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Dog sign language

The essentials

  • Teaching your dog sign language has many benefits — It’s mentally stimulating, alleviates boredom, and is especially useful for deaf dogs and seniors.
  • Gather the right materials — Make sure you have lots of treats before you begin your training. Some owners may also want to opt for a clicker, leash, and collar, too.
  • It’s best to start with the basics — Introduce sign language for dogs by beginning with simple, essential commands like “sit” and “stay”. Once your pup has these down, you can teach them more advanced signals.

Benefits of sign language for dogs

Successful communication with your pup is absolutely key to responsible pet parenting, and using sign language for dogs comes with numerous benefits. It spices up their daily routine, gives their brains a workout, and helps alleviate boredom and anxiety. Hand signals also prove invaluable for deaf dogs and others who struggle with verbal commands. Senior pups especially have difficulty hearing as they age, and dog sign language can be a great way to communicate with them in their golden years.

Beyond the fact that it keeps your pup’s brain buzzing and beats the boredom blues, here are more reasons why dog sign language is beneficial:

  • You can confidently command your dog from a distance
  • You can give commands in noisy environments
  • It’s essential for participating in obedience and other dog sports
  • It’s a powerful way to communicate with a deaf dog
  • You can better maintain communication with older dogs
  • Teaching hand signals is a fun and engaging activity
  • It increases your dog’s focus and attention on you

👉 White dogs (and cats) are more likely to carry the congenital traits that result in deafness

Now that you know how beneficial sign language can be for both deaf and hearing dogs, let’s talk about what you’ll need to start teaching this form of communication to your furry friend.

Materials for training your dog 

Gathering the right gear is key when it comes to teaching dog sign language. It’s important to have lots of treats on hand to reward your pup for when they’re learning each signal. In some cases, pet parents may opt for a clicker as a substitute for the treats or when they want to start phasing the treats out — this, however, won’t work for a deaf dog. Vibrating collars can be helpful “attention-getters” for times when you’re training outside the home — never use the shock portion of any training collar.

Tips for teaching your dog hand signals

Using hand signals with dogs might seem a bit tricky, but don’t worry, it’s actually quite simple –  like speaking dog sign language. When you use hand movements along with your voice commands, eventually, your dog will connect the hand signal with the spoken command, and you can drop the verbal part. Let’s review some helpful tips for teaching your dog hand signals.

  • Train in a quiet, distraction-free spot, like an empty room or a peaceful outdoor area
  • Make sure your pup gives you their full attention during the training session
  • Get your dog’s attention using their name, a clicker, finger snaps, or even a whistle
  • Reward your furry friend frequently with treats for good behavior
  • Be patient and stay consistent during your training sessions
  • Start by teaching verbal commands and then introduce hand signals as the next step
  • Always show the hand signal before giving the verbal command
  • Practice a few times each week to keep the training fresh in your dog’s mind. Your pup will catch on in no time!

When training hand signals for deaf dogs, many pet parents use the American Sign Language (ASL) signs. When they only have one hand free, however, they make sure their dog knows the one-handed version of an ASL sign, which is called Deaf Dogs Sign Language (DDSL). Similarly, if you create your own hand signals for your deaf dog, that’s also considered DDSL.

Teaching your dog hand targets and “good dog”

One of the first things you should do when introducing sign language for dogs is teach them a hand signal which means they did a good job. This is sometimes referred to as the “good dog” sign. The easiest signal for this is a thumbs up. When you want to show your pup they did a good job, make sure they’re looking at you and deliver the thumbs-up signal. Follow this with a tasty treat and some positive reinforcement.

Next, you’ll want to teach your dog how to follow hand targets. Put your hand near your dog’s nose and wait for them to touch your hand with their nose. When they do this, give them the “good dog” sign with your other hand and deliver the treat. Do this exercise repeatedly until your pup consistently follows your hand as you move it around.

The basics of sign language for dogs

Now that you’ve taught your dog the signal for “good dog” and they’ve mastered hand targets, it’s time for the fun to begin. Here are some of the most basic ASL signs you can teach your dog.

1. Watch me

It’s essential that your dog watches you closely during the training process, so the first command you should teach is “Watch me”. To teach this, begin by holding a treat in your hand and patiently waiting for your dog to make eye contact with you. Once your dog’s attention is on the treat in your hand, slowly move your hand up to your face and gently point to your eye. As your dog shifts their gaze from the treat to your face, reward them with a special, high-value dog treat.

2. Sit

The “sit” hand signal is a fundamental command and an easy one to teach. To get started, hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and gently raise your hand upward and backward. This motion will naturally make your dog lift their head and lower their rear to follow the treat. At first, you’ll want to begin close to your dog’s face to prevent them from backing up or jumping. As your dog gets the hang of it, gradually raise your hand higher, up to about chest height.

Now, practice the same hand motion with your hand open, palm facing up. With time and a bit of practice, your dog will associate this hand signal with the action of sitting. Over time, you can reduce the use of treats as your dog becomes a “sit” pro.

3. Stay

“Stay” is a crucial signal for your dog, especially when you’re out and about together. To teach your dog to stay, use an open palm and hold it up in front of your dog as if you’re saying “stop”. It might be helpful to use big, clear movements when you’re first getting started. As your dog becomes more skilled, you can use a more subtle hand gesture.

Whenever your dog successfully obeys the command, reward them with praise or a treat right away. If necessary, combine the stay hand signal with the verbal command until your pup understands what it means.

4. All done

The “all done” command, sometimes called the “free” command, signals the end of your dog’s training session. To use this hand signal, raise both your hands to shoulder level with your palms facing outward and say “all done.”

Afterward, quickly introduce a new activity, whether you toss them a toy to play with or grab their leash for a walk. It’s a great way to let your furry friend know it’s time to have some fun.

