Peggy, a deaf sheepdog, understands sign language

The story of Peggy, a nine-year-old border collie is warming and highlights once again the intelligence of dogs. She had to be retired after becoming deaf but is now working again after learning sign language. Her handler couldn’t work with her anymore because they couldn’t communicate with Peggy so she was handed over to the RSPCA.

Peggy learning sign language
Peggy learning sign language. Photo in public domain presumed by RSPCA.

Peggy was taken in by Chloe Shorten, an animal welfare manager from the RSPCA’s mid-Norfolk and North Suffolk branch. With her husband, a shepherd, they taught Peggy to understand hand signals and body language. Assistance came from a sheepdog trainer and their two other working dogs, Sid and Nora.

They fell in love with Peggy almost immediately and said “that she wouldn’t be going anywhere. We knew Peggy wanted to be working so we started the long process of teaching her how to herd and work with a shepherd without relying on voice commands.”

The first task was to get Peggy to look at them so that she could receive visual signals made with the hand. They used positive reinforcement training and “instead of pairing a verbal command with an action we’d use a hand gesture. She reads our hand signals and body language as a way of telling what we are asking for. For example, thumbs up means ‘good girl’. A flat outstretched palm means ‘stop’.”

To get her to slow down they employ a waving gesture and they point to where they want her to go. They pat their knees to summon her back to them. It’s unclear as to why she became deaf. She’s still learning new things and improving all the time. Shorten feels that the most important thing is that they are able to tell her that she’s good and to reassure that she is doing well. It took Peggy some time to learn that she was loved and to gain trust. But Shorten and a husband now find it so rewarding that she understands, and the praise that they give her.

Peggy is not working full-time but enjoys helping out. Shorten says that she is a very happy dog and loves going out to work with them running around the fields. Peggy is fitted with a GPS tracker in case they become separated. Shorten says that “She’s proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and is a wonderful example of the capability of a dog, even if they do lose a sense.”


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