How To Train A Deaf Boxer

Training a deaf Boxer, like training any dog, requires commitment and patience.

If your Boxer is deaf, you will apply the same principles as for training a hearing dog, but you’ll need to use different cues.

Useful ways of communicating with a deaf Boxer include hand signals, facial expressions, body language — and perhaps a flashlight in place of a clicker.

Before learning how to train a deaf Boxer, it’s worth understanding the cause and incidence of deafness in white Boxers, when Boxer puppies go deaf, if they’re going to and whether deaf Boxers can hear anything at all.

Is A White Boxer Born Deaf Or Do Boxers Go Deaf?

All puppies are born with their ear canals closed, just like their eyes.

The ear canal opens when a Boxer is 10 to 12 days old.

According to respected UK Boxer breeder and geneticist, Bruce Cattanach (who bred the bobtail Boxer), a deaf white Boxer initially develops hearing, but then loses it at about six to eight weeks of age.

What Causes A White Boxer To Be Deaf?

Deafness is associated with the color white because a lack of pigment cells in the inner ear causes a loss of the sensory hair cells that produce hearing.

Here is the technical explanation of what happens:

Pigment cells in an unborn Boxer are located at sites along the spine and migrate throughout the body as the fetus develops, creating coloring.

Wherever they don’t reach remains white.

The migration of the pigment cells gives color to the eyes and also plays a role in maintaining the auditory hair cells of the inner ear, which create hearing.

If the pigment cells never reach the eyes, they’ll be blue rather than brown.

If they never reach the ears, the auditory or sensory hair cells will die within a few weeks of birth, causing a loss of hearing.

There are other causes of deafness, besides lack of pigment cells.

A Boxer can go deaf due to:

  • Aging
  • Illness
  • Trauma
  • Chemical/drug reactions

Do White Boxers Have Health Problems?

In white Boxers, the lack of pigment cells also causes an unpigmented or pink haw (third eyelid) which can sometimes give the impression of red eyes in a Boxer.

Congenital deafness in white boxers is not associated with any other health issues.

In other words, white Boxers are no more predisposed to disease than brindle or fawn Boxers.

According to the American Boxer Club, blindness is not thought to be any more common in boxers than any other breed.

Are All, Or Most, White Boxers Deaf?

The professional research geneticist and experienced British Boxer breeder and judge Dr Bruce Cattanach, of Steynmere Boxers, wrote this in a letter to a group of Italian Boxer fanciers in 2019.

“I know of no scientific study on deafness directly in Boxers.

“A best guess for incidence of deafness would be that it will be similar to that in white Bull Terriers, a breed in which the incidence has been found to be less than 2%.”

The genetic basis for deafness in white Boxers is the same as for deafness in Dalmatians.

Cattanach says the incidence of deafness is higher in Dalmatians (5% to 12%), which he attributes to the heavy selection for totally white dogs in this breed, something that has not happened with Boxers.

There is a correlation between the amount of white in a Boxer’s coat and the incidence of blue eyes and deafness.

Generally, the more patches of color in a Boxer’s coat, the less chance of deafness and the less chance of blue eyes.

Migration is not uniform and so, each ear (and each eye) can be affected differently, just as each side of the body can be more or less colored.

How To Tell If A White Boxer Puppy Is Deaf

Whether a white Boxer puppy is deaf should begin to become clear around 6 to 8 weeks of age and certainly by 10 weeks.

It will be obvious.

A deaf Boxer will not respond to sudden, loud noises made out of sight.

Are Deaf Boxers Totally Deaf Or Can They Hear Some Things?

Some deaf Boxers can hear certain things or changes of frequency or deep sounds with a strong vibration.

Dog trainer Karen Pryor describes her deaf white boxer responding to sounds including:

  • Neighborhood dogs barking
  • Familiar cars pulling into the driveway
  • The squeak of the hinge on the treat cupboard (Her deaf Boxer would hear this sound even from a sound sleep.)

Are White Dogs Of Other Breeds Prone To Deafness?

With a couple of exceptions, the risk of deafness affects all dogs that are mainly white, whatever the breed.

The exceptions?

White dogs like the Poodle and the West Highland White Terrier are not white due to a lack of pigment cells.

They have a full complement of pigment cells but just extremely diluted pigmentation, so these breeds have no risk of deafness despite being white.

Is It Hard To Train A Deaf Boxer?

Training a deaf Boxer needn’t be more difficult than training any other Boxer.

