When communicating with a deaf dog, we need to flip two switches in our simple human brain.
First, we have to stop being lazy and relying on our voice. We need to remember that speaking is not enough because, well, he can’t hear us! Sure, talking to our deaf dog while we sign changes our facial expressions and alters our body language, both of which provide nuanced, supplemental information that our deaf dogs use to better understand what we are saying, but, generally speaking, dogs aren’t very good at reading lips.
Second, and perhaps more important, we have to remember that our deaf dogs can’t hear us if they can’t see us. As obvious as that sounds, I find that I frequently have to remind people to get their deaf dog’s visual attention before they begin signing. If you’re signing to the back of your dog’s head, he won’t know that it’s time for a walk or, better yet, a cookie. To make sure that he understands it’s time to head to the door or lick his lips in anticipation, we need to make sure he’s looking at us.
Why “Watch Me” Is The First Hand Sign Every Deaf Dog Should Know
There are lots of good ways to get your deaf dog’s attention. You can gently touch him if he’s looking the other way. You can wave your hand or arms if he’s across the room. Sometimes, I even flash the lights to get them to look my way.
There are also some very bad ways to get your deaf dog’s attention. Throwing things, squirting him with a spray bottle, smacking his butt, pinching him…these are sure fire ways to create a stressed out, fearful dog who is more likely to respond in negative ways to human touch and unexpected changes in his environment.
In my opinion, however, the very best way to get (and keep) your dog’s attention is to teach him a “Watch Me” sign. This basic deaf dog life skill is easy to teach and, once learned, encourages your dog to visually check in with you frequently. Soon, you will find your dog looking to you all the time for information about what adventure is up next!
How To Teach “Watch Me”
- Choose your sign. When we adopted Edison and started to implement our training plan, we followed the advice of Deaf Dogs Rock. As our sign for ”Watch Me”, we choose to draw our index finger up to our nose. You can use any sign you like, but this is a very simple and clear sign that encourages your deaf pup to follow your finger in the direction of your eyes.
- I like this sign for another reason. When drawing your finger up to your nose, you can easily hold a treat in the same hand, encouraging your dog to follow the treat. This is especially helpful when you first begin training.
- To get started, use the treat to get your dog’s attention. Choose a treat your dog really likes, one that will motivate him to work for it. Holding it in your signing hand, perhaps between your thumb and middle finger, let him see it or smell it. Once he is focused on the treat, draw your index finger up to your nose.
- As soon as your dog makes eye contact, give him the treat. You should also give him a thumbs up, flash of the palm or whatever other sign you use to mark the behavior you want. You should reward him as soon as possible to reinforce the behavior. Repeat this several times during each training session, and several short training sessions a day is best.
- If your dog stops following the treat, simply let him smell or see it to get his attention again and start over. It is crucial to reward him as soon as he looks at you so he can begin to associate the sign with the behavior.
- Once your dog understands what you are asking of him, you can slowly increase the amount of time between looking at you and rewarding him. This encourages him to actually watch you instead of just glancing at you. As your deaf dog masters this skill, you can hold the treat in your other hand or keep it in your pocket until he looks at you.
Once your dog learns to watch you, you can follow the “Watch Me”sign with some other command, such as “Come Here” or “Want a Cookie”? With patience and practice, your deaf dog will learn that “Watch Me’ means that some other information is coming. In time, he will begin to check in with you constantly, eager to hear what you have to say next!