the proper training and boundaries. 

 Countless owners have contacted me for hearing dogs that “startle” and snap at them or their children.  In the absence of any hard data on the incidence of bites from deaf dogs, all I can offer are my own statistics, which I have developed as a result of my working with dogs that have aggression issues for the past 20 years.  These dogs consist of a tremendous diversity of breeds with a variety of impairments and behavior issue.  This past year alone I have seen over 250 new clients for different types of aggression, including 35 that were child biters. None of these were deaf dogs, although some did bite because they were “startled” by a child.

  Because a deaf dog cannot hear you approach, the usual solution to the “startle” response, conditioning a dog to move before you get there or alerting them prior to your arrival, doesn’t work.  Instead, you need to use the sensations all puppies use for the first 3 weeks of their life:  vibration, touch and smell.  Deaf dogs are even more sensitive to these, and they provide many different ways of alerting a deaf dog. 

   One of my clients places her hand at her deaf dog’s nose to alert her by smell.   To teach the dog not to startle at a gentle touch on the shoulder, we have owners gently touch the dog’s shoulder, then quickly deliver a treat along with overly exaggerated, happy facial expressions.  If this is practiced daily while the dog is awake, touching the shoulder is viewed as an attention command as well as a reward.

    Because deaf dogs are extremely sensitive to vibrations, they can be alerted by heavy steps or stomping on the ground.  Some trainers recommend a vibration collar to get the dogs attention with a low-level stimulus.  I personally have not needed to use these. I have found all the deaf dogs I work with are focused on their owners and are exceptionally keen to movement, smell, and visual stimuli. 

   Another common reservation about deaf dogs has to do with getting the dog’s attention when it is off-leash.  This is the most common problem all owner’s have, not just those with deaf dogs. 

  The way we teach the recall command is similar for both deaf and hearing dogs except that the deaf dog is called with a flashing light rather than a verbal command.  As the dog comes, the owner play bows and has a happy facial expression and body language and when it gets to the owner, it’s rewarded with treats and praise. 

     Deafness may actually be an advantage when it comes to the issue of distractions!  Deaf dogs are largely unaffected by people cheering loudly and are usually undisturbed by reactive or anxious dogs barking at them.  Think about how many owners have been  “kicked” out of obedience classes or else dropped out because the dog was too distracted.  Of course, any dog can be distracted; this depends on their personality and drives.                     

     My personal experience working with deaf dogs has proven to me that they can be held to the same standard of learning as hearing dogs, and I see no more deaf dogs for aggression problems proportionally than I do hearing ones.  What I have witnessed are owners whose dedication to understanding their deaf dog’s language has inspired them to work even further with them.

  Owners that choose to compete with their dogs typically have a great working relationship with the dog, and they have strong mutual respect..  This is no different for deaf dog owners, they have the same working relationship, respect and trust for each other.



                    AUSTIN, TEXAS

                   MEMBER, ASSOCIATION OF PET DOG TRAINERS            


Bio:  Tara Stermer is a member if the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and has specialized in canine body language and aggressive behavior for the last 20 years.  For the past two years, she has conducted an online aggression study which has involved hundreds of people throughout the United States and which has a goal of pinpointing specific triggers that cause aggression so they may be prevented or solved.  She has worked with a tremendous diversity of breeds, impairments and common behavior issues and studies and researches canine body language in hopes of improving dog/owner relationships and communication