Dog watching hand signal

One of the sweetest things about my profession as a veterinarian is the opportunity to see the love shared between people and pets. What’s even more special is seeing the accommodations people make for pets with disabilities.

Deafness is a common disability in dogs and cats. Puppies and kittens can be born deaf, or pets can become hearing-impaired with advancing age. White cats and dogs with merle, piebald and white markings can be more prone to deafness. In every case, these pets have special needs when it comes to communication. Here are some tips to help you get your deaf pet’s attention and let him know what you want.

Sign Language

Whether or not your puppy or adult dog is deaf, I think it’s always a good idea to teach a dog hand signals in addition to verbal cues. You never know when you are going to need to communicate silently with your dog. Hand signals are a way to do that. They can also come in, uh, handy should your dog lose his hearing.

Cats can learn hand signals, too, and respond to the same training principles. Heck, sometimes they’re even better than dogs at picking up visual cues!

Learning hand signals for behaviors such as sit, down and come will stand your pet in good stead throughout life, ensuring that you will always be able to communicate with him. Because they are so observant, many animals respond well to hand signals, more so than to verbal cues.

Common hand signals include a raised hand for stop, a hand moving upward for sit, a hand moving down and back for down, and a hand across the throat for quiet. My daughter, dog trainer Mikkel Becker, likes to use a hand clap or a thumbs-up to give a pet the message “good job.” To confirm that you’re pleased, follow the good-job signal with a treat, petting or favorite toy.

You can even teach your dog or cat sign language. I love this video that Mikkel shared of a young girl who is hearing-impaired and taught her hearing-impaired puppy, Walter, sign language. Among the American Sign Language words Walter learned to recognize are “sit,” “water” and “food.” Another one that any dog will love to learn is the sign for “walk.” Gestures for “dinner,” “car” and “outside” can also be also useful.

Tailor Your Cues

Your dog or cat might not be able to hear, but his other senses usually still work just fine. For example, pets who are hearing-impaired often have heightened visual abilities. They tend to watch people carefully, which means you can use your hands for visual cues.

Wave your hand to get your pet’s attention; point two fingers at your eyes to signal him to look at you. If you aren’t right in front of your dog or cat and need to catch his attention, you can keep a little flashlight nearby, so you can flash it in his direction (but not in his eyes, of course). Your pet can learn that when he sees the flash of light, he should look for you.

Your expression is important, too. Pets are experts at reading our faces. Smile when you’re happy and frown to signal displeasure. Your pet will get the message, loud and clear.

You can also get your pet’s attention with other touch cues that indicate “look at me.” These include a gentle tug on the leash or a soft touch on the shoulder or back.

And keep in mind that there’s more to the sense of touch than just feeling a poke or pat: Your pet’s skin is highly sensitive to vibrations. He produces corresponding oscillations in the nerves that carry information from touch receptors to the brain. To alert your dog or cat to your approach, stomp your foot. He’ll feel the vibration and know where you’re coming from. If your cat is sleeping on a table, you can tap the surface to get his attention.

To teach these cues, perform the action — touching his shoulder, for instance — then engage his interest by moving a treat from his nose up toward your eyes so that his gaze is drawn to you. When he makes eye contact, give your good-job signal and reward him with the treat. Once your pet starts to learn what the signal means, you can gradually phase out the treat.

Make sure everyone in your family uses the same signals, so your dog doesn’t become confused. If necessary, schedule a couple of sessions with a trainer. He or she can help you teach your dog new nonverbal cues and hand signals.

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