5 Hand Signs Every Deaf Dog Should Know

by Bernard Lima-Chavez

(reprinted with the author's permission)

The very idea of living with a deaf dog can be terrifying if you’ve never met a deaf dog and, to be honest, that includes the vast majority of the world’s population. Beginning a lifelong adventure with a deaf dog can seem overwhelming at first: learning, then teaching hand signs and actually remembering to USE them- and that’s just communication! That doesn’t even begin to address safety, startle responses, deaf dog singing or all the other unique things about a life lived with a deaf dog.

Here are a 5 training tips to help new deaf dog pet parents get started with hand sign training. I hope these ease your anxiety and fears as you begin to communicate with a dog in a way you never imagined. If you have any questions or have one of those “Holy Guacamole, what have I gotten myself into?” moments, please reach out. I’ve been there and I can help or get you to someone who can.

5 Basic Hand Signs Every Deaf Dog Should Know!

1. Thumbs Up (Visual Clicker Training): This modified-clicker training exercise is critically important. Since deaf dogs can’t hear a clicker, we mark the behavior we want with a thumbs up (or a flash of the palm).To teach this, I give a thumbs up immediately followed by a treat. I repeat this many times throughout our first days and weeks together. The point is to get your dog to associate a thumbs up (the click) with a reward (the treat). Once he has made this association, you can use clicker-training principles when teaching new skills to a deaf dog, by simply replacing the “click” with a thumbs up!

Deaf Dog Bonus: Unlike a clicker, you’ll never leave home without your thumb!

2. Watch Me: The next important skill I recommend teaching is a “Watch Me” sign. By teaching your deaf dog to constantly check in, you are able to communicate with him, redirect him away from undesired behaviors to appropriate ones, keep him safe in the event of a dangerous situation and generally help him make better life choices.

For “Watch Me”, I draw my index finger up towards my nose. In the beginning, as soon as my deaf dog makes eye contact, I reward the behavior by giving a treat. With time and repetition, your deaf dog will consistently check in with you for information. Or a treat!

3. Sit: Sit is a basic obedience command every dog, deaf or not, should know. Not only does it demonstrate good manners, it is also a skill that allows you to gain control of any situation. Once your dog will sit consistently when asked, you can impress every one at smart dinner parties or diffuse a chaotic situation if you need to.

If, for example, our boys are roughhousing too much, I simply have each of them sit so I can gain control of the environment, their behavior and give each of them a few minutes to calm down. There are many other situations where this skill will come in handy.

I teach my deaf dogs two signs for sit: an obedience sign and the American Sign Language sign. I always teach them the obedience sign first and then, once mastered, I add the ASL sign. I teach two signs because, well, my deaf boys love to prove that deaf dogs can learn just as much as hearing dogs, if not more!

4. Directional Training: Directional training is the non-verbal way of saying, “come here”, “go there” or “move this way”. This is another foundation skill you should teach your deaf dog early on. Not only can you ask your dog to come to you or go to bed, but you can also direct him out of the way of danger if the situation ever arises.

I ask them to “come” by pointing my index finger at my chest, or I can point at him and move my finger towards where I want him to go, say his crate, away from the front door or out of the kitchen. The easiest way to begin to teaching this skill is by luring him with a treat and then build from there.

5. No-Release Stay: Stay is a skill with many obvious benefits, but why a stay with no release? The reasons are simple, and they have to do with both focus AND safety. When I teach a deaf dog to stay, I teach him to stay where he is until I use directional pointing to move him someplace else. Generally, after he sits nicely, I will point to where I want him to go and then give him the sign for “play”, “food”, “go to car” or some other fun activity.

I do this because I want to know with complete confidence that he will stay where I put him, without fail- until I move him somewhere else. This skill teaches him focus and impulse control, but it also gives me the peace of mind knowing that, if I encounter a dangerous situation, whatever it may be, that I can put my deaf dog in a stay position and he will not break it until I move him.

In time, and in with practice, you will gain confidence in training your deaf dog. My favorite moments are those ones where I can see a light bulb going off in Edison or Foster’s head, the giveaway that they finally understand what I’m saying with a new finger movement or flip of my wrist.

As your dog learns new signs, you will find that you have begun to wordlessly communicate with your deaf dog. That, my friends, is a magical gift wholly unique to those of us who share our lives with deaf dogs.

As weeks turn into months then years, the bond between you and your deaf dog organically grows and deepens. Communication becomes subtle and intuitive and, in many ways, it feels like you are reading each other’s mind. When that day comes, give your deaf love bug an especially big hug and celebrate. But don’t stop there…add to your list of signs you want to teach!

The only limitations when training a deaf dog are those that you place on yourself. Shoot for the stars, I say, because you’ll probably grab a few!

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