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Imagine greeting a litter of brand new Labrador Retriever puppies that have just entered the world. They are small, their eyes are still closed, their tiny ears are pressed against their heads. With cute little paws and tiny little tails, what's not to love? Imagine that you are planning on keeping the adorable lemon colored puppy, or that these puppies live in another home or in a shelter, and that you will be picking up the little lemon puppy from there when he is old enough. As the puppies grow, their ears begin to grow and flop down, their little eyes open up, and their fur changes from a silky or fluffy down to a coarse outer coat and a warm undercoat. It soon becomes apparent that the lemon-colored puppy is not responding to noises the same way that the other puppies are. Before long it is confirmed, the adorable little puppy is deaf.
Although it is sad that your puppy cannot hear, it does not have to mean tragedy for your puppy. With you as his educated and committed owner, the little puppy can still be trained in other ways, and he can thrive. Hand signals are a wonderful way to communicate with a dog of any age. Many dogs with great hearing are taught using hand signals in addition to verbal commands. Hand signals allow you to be able to still communicate with your dog when things are loud, and when you need to be quiet or discrete. Some dogs even learn hand signals faster than they learn verbal commands.
Not all dogs that are trained using hand signals are deaf. Many people teach their dogs hand signals in addition to verbal commands by simply doing the hand signal at the same time that they give the verbal command. Many treat luring techniques teach will your dog to watch your hand motion while you are holding a treat, and it is very easy to simply remove the treat from your hand and to continue doing the hand motion as a hand signal rather than as a treat lure.
Training your dog how to respond to a hand signal will take about as long training your dog how to respond to a verbal command. More visual breeds, such as sight hounds and herding breeds, might even learn how to respond to hand signals faster than verbal commands. If your dog has trouble being still and focusing on you with his eyes, then it might take him longer to learn commands using hand signals.
If your dog is deaf, then it might be useful to train your dog to look at you using a vibrating remote training collar. When your dog looks at you because of the vibrating sensation, you can then give him a command using a hand signal. This can allow you to train your dog to respond to you from further distances. Some dogs are frightened of the vibrating sensation of the collar, so if you utilize vibrating collars, make sure that you introduce the collar carefully and pair it with lots of rewards so that your dog will enjoy it and not find the experience stressful. If your dog is still afraid of the collar sensation, then do not use a vibrating collar.
When you choose what hand signal to use for each command that you teach, be sure to choose a hand signal that is visible to your dog from far away, and that does not closely resemble any other hand signals that he already knows, so that he will not become confused about what to do.
To get started you will need lots of small, tasty treats. If your dog is deaf, and you are using the treats as a lure, then choose treats that are easy to see and that smell really good. Depending on what command you are training, you might also need an assistant, props, a certain location, a leash, a collar, or a harness. With all of the methods, you will need clear hand signal choices, your dog's focus on you, an upbeat, happy attitude that is expressed through your body language, and patience. You will also need a distraction-free environment, where your dog will not be looking around at other things.
The Lure Method
Get set up
To begin, choose small, tasty treats that your dog loves. If your dog is very food motivated, then you can also use his own dry kibble in place of the treats. Call your dog over to you and show him a treat.
Lure with treats
Using a treat, lure your dog into the position, or into doing the activity that you are trying to train, by moving your hand that is holding the treat. For example, if you are teaching your dog how to 'sit' then let him sniff the treat, and then slowly move the treat from his nose toward the back of his head. As soon as his bottom touches the floor when he looks up, give him the treat.
Repeat luring your dog into the position or into doing the activity, until he does it before you have lured him with the treat the entire way.
Phase out lure
When your dog begins to do the command that you want him to do before you have shown him how to do it all of the way, then begin to phase out the treat lure. To phase out the treat lure and turn it into a hand signal, remove the treat from your hand. Place your fingers together, so that it looks like you still have a treat, and move your hand with the pretend treat in the same motion that you did before, when you lured your dog into doing the activity or into the position that you are training.
As soon as your dog does the activity or moves into the correct position, then offer him a treat from your other, free hand.
Practice moving your pretend treat to lure your dog into the correct position or into doing the correct activity, until your dog will obey your hand signal very quickly, in order to receive his reward faster.
When your dog will obey your current hand signal quickly, modify your hand signal so that you no longer look like you are holding a treat in that hand. Choose a final hand signal that looks very similar to your current treat holding hand signal, and continue to make a very similar motion with your hand. For example, if your current signal for teaching 'sit' is your hand moving over your dog's head with your fingers pressed together, then you can modify your hand signal to be an open hand moving toward your dog in a sweeping motion.
