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How to Train a Deaf Dog Hand Signals and Sign Language

Jericho, the author's hard-of-hearing sheltie.

Jericho, the author's hard-of-hearing sheltie.

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.

Puppy Jericho playing with a box.

Puppy Jericho playing with a box.

Jericho, the judge and his owner with his "High in Trial" and "High in Trial Other Breed" ribbons won at an ASCA obedience trial. Notice Jericho's strict attention to his handler.  He's watching for more commands!!!

Jericho, the judge and his owner with his "High in Trial" and "High in Trial Other Breed" ribbons won at an ASCA obedience trial. Notice Jericho's strict attention to his handler. He's watching for more commands!!!

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.

Use a Vibrating Collar

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. The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund 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 every 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.

Turn an Outdoor Light on and Off

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.

Stomp the Floor

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.

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.

Jericho bringing a dumbbell back to his owner during a scent discrimination obedience exercise. While Jericho can hear, his owner chooses to use sign language instead of a loud voice to communicate with him.

Jericho bringing a dumbbell back to his owner during a scent discrimination obedience exercise. While Jericho can hear, his owner chooses to use sign language instead of a loud voice to communicate with him.

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 the 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 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.

© 2012 Kristin Kaldahl


Karen Evans from Lancashire, England on March 25, 2019:

Thanks for all your lovely comments. I love hearing about other people's pets. I miss Blue, he was such a great little dog x

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on March 18, 2019:

Thank you for the cute stories of your training efforts with your dog. I a sorry he is gone. Jericho the white sheltie in my article, died in December, 2018 (four month ago). I miss him every day. He passed away from old age at almost 16 years old.

Our deaf dogs are precious gifts.

Tommi Grace from Woodward on March 15, 2019:

I had a deaf Dogo Argentino - see my profile pic - When I adopted him, we received free dog training classes together. I learned how to "talk" to him. He did very well. In fact, he was the most well-behaved dog I had. I smiled when I read about your methods of getting a deaf dog's attention. I remember getting Ludwig's attention while he was in the yard and it was time to come in. I would jump up and down swinging my arms until he saw my shadow and then come running. It made me laugh and my neighbors thought I was insane. At night, for "potty time" I always took a flashlight with me so when it was time for us to come back in, I shone the light in front of him and he knew to look at me and come in when I gave him the come command. After a while my hearing dog, Babe - also in the profile pic- would see me trying to get Ludwig's attention and run to him to get his attention. She kind of became his mama. He followed her everywhere. I loved him so much and miss him. He passed two years ago and Babe still seems to miss him as much as I do. My deaf dog was wonderful and loving. And you are correct, it takes a bit more effort to communicate with them but the extra effort is very worth the love you will receive. Great article!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 19, 2015:

Thank you KL Evans!!! If you can find a dog trainer who has worked with deaf dogs, you can make faster progress avoiding all the "trial and error" stuff. It was trial and error for me as well though as I couldn't find someone who had done more than basic obedience with a deaf dog. :)

Karen Evans from Lancashire, England on May 18, 2015:

I do like your Hub. I have a deaf Blue Merle collie myself (deaf since birth) and he too understands hand signals. Training him was a process of trial and error, since we had never had a deaf dog before.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 30, 2015:

Good luck!! I hope you are able to figure out the cause and train through it. :)

Erica on April 29, 2015:

He is a double merle, and has been eye checked and cleared. Although, his joints and spine have not been xrayed. This is a great starting point for suggestions! I will definitely look into Susan dvd series as well as seek out a different athletic trainer . Thank you VERY much!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 29, 2015:

Erica, First, I would rule out other physical issues. He may have some physical issue that is causing him not to want to jump. I would suggest seeing a sports vet (a vet who specializes in injuries and issues that affect dogs involved in physical canine sports). A sports vet will have a much stronger understanding of the mechanics of jumping and the physical strain on the dog.

Is your deaf Aussie from a double merle breeding? In other words, were both of his parents merles? Double merles are often called "Lethal Whites" in Aussies. Double merles often have eye issues too, and while our dogs can navigate all the other obstacles just fine with vision issues, jumps are hard for dogs with vision problems. Even if your dog isn't a double merle, vision issues may well be the culprit. This doesn't sound like ETS (Early Takeoff Syndrome) but as so little is known about that eye issue, it could be a very bad case of ETS. The problem with eye issues is that vets really can't rule out eye problems completely as dogs can't read an eye chart. It becomes problematic when trying to diagnose eye issues in the canine athlete.

