How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals

How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals

Training a dog that is partially deaf or completely deaf is very similar to training a new puppy.  Deaf dogs can learn just as easily with a few unique shifts in your training methods. Dog owners will agree that obedience training is just as important for a deaf dog. 

As with all dog training, commit your time, your energy and the results will be a fantastic dog that can be obedient, confident, and even participate in many dog sports. Since dogs naturally communicate better with visual cues, it is not uncommon for deaf dogs to learn over twenty hand signals.

Whether you are getting a puppy that was born deaf or you have an older dog that is losing their hearing, you can learn how to train a deaf dog with hand signals.  Dogs and humans that use hand signals as a form of communication live happy and content lives together.

Many people have adapted the American Sign Language (ASL) hand signals and use them with their dogs.  As of today, there is not a standard sign language for deaf dogs.  People that own a deaf dog will often use a Deaf Dog Sign Language (DDSL), which is based on the ASL hand signals.

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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Getting the Dog’s Attention

The first question when you begin learning how to train a deaf dog with hand signals is, how do I get the attention of my deaf dog?  There are four common ways to get a deaf dog’s attention; one is through vibrations on the ground, vibration through a vibration collar, through light signals and gentle specific touch.

Ground Vibrations. There are two common ways to get your deaf dog’s attention using vibrations on the ground.  You can stomp your feet on the floor or use your fist to make tapping vibrations. 

Collar Vibrations. Vibration collars are worn on the dog strictly for communication purposes. This type of collar is not an electronic shock collar.  A gentle vibration collar can symbolize the dog’s name and draw their attention to you. 

Light signals. This form of getting a dog’s attention is best used when it is dark outside.  You can use a small flashlight to get the dog’s attention.  (Note: avoid using laser lights).

Gentle Touch. Be consistent with how you touch your dog and where you touch your dog when you want to get their attention.  Often people will use two fingers and gently touch the dog’s shoulder or backend.

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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Getting the Dog’s Attention
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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Establish a Market Signal

When you begin training your dog, it is important to establish a marker signal.  A marker signal is the equivalent of a click in clicker training, “great job” or “yes, that is correct behavior”.  For dogs that can hear, often it is shortened to “yes” as the marker word.

Deaf dogs need a marker signal that works for the dog owners.  Some marker signals that are frequently used by other deaf dog owners are “thumbs up” or flashing “three fingers”, or you can use the ASL symbol for the word “yes”.

You want a signal that will work in the home and in the yard. Marker signals are a quick way to praise your dog after you get their attention.  You can use the marker signal every time they give you eye contact as well.

When establishing and teaching your marker signal treat your dog within 2-3 seconds after using the signal.  Position your dog in front of you, have several treats in one hand, and use the other hand for the marker signal.  Flash your dog the signal and treat.  Repeat so it is clear that dog knows that that symbol means correct behavior.

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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Obedience Skills Using Hand Signals

Dog owners teach their deaf dogs visual hand signals to represent specific actions. Dogs are amazing visual learners at any age.

Owners of deaf dogs find success with teaching obedience skills using hand signals. Improve your communication by teaching your deaf dog the following ten hand signals.

Start your training by getting your dog’s attention and having them in front of you.

How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Obedience Skills Using Hand Signals
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10 Hand Signals for Deaf Dogs

Dogs learn quicker when the correct behavior is reinforced with a reward.  Grab a handful of treats and you will be prepared to teach your dog hand signals. To avoid confusion for your dog, communicate with anyone who lives with you or visits your dog frequently the hand signals.

One helpful tip is to post the hand signals for the various commands in a location that everyone can see in your house.  On the refrigerator or by the sink is a location that everyone see each day.

Dinner. Sign a D – The letter D is signed by holding up your dominant hand, curving your middle finger, ring finger and pinkie finger together and touch them to your thumb.  Your index finger will be standing upright, making it looks like a small letter d.

Sit. Raising your hand up from your side to your shoulder. When first teaching sit with the hand signal, use a treat to lure your dog into a sit position. 

Down. Start palm out at the shoulder and move down towards the floor ending with palm out.

Stay.  The palm of your hand is stretched out in front of the dog with fingers facing up.

Free – Release from Stay.  Move both your hands up to your shoulder level, palms of your hands facing out.

Stand. Start with your palm out at the side of your hip and move it straight backwards.

Heel.  Tap your left hip or make a circle motion on your hip.

Go-To.  Use a straight arm and point using your pointer finger to the destination.  This can be used for dog bed, crates, mat, or even getting in the car.

Come. Use one or both arms out parallel to the floor and bring your hands to your chest.

Get a Toy.  Use one hand and move your fingers in a walking motion. When first teaching this hand signal, move the toy close to you and the dog.  After giving the hand signal look at that toy.

This is not just a sampling of how to train a deaf down with hand signals.  Other commands that dog owners find helpful are “leave it”, “all done playing”, and “someone is at the door.”

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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Positive Reinforcement

When you begin training your dog using hand signals, you need a way to offer up praise and reward the correct behavior.  Positive reinforcement has been a successful style of training with dog’s that cannot hear well or do have a loss of hearing.

Small Rewarding Treats.  Keep your treats small and appealing.  If your dog really likes chicken then offer up cooked chicken, whatever they think is a tasty treat.

Timing the Reward.  The more accurate the timing of the delivery of the reward will allow for better reinforcement of the behavior and less confusion for the dog.

Delivery of the Reward.  You will need to deliver the treat to your dog. In the case of teaching sit or down, using treats is helpful for showing the dog the correct position.

The reasoning behind positive reinforcement is rewarding your dog for behavior you want to see again. This type of training works well for deaf dogs.

How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Positive Reinforcement
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How to Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals: Tips from Owners of Deaf Dogs

  • Use hand signals throughout the day, not just at designated training times.
  • Practice A-Z hand signs (if using DDSL)
  • Choose a marker signal and appropriate facial expressions.
  • Practice eye contact throughout the day with your dog.
  • Be consistent with hand signals.
  • Post diagrams in your home for other family members.

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Be abundant in your praise. Deaf dogs will learn very quickly that the way to communicate with you is through body language such as hand signals.

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