Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sign Language For Deaf Dogs

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!


Jazzie Casas said...

Dogs who lose their hearing later in life, may become aggressive but it is only because of their confusion. Unlike humans, they do not understand what is happening to them and can lash out in fear when startled. Never come up behind a deaf dog who is sleeping. Even when he is awake, if he can't see you come up behind him, he may be momentarily startled and and act aggressively.

It is extremely important to learn how to communicate with, and train, your dog using hand signals. Whether you use American Sign Language, standard obedience signs, or signals of your own development, it is very important that you and other people who interact with your dog, are consistent with the signs that you use. Additionally, it is wise to use signs that require only one hand and can be easily detected by your dog from a distance away.

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DeeDee The Deaf Dog said...

I have a deaf dog, she is five months old and from a rescue centre. She has been with us for a month now and knows 7 signs already including sit, paw, down, roll over, stay, away and fetch. She is so loving and attentative and will do anything for a treat so is easy to train. We have a border collie who is her helper when off the lead we join the two harnesses together. She is great, check out her blog :)