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Communication with your Deaf Dog

Communicating with your deaf dog is a step above regular dog training in that everything is done in complete silence. Fortunately, besides its sense of smell, a dog’s world is based largely on subtle (and some not so subtle) body language so it is inherent in your dog to take cues from your behavior. These cues include facial expressions, body posture and changes in body movement.

The most important thing to communicate to your deaf dog is a sense of peace. Since your deaf dog compensates by taking cues from the behavior of humans and animals around him/her, he/she looks to you as a leader and guide to show him/her how to react in situations. The easiest way to tell your dog to be calm is to project that attitude yourself by mimicking calm body language that is universal to dogs. This body language includes yawning, having your eyes half-closed and blinking slowly, slow breathing, looking away and pretending to be day-dreaming, and relaxing the muscles in your body. The body language you do not want to project is fast and shallow breathing, open-mouthed breathing, wide-eyed stares, tense muscles in your body, fast movements, or shaking. Even your facial expressions are important. As your dog gets to know you better, he/she will soon learn all your facial expressions, so be careful what you project. In general, it’s always best to adopt a positive and calm attitude regardless if you have a deaf dog or not! Yet it is even more critical to have such a personality because your dog’s emotions will be based off your emotions.

Besides the use of a vibrating collar as a tool for training and a paging system for your dog, sign language is another way of telling him/her what you want your dog to do. You could pick up American Sign Language, or you could make up your own signs. You will find that the top two most versatile signs for your dog are: “the finger” and “the hand”.

The power of “the finger” is indisputable and almost ubiquitous. Pointing to an object or a location is a very intuitive way of communicating because of the motion of moving your arm and hand to point. Pointing with the finger can mean get up on, or get off,  go inside/outside, leap over, look at something, etc. If you pair the pointing finger with another sign (like the sign for food) then the communication can become more specific and in this case you might teach that the pairing of those 2 signs means “go eat”. The pointing finger is just one position of the finger; the wagging finger can mean something else. A wagging a finger could mean “No”!

You might ask how a dog might discern between signs as one sign can mean multiple things. The answer is in the body language displayed when using “the finger” and the situation in which it is used. For example, wagging a finger can mean that the dog has done something wrong or should NOT do something. When pointing to an object (like a cookie on the floor) and then wagging a finger at the cookie, you are telling him/her not do anything to get himself/herself in trouble like eating that cookie. If he/she sees a finger pointing to a couch, the dog may immediately discern to get on it. Using an arm in a wide sweeping manner and pointing a finger over an object, may mean to the dog to jump over the object. Thus with one hand signal, it is possible to communicate a variety of things because of the situational cues and body language that are attached to the signal. Rewarding the dog using a treat after an action well performed re-enforces this behavior and encourages the dog to watch for more signals.

In addition to visual communication there is also tactile (touch) communication. How do you teach your dog the sign for “no” if he can’t hear you and might not be looking at you? The answer is in teaching your dog the difference in touch. There are many kinds of touch such as stroking/petting to show affection, massaging touches to calm a dog down, tapping him/her lightly on the shoulder to get his attention when engrossed in an activity, and last but not least, the touch that means “No”!

A “no” touch can be started with an extremely light rapping on the nose with a wagging finger when the dog does something undesirable. The muzzle on the dog is a very sensitive spot and a light tapping made by a finger on the muzzle accomplishes two things: Firstly, the wagging of the finger in front a dog’s eyes makes the dog blink and forces him/her to break eye contact with the object or situation around him/her that is getting it into trouble. This breaks the dog’s concentration and fixation on it. Secondly, the light tapping on the sensitive spot is unpleasant, so the dog stops the undesirable activity.

From repetition the dog will soon learn what you don’t want him/her to do and the dog will start to associate the wagging of your finger with something unpleasant. With time, you can wag your finger from afar instead of tapping the dog on the nose. Your dog has now learned the sign for “no”. You can also further extend this association by displaying a certain facial expression and/or body posture while wagging your finger. When your dog learns to associate all these actions with “no”, you would have successfully generated a range of unpleasantries to communicate to your dog. Therefore, it would greatly intensify the “no” issue if and when you display all of the above “no” actions all at once.

Of course, you can adopt any sign you want in communicating with your dog. These are merely suggestions and techniques to help you to improvise around communicating with your deaf dog. Remember, the most intuitive and simplest sign is the best one. Although communicating solely in sign and body language is foreign to most people, you will soon fall into a natural rhythm with it. The means of reaching the goal are endless, so improvise, research and be patient. As always, if you are having trouble with these exercises please contact a professional dog trainer or get a reference from your vet.

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