How to Train a Deaf Dog Hand Signals and Sign Language
The Deaf Puppy
Watching the white puppy play with the other puppies in class, there was no way to tell he was special. He chased, barked and offered play bows just like the other pups. People watching the cute puppies romp had no idea that the white one was different. Even the white pup had no clue.
But I knew.
Jericho, my color-headed white Shetland Sheepdog, was born mostly deaf. Although able to hear loud noises, most of his time is spent in silence. He doesn’t hear the food bowls being brought out for dinner. To him, birds make no noise and fly away silently as he enters the backyard. He can feel the breeze, but not hear it. Water has taste, but doesn’t trickle.
However, no one can tell him he’s missing these things, so he has no idea he’s any different from other dogs. He’s as happy and content with life as any well-loved dog.
Owning and training a deaf dog is not so different from owning and training a hearing dog. Instead of voice and hand signals, Jericho has learned to communicate with me through hand signals alone. With that and a few extra nods to his handicap listed below, he has been able to live a full, happy life competing and traveling extensively with me and his hearing brothers.
Teaching a Deaf Dog to Come When Called (The Recall)
The biggest problem owners of deaf dogs face is calling their dogs to them from a distance. In order for a deaf dog to receive instruction, he must be looking at his owner. When a deaf dog is in the backyard busily checking out an acorn, it can become impossible to call the dog to you. There are several creative options for overcoming this barrier.
One is a vibrating collar. When the owner wishes to get his dog’s attention, the owner pushes a button on a hand-held remote device, and the dog’s collar vibrates like a cell phone vibrates. When trained to do so, the dog will begin looking around for the owner upon feeling the soft vibration, and after spotting his owner will respond to whatever hand signal command the owner gives. There’s a great website called http://www.deafdogs.org/. This website not only explains how to train deaf dogs to the vibrating collar, but also lists the vibrating collars currently on the market along with each collar’s advantages and disadvantages.
It is important to note that a vibrating collar is NOT an electric "shock" collar. The vibrating collar only vibrates in the same way a cell phone put on vibrate does. It does not deal any punishment or electric shock. The vibrating collar simply acts in place of a dog's name. Instead of calling, "Here Fido!" an owner simply remotely vibrates the collar for the dog to look for his owner for the next signal command. I have used this method with Jericho to great success. He loved his vibrating collar and through the collar's use, eventually learned to visually check in with me about ever 30 seconds. Since then, he has not needed the collar.
Remember, the vibrating collar is only to be used in place of the dog's name, and it does not deal any pain or punishment to the dog. The vibration is soft and gentle - like a kind touch.
Another recall method is best used at night. Turning an outdoor light on and off to signal a dog to come works great, but obviously only works well in the dark.
If the deaf dog has other hearing dogs that live in the household, it’s often easier to deal with the dog’s handicap. Jericho has learned when the other dogs run for the house after being called, he must run along also or be left alone outside. Deaf dogs learn quickly to respond when the hearing dogs react to noise. They learn this as very young puppies in the litter, and because of this, some breeders don’t realize they have a deaf puppy in a litter because the pup has been responding with his litter mates to noises.
A great trick to use for calling a dog when indoors is to stomp on the floor. Teaching the dog to look at you when it feels vibrations from the floor allows you to communicate to your deaf dog from across a room. You can teach your dog how to look at you through vibrations from stomping on the floor exactly as you would teach your dog to look at you through vibrations from the vibrating collar. (see deafdogs.org) Unfortunately, those with homes built on concrete slabs can't create vibrations through the floor by stomping their feet, and other methods of communication must be found.
Hand Signal Commands for the Deaf Dog
There are no standardized hand signals to use when training your deaf dog. Most trainers use voice and hand signals when training hearing dogs, and these hand signals are fine for deaf dogs as well. I also add signals for words that I use in daily life for my dogs. Fingers to the mouth mean “breakfast” or “dinner.” A hand over my heart means “I love you.” Waving my hand in the common hello sign for people means “good dog” to Jericho. Some owners have purchased a human sign language dictionary and used those signs with their dog. As long as it is consistent, what signs are used is inconsequential. In the video below, you can see Jericho responding to some of the hand signals he knows.
