by Bernard Lima-Chavez
(reprinted with the author's permission)
As true as that sentiment is, those words are not entirely factual. Yes, most of what you say to your deaf dog is said with your hands, but communicating with a deafie isn’t so cut and dry. The relationship you develop with him is much more robust and organic than statically teaching a bunch of hand signs then calling it a day. How boring!
When communicating with Edison and Foster, I don’t just use my hands; I talk to them. You know, with my voice. “But your dog is deaf?”, you might say, “He can’t hear you.” You might think I’m a deaf dog quack or need to increase my medication. But I talk to my deaf dogs all the time and so should you!
Part of the reason is that we’re human, and unlike dogs, we rely heavily on our voice to communicate with the world around us. Speaking is more natural for us.
But there’s another more important reason we should talk to our deaf dogs and it is this: When we speak, our facial expressions and body language change. When that happens, we convey a whole lot more information to them.
If I sign “drop it” and Foster hesitates, I immediately sign “drop it!” again and say the words out loud. He sees from the change in my facial expression and body language that I mean business and he will promptly drop my sock to the floor. By using my whole body to communicate, he understands me better.
But it gets better still.
For anyone sharing their life with a deaf dog, teaching hand signs from day one is critical. Doing so is non-negotiable. However, as days and weeks turn into months and years, your bond grows, deepens and expands. As he learns to read your hand signs and body language, you learn to read his as well.
There are many things I can say to Edison and Foster just by changing my facial expression or body language, no hands needed. For example, if I cock my head, purse my lips and give them “that look”, they know to stop whatever they’re doing and sit. If I crouch down on my haunches, they come running for hugs and belly rubs- no words spoken, no poetic gesture involved.
Likewise, by simply looking at Edison, I know when he’s about to start singing. I see it in the way he is standing, that telling yawn, the position of his tail and the way that it is wagging.
I know when Foster wants a hug because he sits with his back to me, about two feet away, his head and neck stretched up as if trying to touch his nose to the ceiling. He wants physical contact with me and he tells me this by using his body.
I don’t know why he chooses to tell me in this way, much like I’m sure they don’t know why I choose to point my finger or flip my wrist this way or that when I want them to Come here, Go there or Please sit. They just know that I do and they know what it means.
Over time, communication between you and your deaf dog becomes more subtle and much of it likely goes unnoticed by people not in the know. Those are the beginnings of the best years of your life together, when a silent look says I Love You! and you know that he knows that it’s true.