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How To Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals

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Training a deaf dog presents its own set of challenges. But with patience and consistency, your deaf pup can learn to perform behavior cues with hand signals

I believe that all dogs should know hand signals. It helps dogs pay attention. 

And, later in life, some dogs lose their hearing. Knowing hand signals makes the transition to going deaf easier.

Down Stay Hand Signal - dog down in grass staring at hand

My sheltie Amber became totally deaf in her senior years. Fortunately, she knew hand signals. 

So when she had to go to the bathroom at night, I could call her with a hand signal to return. 

After all, neighbors wouldn’t appreciate me verbally calling her at midnight!

How To Train a Deaf Dog with Hand Signals

It’s important for all dog’s to learn hand signals as older dogs can lose they’re hearing later in life.

Todays article is going to cover how to train a deaf dog with hand signals.

Even if you’re reading this and your dog isn’t deaf, training him with both verbal cues and hand signals can be beneficial.

How To Get a Deaf Dog’s Attention

Because deaf dogs can’t hear us and other sounds we can use for attention, you have to use other methods to get their attention. 

Later in the blog, I’ll discuss how to teach and use an attention cue when your dog is looking at you. But what if he isn’t looking at you? 

There are ways to get his attention even if he’s at a distance from you. 

Don’t forget to have small, pea-sized yummy treats ready to reward him for desired behaviors.

How To Get Your Deaf Dog’s Attention When He Isn’t Looking at You

There are methods to get your deaf dog’s attention even if he looks away. Or when he’s not within reach.  

I recommend having him on a six-foot leash to begin, so that you can be close enough to reward him. 

Use A Light

Turn a flashlight on and off when your pup is near you. Just do this a few times during each training session. Reward him with a treat when he looks at you. 

You can also do the same thing with a laser pointer. Flash the light a few times away from the dog, being sure that it’s not pointed at your deaf dog’s eyes. Give your pup a treat when he looks at you.

Just do each training exercise a few times, then move on.

These methods can work well. But just be aware that some dogs start to compulsively chase light when using these techniques. 

I’ve seen it happen more with laser pointers than with flashlights. I was called in to help the owners of a Jack Russell terrier that had become light-obsessed. 

The owners had used a light pointer to exercise him. Unfortunately, he became obsessed with other lights too: the sunlight beaming through the window, the light on the floor from the table lamp, car lights that reflected into his fenced yard. 

Of course I instructed the owners to immediately stop using the laser pointer and to exercise the terrier other ways. 

I know how high-energy the breed can be. So they took him on long walks, played fetch, did obedience training, and gave him puzzle toys–all of which exercised his body and his mind. 

These activities also redirected him to fun, acceptable behaviors and away from his compulsive light chasing.

Outside lights such as a porch light can also help get your dog’s attention. This is usually effective at night when you need to get your deaf dog’s attention.

Make vibrations

Deaf dogs are especially attuned to their other senses. 

So if you stomp on the floor with your foot or hand as you approach him, he will probably turn towards you to see what’s happening. 

Immediately reward him with a treat when he looks at you.

Use a vibrating collar

This can be used to get your dog’s attention. Make sure that you put the collar’s vibration on the lowest setting to begin with. 

To teach a dog that the collar is something to be desired, give treats when you put it on. 

Then give treats while it vibrates for a few seconds. Then turn off the vibrations. Do this just three times. Then teach it again during your next training session. 

But be aware that some dogs may be sensitive to the vibrations and become distressed. If this is true, just stop using the collar. Use another method to get his attention. 

The point is to communicate, not punish. Do not use a shock collar. Shock collars are aversives and can have many negative behavioral consequences.

Use gentle touch

Touching your dog gently on his shoulder or on his back can be used to get his attention. 

You first need to teach him that this sudden touch is something to be desired. I discuss in detail below how to condition your dog to accept–and enjoy–this.

Caveat: when startled, some dogs may become aggressive. If there’s any risk that this may happen, don’t use this technique.

How To Teach Your Dog To Look at You

All dogs need to learn to pay attention so that they can follow our obedience cues. Of course dogs who still have their hearing can pay attention by listening to you. 

Since a deaf dog can’t hear, he needs to actually look at you. Personally, I train all dogs to look at me to ensure that I have their attention.