It simply requires the owner to make adjustments in order to communicate in ways the dog can perceive and understand.

The same techniques apply.

To train a deaf Boxer you will need:

  • Positive reinforcement/operant conditioning (whereby desirable behaviors are rewarded and undesirable ones ignored)
  • High value treats as rewards
  • Consistency
  • Lots of practice/repetition

It’s important to recognize that a deaf Boxer is even more dependent on her owner for her safety, since she can’t hear danger approaching (in the form of a car or an attacking dog, for instance).

Those experienced with deaf dogs generally advise they can live normal lives in almost every sense.

The one difference is that they — for their own good — probably need to remain on leash (even if it’s a long line) at all times when in unfenced and/or public areas.

This doesn’t mean they must live their whole lives at heel — they can of course still romp and relax off leash in their own fenced yards and in the home.

How Dogs Communicate

Notice that dogs, amongst themselves, use little sound to communicate.

It’s the humans who make all the racket!

Between dogs, it’s all body language and behavior, with a heavy reliance on the canine sense of smell.

Dogs are master observers and predictors of human behavior and Boxers are among the best.

Deaf Boxers compensate for their lack of hearing by honing their visual and olfactory senses.

Read more here about your Boxer’s secret superpower.

Deaf Boxers become expert at:

  • Picking up and understanding scents
  • Interpreting body language
  • Reading facial expressions
  • Detecting meaningful patterns of movement
  • Noticing subtle shifts in air currents
  • Seeing light
  • Lip reading
  • Sensing people’s (and dogs’) energies
  • Feeling vibrations in their environment

Even hearing dogs learn hand signals faster than spoken commands.

All of which means your deaf Boxer will be at least as trainable as a hearing Boxer — perhaps even moreso due to reduced distractions and increased focus.

Equipment That Can Help You Train Your Deaf Boxer

A deaf Boxer can be completely and effectively trained using nothing but hand signals and other visual cues.

Extra equipment that may come in handy when training your deaf Boxer includes:

  • 33 foot (10m) long line
  • Vibration collar
  • Flashlight (A laser pointer is not recommended as it’s hard to see and can damage your dog’s eyes.)
  • American Sign Language dictionary
  • Dog tag or velcro label identifying your dog as deaf
  • Bell so you can keep track of where she is at all times

Long Line

As mentioned earlier, the long line is for keeping your deaf Boxer safe in unfenced or public places while giving her some freedom to wander, run and explore.

Vibration Collar

A vibration collar can be used two different ways with a deaf Boxer:

  • To attract attention
  • Instead of a clicker in marker training (As explained next)

Flashlight

Clicker training is really just “marker” training with a sound used to mark the exact moment at which the dog does the desired behavior.

All the same techniques can be adapted for training a deaf dog by replacing the click with either a hand signal or a flash of light (or the vibrate of a collar, as mentioned above).

If using a hand signal, a common choice is a “hand flash” i.e. a quick open and close of the hand.

When using a flashlight, make sure it’s one small enough to keep on you all the time, such as the kind kept on a keychain or a penlight.

You’ll also need it to be one that operates with the press of a button, so you can be instantaneous and able to mark the precise right moment.

The advantage of using a flashlight is that it’s more visible than a hand signal, including in your dog’s peripheral vision.

American Sign Language DIctionary

The ASL dictionary is for inspiration — even if you invent your own hand signals, it can provide a starting point and some examples to get you going.

Dog Tag Or “I’m Deaf” Label

An “I’m Deaf” label for your deaf Boxer’s harness can help others treat her appropriately.

You particularly want to protect her from random strangers approaching and petting her on the street, which can cause a startle reaction if she doesn’t see them approach.

You might also want the sign to say “Do Not Pet”.

Bell

A bell on the collar can help you supervise your deaf Boxer in the house or yard by alerting you to her location at all times, as long as she’s moving!

Hand Signals To Teach Your Deaf Boxer

When training your deaf Boxer, start in the same place as with a hearing dog.

First, establish the foundational commands of “Sit”, “Down”, “Stay”, “Come”, “No” or “Stop” followed by “Leave it” and “Heel”.

Beyond that, the sky is the limit.

Some five or six year old deaf dogs know as many as 50 signs.

As for the signals themselves, owners of deaf Boxers end up using a combination of hand signs they make up themselves, and ones adapted from American Sign Language or ASL.

ASL gestures usually do require some adaptation to make them one handed, rather than two, so that they’re workable for dog owners who’re usually already wrangling a leash and treats and don’t have enough hands as is.

