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Animal Signing: Canine Sign Language

Also see:  Hearing Dogs

Also see:  Hearing Ear Dogs

By Kyleen Reincke

Canine Sign Language

"American Sign Language is the dominant sign language of the Deaf community in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in parts of Mexico. While there has been no reliable survey of the number of people who use ASL as their primary language, estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million in the U.S. alone" (Wikipedia). Humans however, are not the only ones jumping on the ASL bandwagon, surprisingly our canine counterparts are as well. American Sign Language is quickly becoming a popular way in which owners can bond with their 4-legged companions, particularly those which are deaf.
"Communicating with a deaf dog is a step above standard dog training as their world is one of silence," ( dogs however, both deaf and hearing rely heavily on body language and facial expressions, therefore making them ideal students for learning sign language. In fact many trainers argue that communicating with your dog using American Sign Language is in fact easier than voice commands. When training a dog which already comprehends several verbal commands, you simply add the sign, eventually dropping the word; using only the gesture. "Similar to training with verbal commands, when teaching a new sign it is important to first show the dog the command it is that you wish the animal to perform" (Mimic Mutt). "Sit" for example, would be taught by lightly putting pressure on the dog's backside, once the dog is in the sitting position you would show them the sign for sit.
Whether using American Sign Language or deaf dog hand signals there are three basic signs you should teach your dog. The first sign you should teach your canine is the sign for "good dog" to reward him for correct behavior. This could be taught by using the ASL sign for good, which is made by placing the fingers of your right hand against your lip; moving your right hand into the palm of your left hand. In addition to "good," "sit" is another important and basic sign that any dog; deaf or hearing, should be taught. To teach your dog to sit, start out by holding a treat at your dog's nose, and then draw it back toward his ears until he sits. Practice this several times, and then start to incorporate in the hand sign. You can use the obedience sign, which is made by keeping your left arm relaxed at your side, palm flat, bringing your arm up slowly toward your chest. If you don't want t use the obedience sign you can use the ASL sign for "sit." If using the obedience sign however, place the treat between your thumb and palm while you make the sign. Lastly, you should teach your dog the sign for stay. "Stay" is an important sign as it teaches your dog self-control. To teach your dog to stay using ASL, first sign the word "sit," once he is in the sit position quickly reward him with a treat. Do this repeatedly.
Once this has been established incorporate the sign for "stay," which is a downward motion of the hand; thumb and pinkie out.
A wonderful example of the use of canine sign language is that of Sean Senechal, "a Hartnell physiology professor who lives in Prunedale, and her German shepherd, Chal. Senechal is "working to advance the language skills of animals, primarily dogs, by teaching classes and individual lessons based on years of personal research" (Burr). Chal, Sean's three year old canine "can perform around 20 signs, including everything from requests for toys, water and different foods, to identifying people and communicating specific alerts. In place of a bark or anxious pacing, the signals are distinguished through movement of the paws, legs, and head. To request water, the dog places its left paw on its mouth. To ask for chicken, Chal rapidly kicks her front left leg in a fast backward motion--a signal clearly different than the signs for cheese or dog biscuits
While dogs are vital in the health, criminal justice and current search-and-rescue missions many ASL-dog advocates anticipate that the use of American Sign Language will greatly enhance their utility. "[Animal language training] really is going to alter the minds of people," "The paradigm is shifting. This is just the tip of the iceberg" (Burr). Critics alike agree: canine sign language has been given two paws up.


Burr, Daniel, (2006, December 7). Canine Sign Language: A local professor teaches dogs to better communicate. Retrieved 13 March 2008:

D is for Dog. Examples of Hand Signals to Use with Your Dog. Retrieved 14 March 2008:

Mimi Mutt. Sign Language for Dogs. Retrieved 14 March 2008:
Pets Ca. Sign Language for Dogs. Retrieved 13 March 2008:
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Wikipedia. Sign Language. Retrieved 13 March 2008:

Also see: "Hearing Dogs"


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