Deaf Dog Sign Training

Samantha O’Boyle, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist 

Training dogs, in general, can be a chore all on its own. It requires a great deal of patience and understanding. While there are many types of training available, most of it comes down to one thing; you are talking or giving instructions to your dog. Sound tends to play an important role, especially with clicker training.   

I have a deaf dog. Her name is Elsa and she is a small Maltese. She lost her hearing at a young age, so training her verbally was never really an option. Instead through some research I was able to discover that dogs can be trained using generic hand signals or actual American Sign Language. She of course already reads cues from our other pets in the house and tends to follow their lead. Sometimes this is helpful; other times not so much.

Sign training combines a couple different forms of other known training methods. Usually positive reinforcement and even clicker training. Though instead of a clicker sound and saying, “good dog” a sign takes its place such as a flash of an open hand or wriggling your fingers in a certain way each and every time your pet performs correctly.

Before you jump right into the deep end of sign training; you first must teach your dog to look at you. You can pick a specific sign that is meant to teach your dog to look directly at you BEFORE you sign a command such as touching your nose (useful sign for “watch me”). Then use your “good dog” sign by flashing your hand open or whatever other sign you might have chosen, THEN sign your command. And of course, as with any training you should offer a treat and repeat.

Sign, treat, repeat. 

Once your pet has mastered the “watch me” sign you can move on to them learning their name, for example with Elsa we would just spell the letter E in ASL and that would represent her name. Then you can move on to the standard commands such as: sit, lay down, stand, stay, bed or crate, go potty. Honestly the options are limitless.

This training is a constant learning process for both owner and pet. It teaches discipline but also helps you to develop a different kind of bond with your dog. I like being able to command Elsa just like any other dog and her knowing these commands can help keep her safe. Her hearing impairment does not limit her as much as I originally thought it would.

There are a couple really useful websites available that are listed below. is a wonderful site for people considering adopting a deaf dog or that may already have one and just need some help. is an American Sign Language site where you can type a word in the search box and a small video will be shown that will have someone demonstrating how to sign the word.