Owners need to be aware that signals used for various commands must not look similar to the dog. My hand signal for Jericho to sit is to face my right palm up and raise my arm up. When Jericho was in training to compete in agility, I was teaching him to take an agility jump parallel and at a distance from me. When he ran on my left side, he would always take the jump. But when he ran on my right side, he would go to the jump and sit in front of it.
This perplexed me for days until I figured out that my signal for “outing” to the distance jump on my right was to raise my right arm, which looked very similar to my sit signal. So Jericho had been doing exactly as I told him time and time again – go out to the jump and sit. What a good dog he was!!
Some of other hand signals I use with Jericho include:
- Come: Right arm raised to 12 on the clock and with a sweeping clockwise motion dropped down to 6 on the clock.
- Down: Right arm raised at around 90 degrees, palm down, palm then lowered toward the ground.
- Good dog: Thumbs up or a "wave hello."
- A "What was that?" negative marker: An exaggerated shoulder shrug indicating "Hey. What did you just do wrong?"
- Get off: Palm up and then quickly flipped so the palm is down. Used to tell the dog to get off of furniture, me, out of the car, etc.
- Stay: A finger pointed at the dog.
Remember, any hand signal you are comfortable with will work. Just be sure each signal is unique unto itself.
More Tips for Training and Caring for Your Deaf Dog
- Owners of deaf dogs need to be more physically active when training. When a hearing dog is chewing on a shoe, the owner can give a verbal negative marker (“That’s wrong”) while continuing to sit and watch television. A dog trained to the verbal negative marker will then quit chewing on the shoe. With a deaf dog, the owner must be willing to get up off of the sofa, go over to the dog, get the dog’s attention, give a hand signal command for “no,” and redirect the dog to the proper behavior (in this instance, playing with a dog toy instead). This is where consistency becomes important. If the owner is too tired to get up and get the dog’s attention, then the dog will not be corrected for the bad behavior, and the behavior will continue and even get worse.
- Owners must also be willing to take extra care in keeping deaf dogs safe. Deaf dogs cannot hear traffic and can easily become hit-by-car victims. Deaf dogs should never be allowed off-lead outside of a fenced area. Owners of deaf dogs should also make sure their fence and gates are secure and escape proof.
- Deaf dogs can be easily startled. Young children need to be trained not to sneak up behind deaf dogs. A common myth about deaf dogs is they are more aggressive due to the fact that they often are startled awake. According to an article in the Sept. 2003 issue of “The Whole Dog Journal,” aggression in deaf dogs does not appear to occur at any higher rate than other dogs.
Benefits of Owning a Deaf Dog
There are plusses to owning a deaf dog. Deaf dogs are not noise reactive. I show my dogs in agility, and Jericho joins us at dog shows. This means staying in hotels. While my other dogs sometimes bark at the noises caused by other hotel guests, Jericho is unaware and completely at ease. This may be a real plus for apartment dwellers, but all potential owners of deaf dogs need to be aware that deaf dogs can and do bark.
Dogs are amazing creatures, and I am awed daily at how little Jericho’s deafness affects his life. People visiting my house are stunned to learn that the white Sheltie is deaf. Their common comment is, “I would never have guessed it.”
And Jericho has proven deaf dogs can hold their own with their hearing counterparts. At the age of five months, he earned his CGC (Canine Good Citizen Certification) through the American Kennel Club. At the young age of 11 months, he earned his first obedience titles – an APDT (American Pet Dog Trainers) Rally-O title won with honors (R1-MCL). Jericho is also a multiple High in Trial obedience winner.
That’s because Jericho has no idea he’s special. He’s just a happy dog – playing, training, loving and having fun – like any other dog.
Deaf Dog Education Action Fund
Deafdogs.org is a fantastic resource for any owner of a deaf dog. The website is chock full of great training advice, rescue information, FAQs, professional trainers and more.
As an aside, Jericho is not completely deaf and can hear loud noises, such as a person yelling. As such, he is allowed to compete in the American Kennel Club events because a BAER hearing test has shown him to have "useful hearing" according to AKC rules.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.