Capturing the Behavior

Whenever your dog looks at you, immediately reward that behavior. Give him a small treat. 

Capturing and rewarding a desired behavior also can teach other behaviors because the dog understands what he’s being rewarded for.

You can also help this process along by having your dog on a six-foot loose leash when you are attempting to capture his behavior. 

When he looks at you, give him a yummy treat. Do this five times, then end the session.

Luring Your Dog and Adding a Hand Signal

Have your pup on a six-foot leash with a treat in your hand. Lure him to look at you by moving the treat from his nose to your face. Treat and reward the instant he looks at you. Do this five times. 

Start adding a hand signal, such as pointing to your face after you lure. Treat immediately after he looks at you. Do this exercise five times. Then end the session.

Eventually, your dog will understand that looking at you is the desired behavior. Then just give the hand signal without luring and reward.

How To Teach Other Obedience Cues with Hand Signals

Dogs are experts at reading our body language. And deaf dogs often get in the habit of looking at their pet parents. 

So hand signals are a great way to teach obedience cues to your deaf dog. 

You can choose to use traditional hand signals, make up your own, or use American Sign Language

Whatever you choose, it’s crucial that everyone who’s working with your dog is consistent in using the exact same cue with the same hand. 

Each hand signal must be distinctive from the others. 

You should also speak the word for the behavior cue when using the hand signal. You’ll probably be more natural if you do since we’re used to speaking the dog’s cue.

I’m going to discuss below how to lure your dog with a treat into performing certain obedience cues. Your dog will naturally follow the lure. 

But don’t forget that you can also help the process along by capturing and rewarding any desired behavior. So if your dog sits, reward him with a treat. Same is true if he lies down. 

Just like us, if we’re rewarded when we do something, we’ll do it again.

Try to do two or three short training sessions a day. You need not do every cue during each session. 

In fact, many dogs will become bored if you do too much during each session. And they’ll zone out. 

Just make sure that you work on each behavior every day so that you and your canine partner will progress.

Always start without distractions, adding them as your dog is able to handle them.

How To Mark that Your Dog Performed the Correct Behavior

For dogs who can hear, we usually inform them that they correctly performed a behavior by saying “Yes!” or clicking, followed by a treat. 

Of course, this won’t work with deaf dogs. So we need to become creative regarding how to let them know we were pleased with their performance. 

Of course, a treat lets a dog know we’re pleased  But eventually you’ll be phasing treat rewards down. But you still need to inform him that he was right. So teach him a signal.

  • You can use a thumb up or shaking your head three times while smiling. Then give a treat to let him know that motion means he was right.

How To Teach Your Dog To Sit with a Hand Signal

After teaching a dog to pay attention, I teach a dog to sit on cue. 

  • Have a yummy treat in your hand and hold it just above your dog’s nose.
  • Slowly move the treat backward toward the back of his head. Then lift your elbow up towards a 90-degree angle. 
  • As soon as your dog’s posterior touches the ground in the sit position, give him the treat lure as his reward.
  • Do the above steps five times during each training session. Try to do two or three short training sessions a day.
  • After your dog regularly sits each time you lure, fade out the lure. Use it almost every time, then less and less frequently. Just give the reward treat when not using it as a lure.
  • Over time (and this may take weeks or longer), start phasing out giving a treat reward. Phase it down slowly so that your dog doesn’t lose motivation.

How To Teach Your Dog to Lie Down with a Hand Signal

You should first teach your dog to sit on cue. 

  • Immediately after he sits, slowly make a sweeping motion with a treat in front of his nose straight down towards the floor. If he lies down, give him a treat
  • Your sweeping hand motion towards the ground will become his hand signal to lie down.
  • Do the above steps five times during each training session. Try to do two or three short training sessions a day.
  • After your dog regularly lies down each time you lure, fade out the lure. Use it almost every time, then less and less frequently. Just give the reward treat when not using it as a lure.
  • Over time (and this may take weeks or longer), start phasing out giving a treat reward. Phase it down slowly so that your dog doesn’t lose motivation.

How To Teach Your Dog to Come with a Hand Signal

Paying attention and coming to you are the most important behaviors he can learn. 

As is true with all behaviors, start close, then add distance after your dog understands what’s expected. 

