Hand-signs for deaf dogs

Hand-signs for deaf dogs
Madeline, 5 year old deaf Australian Shepherd mix (blue merle with tan points)

Deaf and deaf/blind dogs can be trained using hand-signs. Dogs that are blind but not deaf can be trained using the same kinds of verbal commands as any other dog. For deaf dogs with good vision, hand-signs for commands can be used that the dog is trained to recognize visually and respond to.

The simplest way to train a deaf dog is to use a hearing dog as an assistant. If the hearing dog is trained to consistently respond to specific hand signs, then it is much easier to train the deaf dog, because it can watch the hand sign command being given, watch the hearing dog follow the command, and simply imitate the other dog. Small treats are a great reinforcer!

In general, deaf dogs are much happier in homes where they have another canine companion. Having another dog to follow around helps them more quickly learn the routines of their new family and speeds up the process of housetraining.

For dogs that are both deaf and blind, a special variation of hand-sign commands must be used called “touch signs”. Like the name implies, touch signs involve using the hand to lightly and gently touch the dog’s body in very specific places. Over time, the deaf/blind dog learns that certain touches are actually commands.

This is not as difficult as it might sound. Touch is the natural language of dogs.

Deaf Aussie mix Madeline’s owner uses a combination of hand and touch signs with her since she regularly works with dogs that are deaf, blind or deaf/blind. Every deaf dog owner uses slightly different hand signs that are unique to owner and dog. Some examples of hand-signs for a deaf dog are attached, from Madeline’s owner.

One of the challenges of owning a deaf dog is getting the dog’s attention if the dog is not looking in the owner’s direction. For this reason, Madeline has a touch-sign that she knows means she needs to turn around and look at her owner for further directions. If she is at the downtown Nashville dog park just having fun, and she feels a hand rubbing the middle of her back, Madeline knows that she needs to turn around and see what her owner needs her to do. Since Madeline can’t hear growling, this is an important command to help her stay out of situations where she might get hurt.