Can Dogs Learn Sign Language?

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Introduction

Dogs have the amazing ability to learn sign language, whether they cannot hear themselves or their owner if deaf. Any type of dog can learn sign language, it will just take some training, patience, and consistency. But, the same goes with teaching a dog to stay, sit, and come with word commands. It is not any more difficult than training with voice commands. 

Let's take a look at the history of dogs and sign language, why teaching them is important, and how you can teach your very own pup sign language at home! 

Signs of a Dog Learning Sign Language

When your dog is starting to pick up on the hand cues you are teaching him/her for sign language, there are a few ways you will be able to tell your dog is getting the hang of things. 

Just like if you were teaching your dog the verbal sit command, you can tell they are starting to understand the command when they are alert and listening to you and then perform the desired command. However, they may not perform the command every time you ask them to sit. The same will go with hand signals from sign language.

Some sure signs that your dog is paying close attention to you include perky ears and an unbreakable gaze. You will notice this kind of attention when you have treats in your hand - making using treats an awesome way to teach your dog sign language. 

Body Language

Here are some signs you might notice when your dog understand sign language:
  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Listening
  • Raise ears

Other Signs

These are some other signs you may notice if your dog is understanding sign language:
  • Looking at Your Hands for Cues
  • Performing the Command Every Time You Ask
  • Performing Correctly

History of Dogs and Sign Language

American Sign Language has been around for a very long time. It has been used to communicate with people and pets in the US who were born deaf or became deaf at some point in their lives. Dogs have a history of responding incredibly well to hand signals and cues, so the ability to teach dogs versions of sign language is not as hard as you may believe.

Traditionally, ASL was the most commonly used form of sign used to teach dogs sign language communication. However, more recently, something called K9Sign has been developed. K9Sign was developed by Sean Senechal, a cognitive psychologist and behavioral specialist for both humans and animals. K9Sign teaches dogs to ask for specific food, if they need water, how they are feeling, and much more. Essentially, this newly developed form of signing for dogs is used to tell humans exactly what the dog needs, through signals the dog can learn.  

A German Shepard has been learning K9Sign since she was one year old. She had been limping on her right leg for a while. Her owner decided to ask her "where's your ouch" in K9Sign and the dog was able to respond to the owner's sign by pointing to a spot on her nipple with her paw. The owner found the dog had a red and painful bump, which turned out to be cancer. A dog learning K9Sign can potentially save the lives and help the dog effectively communicate with their human companion. Furthermore, dogs have been able to tell humans they are thirsty and need water, if they want a specific treat, like chicken, and the name of the person you are on the phone with. The ability for dogs to sign and communicate in this fashion opens an endless amount of possibilities for the human and dog bond and connection to grow even deeper! 

Science Behind Dogs and Sign Language

According to an Italian study, that observed 25 dogs responding to commands given by both verbal cues, hand signals, and a combination of both, it was found that dogs responded correctly to 99% of hand signals given by their respective owner. This is quite a staggering finding since there is a heated debate in the dog training world which form of training and communication is more effective for dogs to learn and listen to.

According to science, this is most likely because dogs are experts at reading human body language. Their findings show that body language and hand signals as a form of communication are more effective than verbal commands - this is a dog main form of communication and it is what they prefer. Given this evidence, teaching dogs any form of sign language will not be any more challenging than teaching verbal commands. In fact, it may actually be easier to teach your dog sign language.

Training Dogs to Learn Sign Language

There are two different ways to go about teaching your dog sign language. You can either teach them American Sign Language commands so they respond to your hand signals and do commands that way or you can teach them K9Sign, which teaches them special, dog-based signs and have the dog also learn how to sign back to you. 

American Sign Language Whatever your reason for teaching your pup sign language, many people choose to teach their dogs ASL because it is a language that many people can use. Therefore, your dog and other people will more easily be able to communicate since it is a universal language. 

To start teaching your dog sign language, you must first start by teaching them basic commands like sit, down, stay, come etc. You can find how to sign in ASL from many different sights and resources online. You will teach your dog these hand signals just like you would using verbal commands. Using treats, make your dog lay on the ground by showing them a treat by their face and then slowly lowering it down to the floor. Once your dog lays down, give them the treat and give them some love to let them know they were good and did the right thing. Repeat this process until your dog does the command everything. You can then repeat this process with all other signs and commands. 

If you are working with a deaf dog, the first and most important sign to teach them is the "watch me" signal. Since you cannot get the attention of the dog with sounds, they must watch you to learn sign language and their hand signals. 

You can teach your dog this command by using your hand signal from ASL and then pointing to your nose. When your dog looks up at you, give them a thumbs up and then the treat. Practice this signal until he knows pointing to your nose and the command means to look at you. From this point, you can then begin training for other signs. 

K9Sign If you want your pup to learn this form of sign language so he can actually communicate his wants and needs to you, you will take a bit of a different approach. For more information about how to train your dog to understand and communicate with K9Sign, you could purchase a copy of a dog-sign training manual. There you will find detailed information about how to actually train your dog to K9Sign, as the detailed information is not fully available online. 

How to React to Your Dog Learning Sign

  • Reward your pooch each time they give you the proper attention.
  • Make training sessions a part of your daily routine. Keep them short and fun to maximize effectiveness.
  • Praise them for a job well done!
  • Keep practicing, and don't introduce too many commands at once.

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