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Dogs and Sign Language 

Lisa May

October 5, 2012


Dogs and Sign Language

     Stop and consider how many times you have heard the following scene play out with a passionate dog owner: "What a pretty girl! Come over here and sit for mommy!" This scene begs the question as to whether dogs understand the conversations we have with them. It also begs the question whether a deaf person would make a good dog owner. The answer to the latter question is an unequivocal YES! In fact, the deaf community probably makes better dog owners than the hearing community. The reason is that dogs do not understand the words we speak to them. What dogs learn to react to is body language and gestures. What the dogs "learn" is, in effect, sign language.

     Renowned dog trainer Cesar Milan says, "dogs don't understand the meaning of sit any more than they understand the word birthday" ("Cesarsway," 2012, para. 2). He encourages people to teach commands like 'sit' with silence and body language before ever adding a sound or saying the word 'sit' ("Cesarsway," 2012).

     Coincidentally, sign language is also used to communicate when the dog is deaf. The website for the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund states, "Training a deaf dog is really not so very different from training a hearing one, you just 'talk' in a different language" (Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website, n.d., para. 1). The website explains that, "Because we depend so much on speech, we tend to think that dogs communicate that way too, when in fact, they don't" (Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website, n.d., para. 1). It further notes that, "Dogs who compete for obedience titles are required to learn hand signs to receive their UD (Utility Dog) title" (Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website, n.d., para. 1). With regard to the use of hand signs, the website indicates that any sign or gesture can be used; however, many people choose to use American Sign Language (ASL). An advantage of doing so is that anyone who knows ASL can communicate with the dog. Another advantage of using ASL with the dogs is that it eliminates the challenge of making up all your own hand signs (Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website, n.d.).

     Another article on relays information on testing that was done to determine if dogs respond to words when obeying human commands. The researchers found that dogs that obeyed verbal commands from a human standing directly in front of them did not perform as well when the same verbal commands were issued over an intercom system. Additional researchers found that dogs responded to mixed up words such as "fly clown" instead of "lie down" when given with the same hand gestures. Overall, the article concludes that body language is a very important key to a dog's ability to understand what we are communicating (Marshall, "n.d.").

     Given dogs do not understand the words we use, sign language eliminates the frustration and conflicting negative emotion that can arise when we speak directly to the dogs without success. The act of signing delivers a physical gesture the dogs can see and be conditioned to respond to. It is common for people to use gestures when giving verbal commands; however, the dog is far more attuned to gesture itself than any words that may be spoken. This gives the deaf community a distinct advantage in communicating with their four legged friends. Deaf persons and others fluent in ASL already communicate by using a combination of hand gestures and body language that play directly to the dog's conditioning and communication strengths. For the rest of us, what the dog hears is blah, blah, blah which helps explain the tilted head quizzical looks that are so common from my own "best friend".


Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website. (n.d.).

Dog Training Tip: Teaching the "Sit" Command. (2012). Retrieved from

Marshall, K. ("n.d."). Do Dogs Understand Words? Retrieved from


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ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars

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