Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Communicating with dogs: making “sense” of things.

Humans tend to largely use sounds when it comes to communicating with each other. One person talks, another listens (ideally, anyway). So it’s no wonder that we often try to verbally communicate with our dogs as well. “No!” “Sit” “Come here” “Don’t eat that!” and so on. And while dogs are smart enough to eventually pick up on some of the sounds we humans make at them, a dog’s primary means of communication is not based in sound. Yes, dogs do bark, but they tend to get their information from other dogs (and their world) by smelling first, seeing second, and hearing third.

It makes sense to me to try to communicate with a dog in a way that they’re most apt to understand. Unfortunately I, just like all humans, have a relatively awful sense of smell and therefore I have absolutely no idea how to communicate with my dog that way.  I’m left with visual and audio means of communication. Dogs, relying more on sight than sound to communicate, actually tend to understand visual commands better than verbal commands.  To help your dog learn a command even better and faster, double up a verbal command with a visual command.

Some common hand signals in the dog world are:

SIT—hand flat, palm upSTAY—hand out, palm to dogDOWN—point down to floor
WAIT—form a sort of “C” with hand and move it from left to right

Of course, you can always make up your own hand signals. I taught Leopold to bark on command using a hand signal—making my hand into a “mouth” and snapping it shut.
I also use a sweeping motion towards me to mean "come", and I hold my hand, palm up, down and out when I want my dog(s) to give me a paw.

You can see me use some of these signals in this video:

Knowing this, adopting deaf dogs isn’t such a daunting task. Because dogs understand hand signals so well, communicating is easy. When I worked at the SPCA back in the fall, we had a deaf dog. Whenever I introduced the dog to interested, potential adopters, I would demonstrate that the dog knew how to sit using the hand-signal; some people thought I was doing magic! But it wasn’t magic at all—just sign language.

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