Sign language goes to the dogs

I was intrigued when I saw a headline about a deaf dog that had been taught sign language. I was further surprised to learn that it was inmates at a prison in Missouri who had taught the dachshund, then asked a school for the deaf to adopt him. The article was classified under “Strange” news at my ISP’s website, but I would classify it under “Encouraging” news.

It’s encouraging to read about a program like Puppies for Parole, “in which inmates train animals with behavioral or other issues that make them difficult to adopt. The program saves dogs that might otherwise be euthanized and it gives inmates a constructive activity.” It’s good for the inmates, good for the puppies, and – in this case – good for the deaf children who have a dog who fits right in with them.

Beyond that, though, the article made me curious about whether this was unusual, teaching sign language to dogs. I had always been under the impression that a dog’s vision wasn’t as good as a human’s. This is true, if you’re talking about the kind of detail needed to read symbols such as letters and numbers. But an article (one of many I found online) on teaching a deaf dog explains that “even hearing dogs rely more on vision and body language (after all, dogs don’t use spoken words when they interact with each other).”

I’ve heard that dogs hear mostly the vowel sounds in the words we say, so that “food” and “poop” sound fairly similar, while “dog” and “dig” would sound more distinct. (Like many dogs, Kyra sometimes acts as though “food” and “poop” are synonymous, though that has nothing to do with the words we use.) With good training, a dog could probably gain a considerable larger vocabulary of sign language commands than verbal commands.

 When I worked regularly at training Kyra when she was a puppy, I used hand signs to complement the spoken commands. At the time, I thought of them as a way to help her learn the words. The teacher in our obedience classes stressed the importance of talking a lot to our dogs, and how they responded well to a somewhat higher-pitched voice with lots of enthusiasm. I pushed myself to talk with my sons when they were babies, because it would help them learn to talk. But I’m not much of a talker when it’s a monologue, especially when I have to use an excited tone of voice that just doesn’t sound like me.

If sometime I have the time and ambition to get back into a training regimen, I’ll focus more on the signs and less on the words. Though we’d have to come up with some creative signs to represent her favorite toys – such as Squeaky Rhino and Squeaky Pin (it’s shaped like a bowling pin).

Now if she would just make her own sign language a bit clearer. Her “pay attention to me” is very obvious, but beyond that I’m usually at a loss to distinguish between “water,” “walk,” and “play.”

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