Sit

The obedience signal for the command “Sit” is performed by starting with your arm by your side, palm facing forward.

Bend your arm at the elbow and raise your forearm, as though you’re lifting your dog’s head up and back to ease him into a seated position.

You can teach “Sit” the same way as with a hearing dog, either:

  1. By capturing and “naming” the behavior by pairing the hand signal with the sitting whenever your dog offers it naturally
  2. By luring i.e. moving a treat upwards and backwards over a dog’s head so that he sits in order to reach it

Down

This standard “Down” signal is to hold arm your out parallel to the ground, palm facing downwards.

Then lower the whole arm to the ground while keeping it parallel with the ground, like an elevator descending.

Teach this command from the sit position by lowering a treat to the ground so that your dog follows it down with their body.

Match the hand signal with the action as your dog performs it the same way you would say the word “Down” to a hearing Boxer.

Stay

This is designated by a flat palm in front of your dog’s face like a stop signal.

Teach “Stay” by having your Boxer in a sit position.

Give the hand signal, then straightaway give her a treat.

Repeat the hand signal and give another treat.

Do the signal a third time, dispensing a third treat.

Your dog is learning that as long as she holds the position, she gets rewarded.

Gradually, extend the period of time between treats to really work on the “Stay”.

When you’re done, remember to use a release signal as an equivalent to the command “Free” or “Break” so your Boxer knows when she’s finished and allowed to break the position.

Come / How Do You Call A Deaf Boxer?

The signal for this important command is a big sweeping motion with the whole arm, from the shoulder, sometimes done overhead so it can be seen at a distance.

Treats are essential in teaching this.

Require a “Come” at least 3 times per training or play session.

Resume playing after the recall so dog doesn’t associate obeying with an end to the fun.

Coming should always be followed by something positive i.e. never call your dog to you for a bath or a nail trim.

No / Stop

For a deaf Boxer a mild no can be communicated with a shake fo the head or by shutting the eyes.

This means “That’s not what I want” or “Uh uh”.

A more stern “No” should be kept in reserve for more serious situations and conveyed with more emphatic body language and a “mean” facial expression.

Leave it

To teach “Leave it”, hold a treat in your hand.

Sign “Leave it” and whenever your dog reaches for the treat, close your hand so she can’t help herself.

As soon as she sits, steps back or stops nosing to try to get it, signal “OK” and give her the treat.

She will quickly learn she can’t have the treat until she has your go ahead.

Eventually you’ll be able to place a treat on her paw and she won’t touch it until you give permission.

The command will then be transferrable to real world situations where you encounter things your Boxer wants to eat or take but are not safe or not for her.

Heel

You can indicate “Heel” by patting your leg or hip.

In essence, you can teach this just the way you would to a hearing Boxer.

Treat your dog for walking beside you in the correct position and stop walking whenever she pulls on the leash.

Should I Bring Home A Deaf Boxer Puppy?

Having a deaf Boxer is a hugely rewarding and worthwhile experience.

Deaf Boxers have the same delightful temperaments and hilarious ways as all Boxers.

They make wonderful companions, but caring for a deaf Boxer is an undertaking above and beyond ordinary Boxer ownership — which is demanding in itself — and it may not be for everyone.

You will need to pay attention to and put effort into quite a few things that are non-issues with hearing dogs.

Desensitizing To Unexpected Touch

It’s important to work on desensitizing or counter-conditioning a deaf Boxer to unexpected touch in order to reduce the startle response.

Once your deaf Boxer is used to, and relaxed about, being touched when she’s not expecting it and doesn’t see the approach, it will make her life a lot less stressful.

You can practice this by pairing every touch with a treat.

Gently touch your deaf Boxer from behind when she can’t see you and then immediately give her a treat so that she learns to associate good things with unexpected physical contact, rather than it just being a shock.

Life On Leash

If dog ownership to you means having a Boxer that can roam around off leash at the park, then you may need to reconsider getting a deaf Boxer.

Otherwise, get comfortable with the importance of your dog remaining on leash (or a long line) at all times, except when behind a fence.

How To Wake Up A Deaf Boxer

This is a major aspect of life with a deaf Boxer: it’s essential to get your Boxer used to being woken up with a touch so she can do so without jolting awake.

To wake your Boxer up, touch her gently in the same place every time, ideally the shoulder.

Use a the lightest touch of a few fingertips at first, slowly increasing to stroke with the whole hand .