It’s crucial that you teach him to pay attention to you in order to teach him to come from a distance. 

As a trainer, I advise using an extra yummy treat when he comes to you. Also, give a jackpot of treats after he comes. This means a few treats in a row. 

You want to make it a party when he comes to you. If he enjoys petting, that can also be part of his reinforcement.

  • At first, have your dog on a loose six-foot lead. Show him a treat while making a broad, sweeping motion with your arm. This will lure him towards you. Give him the reward treats when he reaches you.
  •  Do the above steps five times during each training session. Try to do two or three short training sessions a day.
  • After your dog regularly lies down each time you lure, fade out the lure. Use it almost every time, then less and less frequently. Just give the reward treat when not using it as a lure.
  • Over time (and this may take weeks or longer), start phasing out giving a treat reward. Phase it down slowly so that your dog doesn’t lose motivation.
  • Add distance slowly over time when your dog is able to pay attention and come to you.

Why Are Hand Signals Important for All Dogs?

Hand signals help us communicate with our dogs. Many dogs lose their hearing as they age. 

My sheltie Amber became totally deaf by the time she was 14. Fortunately, she knew to pay attention to me even at a distance. And she knew hand signals. 

So when I made a sweeping motion for her to come inside at night, she readily came. And I didn’t have to disturb anyone by loudly telling her to come.

How To Teach a Gentle Touch for Attention.

You need to teach your dog that touching him–even if it’s sudden–is desirable. 

Of course, if your dog has handling issues, get professional help first from a behaviorist.

Any dog can be startled by being touched suddenly. Some may even growl or even bite. 

This occurs especially in dogs who suddenly lose their hearing because they were previously accustomed to auditory cues before being touched. 

So you need to condition him that being touched suddenly is positive and leads to praise and treats. 

The following may take weeks or months for your pup to be comfortable with a sudden touch. Don’t rush the process.

Start next to your dog, in his view. Touch in the same place, such as his shoulder. Immediately give him a special treat reward. 

After he’s comfortable with the sudden touch (which may take weeks or longer), move slightly out of view and gently touch his shoulder followed by an immediate treat. 

Do each action five times during the training session. End the session on a positive note.

Problems can arise when you need to get your deaf dog’s attention while he’s sleeping. You may need to wake him up for something. 

Teach him that being startled is positive. First practice waking him up gently with a smelly, yummy treat in front of his nose. 

The scent should wake him up. You could use pieces of hot dogs, chicken, or freeze-dried fish. Immediately give him the treat. 

It may take many sessions for him to be comfortable waking up this way. 

After he becomes comfortable waking him up this way with scent, add a gentle touch. Immediately treat him after he wakes up and after the shoulder touch.

Other Concerns When Training a Deaf Dog

There are other measures to take when working with a deaf dog.

  • Safety. Even a well-trained deaf dog shouldn’t be let off-lead in an area that’s not enclosed. You can use a leash or longline if you’re outside in an unfenced area.
  • Be aware of each other’s whereabouts. You should be aware of your dog’s whereabouts. Attach a small bell to his collar like they use for cats so you’ll know his location. And you should also let him know when you’re leaving so that he doesn’t become stressed looking for you. You can teach him a cue, such as waving goodbye when you leave. And he should see you leave so that he will understand what the cue means.

I’m thinking about adopting a deaf dog. Can they be trained? 

Yes! With patience and consistency, deaf dogs can be trained to understand hand signals.

My senior dog is slowly losing his hearing. What should I do? 

First, have a vet check him out to determine why he’s losing his hearing. There may be something a vet can do to stop the hearing loss. Teach your dog hand signals so that he will understand what you expect.

What are the commands I should teach my deaf dog? How do I do it?

You would teach him behavior cues by using hand signals. Make sure that you consistently use the same hand signals for each cue.

And reward each successful behavior. Start with teaching him to pay attention to you. Then teach him other basic cues, such as come, sit, and down. From there, the sky’s the limit!

Final Thoughts

Even though training a deaf dog may be challenging, it’s also very rewarding. Use hand signals to convey what behaviors you want. 

With patience, persistence, and consistency, your dog should learn. And you will both have fun and fulfilling lives!

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How To Train A Deaf Dog With Hand Signals - dog in down stay staring at hand

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