Then if no physical issues are present, I would look for an agility trainer who also specializes and understands jump training methods. We often think dogs can just jump, but many have to learn how to do this. There are two main jump training methods out there. I use a combo of both when I teach my dogs how to jump, but for you, I would probably recommend Susan Salo's DVD series for you. This could be a fear based issue that a good trainer can help you overcome. If your current trainer just set up jumps and told you to ask your dog to go over it, you might want to look for a new trainer. That is a sign of a trainer who isn't focusing on the important details in foundation agility training. You might want to read my article on how to find a good agility trainer.

I hope this gives you some new avenues to investigate. Good luck!!

Erica on April 28, 2015:

I started teaching my deaf aussie last summer, agility. He will do ANYTHING else but the jumps, we even placed a baby gate in the hall for him to jump to come to us. He is very hesitant and IF he jumps the gate he has to bare down on the top with all his weight. What can we do differently to get him to jump? I'd love to have him fly over them!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 03, 2013:

That's interesting, Solaras. They are so good at compensating for their hearing loss it's hard to know sometimes that they are deaf. We picked up rather quickly on Jericho, but I can see how someone wouldn't. Thanks for dropping by!!!

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on August 03, 2013:

I have a firend who did not know her dog was deaf until they started agility training. He would wonder off course and she did not know why until she had him BAER tested. This is great info!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 29, 2012:

Thank you CyberShelley!! Jericho amazes even me and I live with him every day. :)

Shelley Watson on July 28, 2012:

Thanks for sharing Jericho's wonderful story. It is amazing what he can still hear, and can enter into competition. Up & interesting

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 24, 2012:

I agree about the AKC not allowing deaf dogs to compete in performance events if they are spayed and neutered. Thanks for dropping by!!!

DoItForHer on July 24, 2012:

I hate some of the crap AKC pulls like not allowing deaf dogs to compete in agility.

I've read in a few places to treat deaf dogs like any other, but then they perpetuate the myth of scaring deaf dogs making them aggressive. Good job on your matter-of-fact prose; it's refreshing.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on July 24, 2012:

They are really good dogs. My sons are the only ones that have ever had them latch on and they never even leave a mark. My sheltie mix will lay between my husband in his wheelchair and anyone he doesn't know well.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 24, 2012:

That is really cool. Shelties are such amazing dogs. The bite inhibition your shelties and your sheltie mix shows is very interesting. They obviously sense the need to protect the family members they feel are most vulnerable. I never have had anyone come in my home without me allowing them in, so I don't know what my shelties would do. Two would play, but one might react pretty severely, which is OK with me!!

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on July 24, 2012:

They weren't really aggressive, they just very firmly put their mouth over my brothers arm to keep him from swatting. A very polite and restrained warning. He just put her out in the fenced yard. The only problem we had with that was when my dad fell and she wouldn't let the neighbor get him into the house. Hands off, she said. My dog now is part sheltie and he is very defensive of my disabled husband. He doesn't allow anyone, to come in except those who live here unless they knock, except for my under 6 year old grandchildren. Firm mouth on the arm bit and very gentle but it is a warning. Most believe that he is just doing his job. He loves everyone too.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 24, 2012:

My shelties love everyone and don't act aggressive to people at all. They don't play favorites either. But I've seen sheltie lines that act exactly as you've described too. It's so interesting to see the wide divergence between sheltie lines right now. Such different personalities in one breed!!!

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on July 23, 2012:

He was a sheltie-poodle cross and looked like a strange combination of both. All long hair, that was so soft and fuzzy like a poodles. My dad and sister had shelties. They are very smart dogs. They pick one or two people in a family that are theirs and are very protective of them. My dad's didn't think little kids should get up in my mom's face to talk enthusiastically but wouldn't let my brother swat his kids if she was in the house.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 23, 2012:

He sounds like he was a wonderful dog. I've found it interesting to see what Jericho hears and doesn't hear. A dog being able to hear snapping fingers does make sense actually. Thanks for telling about your special dog!!!

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on July 23, 2012:

My dog was 10 when he started showing signs of being hard of hearing. I had him trained to hand signals because when we were in noisy places, he could not hear always. It got to the point where he could not hear me call him but he could hear me snap my fingers. That was how I got his attention. He had never wandered far when we were outside anyway, and as he got deafer, he stayed closer. He was never far enough away from me to not be able to hear me snap my fingers. I had him until he was 16 years old and suffered four strokes in two months. I helped him through the first three and he was going downhill. The fourth one, I told my husband that it was time for my baby to be put down. I had had him since I was 16, he loved me through tears, marriage, having babies (he was great with the kids), and I really missed him for a long time.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 23, 2012:

Tell me about your experiences with your deaf dog!!!