Ideally, put a hand in front of her nose first and let your scent wake her up.

If your Boxer tends to have a startle response to this, you can work on it by giving treats and affection.

Make sure others never disturb your dog while she’s sleeping.

Praise For A Deaf Boxer / How To Tell A Deaf Boxer She’s A “Good Dog”

With a deaf Boxer you will praise the same way as you do with a hearing dog: petting, smiling, keeping eye contact, rewarding with treats, toys and play.

The hand signal for “good dog” that’s most easily seen by the dog and that comes most naturally to an owner is clapping the hands.

This is the ASL sign for “success” or “good job”.

Alternatively, you can use a “thumbs up” gesture.

Teach its meaning by making the sign and following it with a treat.

House Training A Deaf Boxer

House training a deaf boxer is no different to usual.

Whenever your Boxer goes potty, make whatever hand sign you’ve decided to use for “potty”.

With a couple of weeks of consistent practice, she will associate the sign with the action.

Even though she can’t hear the sound, you can teach a deaf Boxer to use bells by the door to tell you she needs to go outside, just the same as a hearing dog.

Hold the treat behind the bell every time you go out for potty and she will touch the bell with her nose to get the treat and it will become habit.

Crate Training A Deaf Boxer

Crate training also works the same with a deaf Boxer.

Instead of “Go to your crate”, give the hand signal you’ve decided to use for this command.

Remember that when left alone, your Boxer can’t hear activity in the next room, so may feel more alone and can be more prone to anxiety.

Always leave your Boxer with an activity to keep her occupied and a light on, perhaps the TV on where she can see it

A wifi camera will be useful, allowing you to monitor her closely for signs of distress.

Train Eye Contact

Teach eye contact to your deaf Boxer as a habit.

Sign “Good dog” and treat whenever you pup randomly does it.

Stay Connected

Make sure you keep your deaf dog informed of your whereabouts when leaving the room and especially when going out.

Make sure a deaf Boxer sees you leave.

Oftentimes she will look up when she feels the vibrations of you walking nearby.

Or you can wait until you have eye contact before exiting.

If you need to attract her attention, you can blow on her back or head, or give her a light touch.

Get creative.

You might turn the porch light on and off to call her in from the backyard.

How Do You Get A Deaf Dog’s Attention?

You can:

  • Thump on the floor
  • Wave
  • Flick a flashlight on and off
  • Roll a ball nearby
  • Use Vibrating collar

Gentle Touch Only

Physical punishment has no place in any Boxer’s life, but positive reinforcement training is even more vital with a deaf dog.

As the Massachusetts-based non-profit The Boxer Rescue points out, the hands are the prime means of communicating with a deaf Boxer and so must only ever be used for good, never to force or physically coerce.

“Punishment for the deaf dog should be no more severe than a wag of the finger (no!) or a shrug (too bad), no treat or a time out.”

Should I Adopt A Deaf Boxer?

Rescued deaf Boxers, like all adult dogs (and humans!) come with a backstory including emotional baggage and a few bad habits or challenging behaviors.

For instance, an adopted deaf Boxer may have touch sensitivity and startle easily from having had people constantly grabbing at them to get their attention — not always gently.

In addition, you may well need to work on teaching your Boxer to wake up via touch, using the techniques described earlier.

Otherwise, an abrupt arousal from sleep can result in a startle response that may involve an inadvertent snap.

Resources For Training A Deaf Boxer Dog

There are some marvelous resources for navigating life with a deaf Boxer.

Among the best is the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund.

If you would like to work with a trainer, find one experienced both with Boxers and deaf dogs.

Conclusion

Deaf Boxers learn just as well as Boxers that have their hearing.

In some ways, they may be even more focused and less distractable, with keener attention.

As long as you adapt your training to replace verbal cues with visual ones, your deaf Boxer will learn quickly and may surprise you with her abilities.

References

Cope Becker, Susan, Living With A Deaf Dog: A Book of Training Advice, Facts and Resources About Canine Deafness Caused By Genetics, Aging, Illness, 2017

Deaf Dog Education Action Fund

Eaton, Barry, Hear, Hear! Guide To Training a Deaf Puppy, 2005

Judkins, Leslie, DeafDogs.org

Norcal Boxer Rescue, White Boxers and Deafness in Boxers

Pryor, Karen, What My Deaf Boxer Has Taught Me About Communication, Wigglin’ Home Boxer Rescue, 2018

White Boxer Dogs, All Boxer Info