A few weeks ago I had a gathering at my house and the guests included a friend of a friend who is in training to become an American Sign Language interpreter. When the topic turned to dogs (as it often does around here!), she mentioned that deaf dogs are entirely capable of learning to understand sign language. Of course this makes perfect sense, but I just hadn't considered the possibility of ASL for dogs until that point - what a revelation!
As it turns out, our furry friends are far more attuned to body movement than they are to verbal cues. The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website explains it this way: "Dogs do not understand English (or any other language). Because we depend so much on speech, we tend to think that dogs communicate that way too, when in fact, they don't." This means that hand signals are actually easier for dogs to learn, and makes training a deaf pooch nearly as easy as training a hearing one - it just requires the use of a nonverbal language.
There are limitless options when it comes to utilizing hand signs. Many people choose to employ ASL or a variant of it. Some elect to make up their own vocabulary of gestures. Ultimately, guardians of deaf dogs have as much liberty with their choice of commands as those with hearing pups. For an illustrated guide of basic hand signs, click here.
Over in the U.K. many folks who work with deaf dogs are using sign language as well. At an animal shelter in England, little Snowy - the Jack Russell pictured above - was surrendered because of her inability to hear. Fortunately, the staff recognized her potential to learn and began teaching her hand signs. The five month old pup now responds to over ten commands including "quiet" (index finger to lips), "stop" (arm extended forward to display palm), and "walk" (fists rotated). And since all dogs need positive reinforcement, Snowy gets a smile and a thumbs up to know that she's a good girl for a job well done!