Modify hand signal
To modify your hand signal, continue to make the same motion with your hand, but gradually change the positioning of your hand, so that it looks more like your desired final hand signal. Practice giving the hand signal in all of the in-between stages, until you have reached your final hand signal. For example, if you are modifying your 'sit' hand signal to become an open hand sweeping toward your dog, gradually separate your fingers that are pressed together and widen your hand as your dog improves. Do this until you have spread your fingers and opened up your hand all the way.
When your dog is responding well to the hand signal, gradually add distance between your dog and your hand signal, to teach your dog how to respond to your signal from further away. Add just two inches at a time at first, and practice at that distance until your dog responds well to your signal. As your dog improves, continue to add more distance. When your dog can respond to your hand signal from five feet away, then you can begin to add distance one foot at a time, instead of two inches at a time. If your dog is struggling, then take away some of the newly added distance until he can succeed again, then practice there for longer before increasing the distance again.
When your dog can quickly respond to your hand signal from far away, then he has learned that hand signal. Great job! Continue to practice it regularly and to use it to give him instruction throughout the day. Reward him with things that he considers pleasant when he obeys, to keep him motivated and attentive. Things such as his own dog food, affection from you or from others, getting to go for a walk, toys and play, and anything else that he likes and encounters throughout his day.
The Add Method
Choose hand signal
To begin, choose a hand signal that you would like for your dog to respond to. Try to make it something easy for your dog to see, and different from other hand signals that he knows. Choose a verbal command that your dog already knows for your dog to learn a hand signal for also.
Show your dog a treat and place the treat into the hand that you will be signalling with. Hold the treat between two of your fingers or between your palm and thumb, so that you can still do the hand signal with that hand while holding onto the treat. Give your dog the verbal command for the command that he knows, while at the same time showing your dog the hand signal.
Repeat the command and the hand signal at least thirty times over the next few days. Do this while the treat is still in your hand, so that your dog will look at your hand sign. Reward your dog every time that he obeys.
After you have practiced the command with the hand signal at least thirty times, then test whether your dog understands just the hand signal. To test this, have your dog face you, so that he is looking at your hand, then give him the hand signal for the command. After you have given him the hand signal, wait ten seconds, before following it up with the verbal command.
If your Labrador does the command in response to the hand signal before you have given him the verbal command, during the ten seconds, then immediately praise him and reward him with a treat.
If your dog does not do the command in response to the hand signal before you have given him the verbal command, then practice giving him the hand signal and waiting ten seconds before giving him the verbal command until he will do the command consistently, in response to just the hand signal.
When your dog will consistently respond to the hand signal, begin to add distance between your dog and your hand signal, to teach him to respond to it from farther away. Start by adding only a couple of inches, practicing there until your dog is responding well, then gradually add more and more distance until you can give you dog the hand signal from far away. Once you have added five feet in distance, then start to add distance one foot at a time rather than a few inches at a time.
The Gesture Method
Choose hand signal
To begin, choose what hand signal you would like to use for the command that you are going to teach. Try to make it something visible from several feet away, and different enough from other hand signals that your dog already knows. Do this so that your dog will not confuse the signals with one another.
Choose a verbal training method that you would like to train your dog with for the command that you are teaching, and use that regular method. But, when you reach the step where you would normally give your dog a verbal command, give him a hand signal instead. For example, if you are teaching your dog to 'stay', then instead of telling him to "Stay" when it is time to add a verbal command, show him the palm of your hand as a hand signal and then reward him when he stays.
If your dog will not look at your hand signal while you are training him, then show your dog a treat and place the treat between two of your fingers or between your palm and thumb, so that your dog will focus on the treat in your hand and thus your hand signal also.
Practice having your dog do the action or move into the position that you are trying to train, at least thirty times. Do this while giving the hand signal whenever your dog begins to perform the action or move into the position that you are seeking to train. Also reward your dog as soon as he completes the command.
After your dog has done the action or moved into the position at least thirty times, then test whether or not your dog understands the hand signal without your help. Do this by getting his attention, and then giving him the hand signal before he has performed any action or moved into the desired position. If he obeys the hand signal command and does the desired action or moves into the desired position, reward him.
If your dog will not obey the hand signal when you give it, then go back to showing your dog how to move into the position or do the action, while also giving the hand signal, for longer. Do this at least ten more times, testing whether he has learned the hand signal yet after every ten repetitions. Do this until your dog will obey the hand signal without having to be shown what to do.
When your dog will obey the hand signal and move into the position or do the action that you are seeking to train, then begin to add distance. To add distance, move two inches away from your dog, and practice the command with the hand signal there. When your dog is succeeding at that distance, then add two more inches. Continue to add inches and to practice at each new distance until your dog will comply. When you are five feet away from your dog, then add one foot every time that you increase the distance, instead of two inches. Do this until you have worked up to the distance that you desire for your dog to be able to obey from.
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 02/26/2018, edited: 01/08/2021