Hearing Dogs Can Benefit from Learning Sign Language, Too

PetMD Editorial
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PetMD Editorial
Published: July 18, 2016
Hearing Dogs Can Benefit from Learning Sign Language, Too

There are many special things about the relationship between humans and dogs, but being by their side as they develop from puppy into senior dog is an especially meaningful one.

As puppies, they make us laugh as they clumsily learn to climb on the couch. As teenagers, they unapologetically turn our remote controls into chew toys. As adults, they settle into our rules, schedules, and moods.

Once they become senior dogs, we are blessed to have been given many years of wagging tails and unconditional love. This is also a time of more physical change;  for both them and us.

As dogs age, they experience many of the same physiological changes as humans, including hearing loss, vision impairment and osteoarthritis among others.

Because I share my life with two deaf dogs, I am especially aware that my hearing dogs may one day lose their hearing. I am preparing for this possibility now by teaching them hand signs while they can still hear and I encourage others to do the same.

Signs of Deafness in Dogs

Hearing loss in senior dogs is a gradual process and the signs often go unnoticed until the hearing deficit is significant. Signs of hearing loss will vary and may depend on the degree of hearing loss, but some warning signs to watch for include:

  • not responding to their name or other common sounds, such as food being poured in his bowl, squeaky toys, or jangling keys
  • sleeping deeper than usual and/or not waking up when called
  • becoming a “velcro” dog who is unwilling to leave your side
  • being unaware that you have left the room

Maggie Marton with Oh My Dog!, whose senior dog Emmett has begun to lose his hearing, says, “I started to notice it last summer, but I suspect it had started to decline well before then. I noticed him following our younger dog around more, which was unusual for him. He was always a clingy dog, but he became a piece of Velcro stuck to us, and it seemed like he got confused if he didn't see us leave a room.”

Suspecting Hearing Loss in Your Dog

If you suspect your dog is losing his hearing, there are ways to test his hearing at home. However, it is best to also consult with your veterinarian to rule out a medical reason that can be treated.

Christina Lee, of Deaf Dogs Rock, offers these tips to assess your dog’s hearing.

“A good at-home test to see if your dog is going deaf is to put a squeaky toy in your pocket. Wait until the dog is distracted, put your hand in your pocket and then squeak the toy. This way your hand and the toy can't be seen. If you don't see a reaction to the squeak, most likely your dog is going deaf. You can also wait for your pup to take a nap and jingle some keys to see if the pup wakes up.”

Why You Should Start Teaching Dog Hand Signs Now

It is much easier to teach hand signs while your dog can hear than if you wait until hearing loss occurs. If you start now, you have the benefit of being able to use a verbal cue your dog already knows while also giving a hand sign. This approach helps your dog assign meaning to the hand sign much faster.

How I Taught Hand Signs to My Hearing Dogs

With my hearing dogs, I began to use a hand sign at the same time as I used my voice.

As an example, to teach them the hand sign for hungry, I started using our sign for “food” when I asked them if they were hungry. I did this consistently before every meal. They quickly learned that the sign for “food” means the same thing as the word, “Hungry?”

I used the same training process for other signs, including water, cookie, sit, come, stay, yes, no, and potty. Every time I gave them a cookie, I said the word while using the sign for cookie. Every time I filled their water bowl, I gave them the sign for water. And so on.

After a few weeks of using both a hand sign and my voice, I stopped using my voice and relied solely on my hands to communicate. Because I was consistent, my hearing dogs now respond to hand signs alone, and I keep adding signs to their vocabulary.

If there comes a day when Darwin or Galileo cannot hear as well as they do today, they will already have the skills they need to carry on as if nothing has changed. This is the least I can do to say thank you for all the joy they’ve given me.

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