For the past eleven weeks, I’ve been working with Max, a deaf golden retriever, and his owners (Let’s call them Sara and Luis), who also are deaf.
They noticed I unconsciously used some signs while teaching a puppy class and approached me to ask if I knew ASL (American Sign Language) and if any of my students were deaf.
I’ve studied ASL for two years, and to practice, I started using some signs while talking. This helped me remember the signs for the words that I used daily. I can’t say I’m completely fluent in the language, but I can have a coherent conversation.
Sara and Luis were so excited to communicate their dog problems in their language without relying on an interpreter. They enrolled in a group class, and it has been a fantastic experience and a learning challenge.
I called my ASL teacher to refresh some signs and review my class curriculum to translate it. We started the course by letting everyone know that Max and his owners were deaf and decided to use real ASL signs as our hand signals for the dogs.
Everyone was excited to be learning a new language while training their dogs. And not long after, we started the program; all students had a sign name assigned to them by Sara and Luis.
What is sign language?
Sign language is a system of communication using visual gestures and signs, as used by deaf people. (Definitions from Oxford Languages)
What is a sign name?
A signed name is a sign utilized to identify a person without having to fingerspell the name. For hearing people, a sign name is given by a deaf person and usually describes a characteristic of the named individual.
Dogs and signs
Most of the time, I rely on hand signals to teach dogs new commands and tell pet parents to avoid using verbal commands for the first weeks of training. Focusing only on signs, we avoid excessive repetition of the verbal cue to avoid confusing the dog.
Have you ever seen a dog owner repeating the “sit” command over and over without any response or compliance from the dog?
Often when we repeat the cue without having the dog’s attention first, the command loses its value in the dog’s mind, and he ignores it.
It is essential to work slowly with the dog and make the training session easy and fun. Dogs are intelligent creatures and often get bored with extended sessions.
Shortening the practice duration and focusing on structured repetition and muscle memory helps us develop the behaviors we want from the dogs.
A 2018 study called Fast neural learning in dogs: A multimodal sensory fMRI study proved that hand signals are more effective than a verbal command while we train our dogs.
“Visual and olfactory modalities resulted in the fastest learning, while verbal stimuli were least effective, suggesting that verbal commands may be the least efficient way to train dogs.”
-Ashley Prichard et al. Sci Rep. 2018
Hand signal for “sit.”
A great way to start using hand signals is by teaching the dog how to sit. Usually, we unconsciously use a hand movement, and the dog tends to see it as a sign. For example, we often ask the dogs to sit before we give them a treat.
Often we notice that he sits every time we have something in our hands or whenever we point at them or lift our hands. And we don’t have a clue of when the dog learned that, but we keep on using it.
Now, let’s break down teaching our puppy how to sit in five easy steps.
- Get the dog’s attention.
- Take a high-value reward; it can be a treat he loves, his food kibbles, or safe fruit.
- Let the dog know you have the reward.
- If you don’t know which food is safe for your dog, here is a list of dangerous and safe food for them.
2. Lure him into the sit position.
- Put the treat in front of the dog’s nose and let him sniff it.
- Slowly move the treat up as if you are rolling it over his head.
- He will move his head up and start moving his body backward to see the treat in your hand.
- Keep moving the treat to the back of the dog until he bends the back legs and sits.
3. Mark and reward.
- As soon as the dog sits, mark it with a clicker or by saying “yes” or “good boy/girl.”
- Reward the dog after marking the behavior.
- This is the most critical step to create muscle memory and a well-learned behavior.
- After a few repetitions, you will notice that the dog will automatically sit whenever he sees you with a treat he wants and whenever you move your hand up.
5. Add the sign for sit.
- After the dog learns the command and sits, you can change the hand movement to the sit ASL sign when you lift your hand.
- Make the hand signal to lure the dog to sit and then make the sit sign.
- Here is a video that shows how to make the sit sign.
This process of learning a new language, communicating, and solving this couple’s problems with their dog taught me the importance of breaking communication barriers.
Talking with them and listening to their struggles to communicate and get the same services as a hearing person helped me and the other students understand the importance of ASL interpreters.
The deaf community is part of our society, and many don’t consider it when offering services. We need to start focusing our efforts on making our services available to every member of our community.
To do our part and work toward changing our world, I started teaching ASL signs related to our work environment with the help of my ASL teacher to give our associates some tools to help them offer a better service to our deaf community.
Let’s work together to change our world and make it a better one for all of us. The first step is to change ourselves.
Happy training and cuddle your pets for me.