American Sign Language Training for Dogs

American Sign Language is the dominant sign language of the Deaf community in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in some areas of Mexico. Estimates of use range from 500,000 to 2 million in the U.S. alone” (Wikipedia).  American Sign Language is quickly becoming a popular way in which owners can bond with their 4-legged companions, particularly those which are deaf.

Communicating with a deaf dog is not as hard as it seems.  Deaf dogs are intent watchers of body language and facial expressions. You probably already use expressions your dog understands already.  A wave to come, palm out to halt or stop, hugs and rubs for I love you.  Dogs are the perfect students to learn ASL - and deaf dogs even more so.  Many trainers believe that communicating with your dog using American Sign Language is  easier than voice commands. When training a dog which already understands verbal commands, you simply add the sign, eventually dropping the word. For example, once the dog is in the sitting position, show him the sign for "sit". The sign for good dog is made by placing the fingers of your right hand on your lips, then moving them to your left hand.

A great tool is the American Sign Language pocketbook. As your vocabulary increases, so will your dogs.  At first she will concentrate on facial expressions instead of words. Begin with sit, down, stay, come, no and stop. When you dog understands these words in ASL, begin adding a new one, cookie, etc.  Always keep your dog on a leash when walking. The leash, and a fenced yard or stake and lead are necessities with the deaf dog becuase he will not hear you to come. A hunting dog bell on the dog is an added plus, but any kind of jingle bell allows you to hear your dog when he is on the move. If you have a big yard, it can be difficult to know where to find him if he falls asleep in a hidden spot somewhere - because calling him will do no good.

To get your dog's attention, stomp the floor with a foot (he'll feel the vibration).  Sometimes a flashlight or laser light pointed in front of him can give him a clue you're calling.  At night what we do is let Jazzy out in the dark, and call her in by turning on the porchlight.  This works well if your yard is secure and safe (and not likely to have other critters roaming about). 
If your dog is young, look for a trainer that has trained deaf dogs before. Standard obedience signs and American Sign Language (a pocket-sized book version is inexpensive and invaluable) are all you need.  He will catch on quickly because he WANTS to communicate with you!. As you speak the commands (your dog will also watch your face and you will have more expression if you are speaking) use the signals. This should get you to sit, lay, stay, and come. Give the sign and put your dog in the position you want him to be. Reward with food. Repeat. Training sessions should last about 15 minutes. Train a deaf dog just like a hearing dog (except for signing instead of speaking).

The dog's knowledge of signs is only limited by your ability to teach them. Most dogs know up to 300 words, so knowing that many signs is totally reasonable if you take the time to teach them. 

When waking him from a sound sleep, always touch him gently in the same place.  Give him a treat and/or lots of love every time you wake him. Startling the deaf dog out of sleep is often touchy becuase some dogs are more reactive.  A treat or gentle touching will make him feel safe and he will wake in a pleasant mood rather than fearful or anxious.  Make sure visitors know to not touch the sleeping dog, especially children.

Food rewards are the best way we can reward a deaf puppy since they cannot hear the tone of our voice. (You can taper off the food rewards, as your dog grows older and reward with lots of loving and enthusiasm. The sign for good job is clapping your hands or thumbs up.) Carrots are healthy treats that are not going to get your dog fat!

A good reward gesture is to clap your hands. In ASL, this means good job, success. Make sure you smile! Deaf dogs love seeing you happy as much as a hearing dog, perhaps more. 

Also keep in mind that deaf dogs are no more likely to bite than hearing dogs.  Yes, they may startle, but a stable, well bred, well socialized dog (deaf or not) is going to give you the benefit of the doubt when interacting.  The biggest problem with a deaf dog is he is more likely to be confused as to what you want his reaction to be.  Are we getting up to go play?  a car ride?  a walk? dinner? go outside to potty? This is where your ASL signs can come in very handy....sign outside, or sign leash and your dog will catch on quickly! 

I understand that the Dalmatian Club of America goes so far as to advocate the euthanasia of deaf puppies. How sick is that? The breed is plagued with hereditary deafness but as a breeder, I can tell you there are better options.  Deaf dogs are wonderful pets!  Just don't breed them!

If you really want to get into obedience with your deaf dog you can.  Instead of a clicker, use the flash of a penlight.  Another option is a thumbs up, or specific hand signal.  The beauty of deaf dogs is they will be much more instinctive about WATCHING you!  (something not always easy to train when the dog isn't deaf).

 Teaching a dog to Sit with ASL

Teach a dog to Lay Down with ASL:

You can use the above methods to teach a dog just about anything - just choose an ASL sign to associate with the action.  One person uses the letter P for potty outside.  Another uses the first letter of the dog's name to get the dog's attention such as S for Spot.   You may have to experiment to find what feels comfortable for you, particularly if ASL is new to you.  Obviously it doesn't work from a distance for come if the dog isn't looking.  I have found that at night a porch light turned on and off can have the same meaning as "come in".  Dogs are quite intelligent and it's ok to have more than one word for an action/item.  One of their favorite words is "Cookie" for obvious reasons!


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