One variation of this hand signal you can try is putting your right hand over your left palm, making an “X” with your hands. Slide your right hand downwards off your left hand to complete this version of “all done”.

Additional commands to master sign language for dogs

Once your pooch has the basics down pat, you can incorporate more visual cues into your repertoire. All of these commands can be easily learned by dogs, but make sure to go at your pet’s preferred pace and have patience as they learn.

5. Come

The “come” command remains a top priority in dog training. It’s essential to ensure a dog’s safety and control in various situations by calling them back to you when needed.

To teach your dog this command, begin with your hand open by your side, and then move it diagonally up to your opposite shoulder. You can do this motion with a treat in your hand at first so you know you’ve got their attention. Say “come” as you do the motion, and soon, your dog will connect the movement with the command. Over time, you can gradually reduce the use of treats and phase out the verbal command.

6. Lie down

Teaching your dog the “lie down” command is important because it helps manage their behavior, ensure their safety, and promote good manners. To teach this hand signal, start by holding a treat and pointing one finger toward the ground in front of your dog. In the early stages, you may need to bend down and almost touch your finger to the ground to guide your dog. But with practice, you can gradually hold your finger higher while still requesting the down command. As soon as your pup lays down, give them the treat.

7. Stand

Teaching your dog the “stand” command is quite handy, as it complements the “sit” command by helping your dog transition from different positions. To teach this command, begin from a sitting or lying position. Hold a treat in front of your dog, and draw it backward toward your thigh, prompting your dog to stand up to reach for the treat. As your dog gets the hang of it, you can practice the same motion with your hand open and your palm facing forward.

8. Heel

Teaching your dog the “heel” command shows them how to walk politely and safely beside you. To start, show your dog a treat and use it to guide your dog to your hip. If your dog is already facing you, use a circular hand motion to guide your dog out, back, and next to you. Only reward when your dog stands correctly beside you, which may take some practice to perfect.

When you’re ready, finish the motion by tapping your hip with a closed fist, followed by a treat. You can gradually simplify your hand movements until your dog becomes responsive to just the hip tap. This is traditionally done on the left side of your body, but you can choose whichever side you’re comfortable with.

9. Drop it

Teaching your dog the “drop it” command is crucial for any pet owner because it can keep your furry friend safe, especially if they grab something harmful or valuable. Plus, it makes games like fetch way more fun when you can tell your dog to drop the ball.

To teach this trick, break it down into steps. Start by linking the hand signal and vocal cue with a treat. Hold your hand out in a fist, then open it flat with your palm up. Say “drop it” and give your dog a treat right away.

Next, try it while your dog is holding a toy. Give them a toy, and follow the same steps as before. Your dog should get the idea to drop the toy when they see the hand signal and hear the word, knowing a treat is on the way.

With practice, you can gradually phase out the vocal cue as long as your dog is nearby and understands the hand motion.

10. Rollover

While rollover isn’t an essential command, it sure is a fun one. To teach this, start by getting your dog in a lying-down position. Grab a tasty treat and move it in a diagonal, circular path and say “rollover”. Your pup will naturally try to follow the motion and start to roll over.

11. Speak

Teaching your dog the “speak” command can be a fun and entertaining trick to master. It’s easier to teach this trick when they know the verbal cue, “speak”, first. To teach the hand signal, use an open hand with the palm facing your dog. Then, repeatedly close your four fingers against your thumb to signal “speak”. When your dog starts barking, reward them with praise and a treat to reinforce the behavior. Over time, your dog will catch on to this playful command, and you’ll have a chatty companion in no time.

Advanced hand signals for dogs

These handy hand signals aren’t just limited to basic tricks; they can actually enhance many aspects of dog training. For instance, when you’re working on recall training, incorporating the hand signals from the “come” and “heel” commands can be super helpful. The “drop it” signal is excellent for any unexpected situation. And finally, the hand signals for “sit” and “stay,” along with visual cues like pointing with your index finger, can be a game-changer when teaching social skills to a dog with leash aggression.

So, don’t hesitate to explore the possibilities of these advanced hand signals in your dog training routines. For more guidance, be sure to check out the DDSL directory at Deaf Dogs Rock — it’s a fantastic resource for pet parents interested in learning more about sign language for dogs.

Wondering if dog sign language is right for you? Teaching your dog DDSL may be a good choice for owners who have deaf dogs, senior dogs who are hard of hearing, or pups who have trouble following verbal commands. Even if your dog doesn’t fall into any of these categories, having more than one way to communicate with your canine is never a bad thing.

Frequently asked questions

What are the hand signals for dog commands?

Hand signals for dog commands are visual cues used in dog training alongside verbal commands. Some common hand signals include holding your hand up with the palm out for the “stay” command or pointing your index finger to the ground for the “lie down” command. These signals are a great way to communicate with your dog, especially if they can’t hear or aren’t responsive to verbal cues.

Do dogs respond better to verbal or visual cues?

Dogs are pretty amazing in that they can learn both verbal and visual cues, but it often depends on the individual dog and the specific situation. Some dogs may favor one over the other, while others respond well to a combination of both. Verbal cues like “sit” and “stay” are helpful for most dogs, but visual cues, like hand signals or gestures, can be especially useful for deaf dogs or in noisy environments. The key is to figure out what works best for your dog through training and practice.

How hard is it to teach your dog hand signals?

Teaching your dog hand signals can be quite manageable with patience and practice. It might seem a bit challenging at first, but remember, dogs are excellent at picking up visual cues. Start with basic commands like “sit” or “stay,” using clear, consistent signals alongside verbal commands. Use treats and rewards to motivate your pup. Over time, they’ll learn to associate the hand signals with actions. It may take a little time, but the process can be fun and rewarding, creating a strong bond between you and your four-legged friend.