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ASL for Dogs: Starting our sign language journey

Hello, friends! Let me just insert this quick note up right up front: This post requires a good bit of back story. So, if you’re just here to read about sign language cues for dogs, skip ahead to the ASL for Dogs header below. Otherwise, here’s where the backstory starts, and I think this is the most important thing to know at the outset: Cooper isn’t deaf.

Most–dare I say all?–of the posts I could find on teaching dogs ASL worked on the premise that the dog was deaf. Makes sense, right? A deaf dog needs to learn hand signals, no question. Choosing ASL rather than arbitrary obedience cues makes sense, too, because a deaf dog needs a lot more guidance than a hearing dog, so you need more signs at your disposal.

How to start ASL for dogs: Cooper is a hearing dog, but we're starting to teach him ASL signs. Here's why and how we're getting started.

Why am I teaching my hearing dog American Sign Language?

Let’s back up a step. Last November, our daughter Astrid was born. She spent nine days in the NICU, and during that time, she failed her newborn hearing screen. They referred us to a pediatric audiologist who could see her at the end of January. At that appointment, we discovered Astrid has mild-to-moderate hearing loss in both ears.

Truth? I was heartbroken. I felt so sad that she couldn’t hear birds chirping, that she couldn’t hear Violet singing to her, that she couldn’t hear me whisper, “I love you,” as I tucked her in at night. I worried about what it meant for her and for her future, for all the things that were suddenly thrust completely out of my control. Mamas want to protect, and this was something I couldn’t keep her from.

They scheduled a follow-up screen in March to try to refine the sounds she could and couldn’t hear–it’s tough in an infant since she can’t tell us anything–and between the two appointments, I started researching everything I could. We hooked up with our state’s health department, which provides an impressive number of services for kiddos 0-3 with developmental challenges and started aligning support services, one of which is an American Sign Language teacher.

Now, Astrid isn’t profoundly deaf. She will get hearing aids, and those will help immensely. She’ll receive listening therapy and speech therapy and occupational therapy if we need it, all through the state program. (She does have some other developmental delays that don’t relate to the topic of this post, but we’re getting physical therapy and such at the same time. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve likely seen her Doc Band!)

But all of it–the therapies, the hearing aids–screeched to a sudden stop because her ENT appointment was March 12, and the state closed on March 15. This is my absolute biggest anxiety right now because I just want her to hear! I want her to start speech and listening therapy! It makes me anxious not being able to DO SOMETHING to help her.

But, while we wait for all those pieces of the puzzle to fall in line, we’re focusing on the one thing we can all progress on together: learning sign language!

Even though the hearing aids will help Astrid hear, we need to learn ASL as a family because, for one thing, she won’t be able to wear them all the time. Like, they can’t get wet. So, what do you do during bath time or pool time in the summer? What if she loses one and we have to wait for a replacement? Or, since we don’t know the cause of her hearing loss, what if it’s degenerative? So, we all decided right off the bat we were going to learn a new language together! Violet’s the quickest learner of us all, I think! But, we realized we need to incorporate Cooper, too, and that’s where our sign language journey begins.

ASL for Dogs: Getting started

First, it’s helpful to know that dogs learn better visually than verbally. You can read an interesting summary of recent research here, but the gist is that, when learning something new, visual works best for dogs.

In Cooper’s case, we trained with a combo of verbal and visual cues. The visual cues were basic obedience cues, totally unrelated to ASL. He’s equally solid on both the visual and verbal because we usually use them both, though we rely more heavily on the verbal.

If your dog isn’t yet trained to either verbal or visual cues, you have a totally clean slate! If your dog can hear, I recommend pairing them together, but if your dog is deaf, focus on the visual. My friend at Deaf Dogs Rock linked to an AMAZING YouTube video for ASL for dogs that I bookmarked and have watched over and over. It’s the best place to start! Regardless of how you’re cuing your dog, remember that basic training like this requires time, patience, and lots and lots of practice!

If your dog is already trained to verbal cues OR to verbal and visual cues, start adding the hand signals (using that video linked to above) to go along with your verbal cues. Integrate the cues throughout your day, not just at specific “training times” so it becomes second nature for both you and your dog. Practice, practice, practice. It’ll take some time for your dog to make the mental shift–why is she doing that when she wants me to sit? that’s not sit! Be patient and use the hand signals as much as possible throughout the day; for example, ask your dog to sit using the new hand cue before eating or going outside.

Coop’s plan: Since he’s already trained on the verbal, I’m just going to switch my hand cues from the obedience ones to the ASL ones and run basic obedience drills so he can start identifying the hand cues. I’m also going to start using the ASL cues during those times I generally rely on the verbal. That will probably be a harder habit for me to break because I so often just call something over my shoulder without making eye contact with him, like when I’m asking him to sit on his mat for dinner.

3 ASL cues to start with your dog (plus another…)

We’re focused on three cues to get started: come, down, and stay. Cooper’s down is his default instead of sit because he has wonky hips. If your dog’s default behavior is sit, make that substitution.

Those three cues are, in my opinion, the most important for safety’s sake.

BTW, if you need more help on training a solid recall, check out this post. It doesn’t deal with ASL, but just swap the instructions as you read!

One more: For those of you who clicker train, here’s a fourth cue: thumbs up! Since you can’t mark the behavior with a click for a deaf dog, or if you’re trying to phase into hang signals only, a thumbs up can serve as that marker.

ASL Resources

I absolutely LOVE this video from chock full of dog signs! Plus, the girls and their dog are the more adorable little crew:

We also picked up two sign language dictionaries that our instructor recommended. I’ll link those below. Note that as an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language: We ordered this to work on our vocabulary, but there’s a ton of useful information about how to sign, how to use your hands, and so on in the beginning material. An excellent resource!

The Gallaudet Children’s Dictionary of American Sign Language: We bought this for Violet, and she LOVES to sit and flip through the illustrations.

Both books came with DVDs that are sort of awkward to navigate but include really helpful video clips of the signs being done by real people. We watched the dog signs ones over and over until we felt like we got the hang of it!

Train with me!

If we’re not yet connected on Instagram, you can find me here. I’m going to share Instagram Stories throughout the next few weeks of us working on training Coop his new ASL cues. And! If I can figure out how to make it come together, I’ll create a stories highlight with the ASL cues. (Note to self: Search YouTube for how to do that effectively!)

Join me on Instagram!

In the meantime, what questions did I leave you with? Do you have any experience with ASL? What about your dog: Is your pup trained with visual cues, hand signals, or both? I’d love to learn what you’re doing in the comments below!

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