Can Dogs Understand Sign Language?

When you have a deaf loved one (including a deaf furry friend), it is important to do your very best to keep everyone feeling included in your home. Perhaps you may have even wondered if you can teach your dog sign language! So the question is: can dogs understand sign language?

Woman signing the word 'Hug/Love' in American Sign Language with her son hugging a dog
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Can dogs understand sign language?

Yes, dogs can understand sign language, you just have to teach them! There are infinite ways to communicate with each other in our world, and just as hearing and non hearing humans alike can learn American sign language (ASL), dogs can learn ASL too! When you stop and think about it, that's pretty incredible.

The benefits of teaching a dog American sign language (ASL)

There are many benefits of teaching a dog American sign language (ASL). Hearing dogs can learn ASL so that deaf loved ones can communicate with your pet. This will foster an inclusive and loving environment in your home. Additionally, if you have a deaf dog, teaching him key words and phrases in American sign language can supplement any visual cues that he has learned. With ASL you can teach your deaf dog phrases like "car," "good potty," or even "good boy!"

A woman using sign language wearing a black shirt
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How can you train a deaf dog?

Deaf dogs rely on visual cues versus verbal cues in order to obey commands. Deaf dogs can learn sign language by noting desired behaviors with a visual and tactile marker and a reward (a delicious treat will do)! Soon, visual cues are added. This can either be basic hand signals or in American Sign Language.

How to teach a deaf dog sign language

Since a deaf dog can't be rewarded with a clicker, he can instead be rewarded with a thumbs up or a head pat, and then a treat. These are called visual and tactile markers. Keep in mind that some signs that require two hands may need to be modified to accommodate a leash or a treat in the other hand. According to Best Friends Animal Society, this is how you can teach a deaf dog American Sign Language:

  1. Have treats and tactile markers on hand.
  2. Get your canine to do the desired behavior through capturing, luring or shaping.
  3. Mark this behavior by using your visual or tactile marker.
  4. Immediately reward the dog with a treat.
  5. Before you start adding in a cue in ASL, make sure the dog is doing the behavior consistently and reliably.
  6. Add in the cue (sign) just before the dog does the behavior.
  7. Practice and reward consistently, and soon the dog will begin to associate the behavior with the sign.
Boys with hearing impairments signing pet in American sign language on their couch
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Can you teach a hearing dog sign language?

Yes! You can absolutely teach a hearing dog sign language. Hearing dogs can learn ASL just as deaf dogs can and the training technique is basically one and the same!

Why teach a dog American sign language (ASL) instead of basic hand signals?

ASL is a more universal way to communicate with deaf individuals and dogs alike, and is a language anyone can use (though obviously it is American, and deaf individuals in other countries will use different sign languages). By teaching your dog ASL you are opening him up to a world of inclusive communication. And why wouldn't you want to bring smiles to more humans?

Is it true that dogs can learn several languages?

Yes, dogs can be bilingual, and even multilingual! You'll be very happy to know that your canine is very astute: dogs can learn a plethora of languages including French, Greek, Japanese, and even ASL! So go ahead and teach your dog commands in multiple languages—he is sure to make many hearts happy!