An inspirational story coming out of Grand Island, Nebraska, is catching fire on social media worldwide, while also raising an interesting behavioral and training issue: Dogs learning sign language.
A deaf Pit Bull named Rosie is the strongest evidence yet that the answer is yes.
The story began six months ago when Rosie and Noah, two unrelated Pit Bull mixes, arrived at the Central Nebraska Humane Society in the town of Grand Island. Staff there were at first confused and concerned that neither dog responded well — and usually not at all — to spoken commands, encouragements, or greetings. Instead, both dogs were fearful, reticent, unsocialized, and emotionally distant.
A quick test eventually identified the problem: Both Rosie and Noah, it turned out, were deaf. They didn’t respond to voice commands or encouragements simply because they couldn’t hear them.
New shelter volunteer Tracie Pfeifle was handed the seemingly difficult task of socializing Rosie. A registered nurse well-accustomed to working with ill and disabled people, Pfeifle suddenly wondered: If deaf people can communicate using hand signs, why couldn’t dogs?
“Before starting to do this, I had very minimal knowledge of sign language,” Pfeifle explains. “Luckily, my friend happened to have a deaf dog and she gave me some helpful hints.”
The first sign Rosie learned was not a command but rather the compliment “good girl,” indicated by a thumbs-up gesture. Before learning this, poor Rosie was constantly stressed and overwhelmed by her strange environment and had no way of knowing what to do or how humans felt about her. After finding a way to soothe and encourage Rosie — by signaling to the dog that she had done something commendable — Pfeifle used this new communicative tool to move on to other signs.
“In [human] sign language, ‘sit’ is two fingers of one hand on your other forearm — but that takes both arms,” says Pfeifle. “Because with dogs we need to use one hand to hold the leash, we adapted the sign to be one-handed, two fingers down over your thumb. ‘Walk’ is three fingers up, and ‘go outside’ is forming your fingers into a circle.”
The key, Pfeifle discovered, is for the human signer to hold her signing hand near her face, not at arm’s length, and to look directly into the dog’s eyes. “Deaf dogs really watch your face, your facial expression, and read your body language,” she says. “That’s where they’re getting the clues. The hand signs just help clarify the exact message.”
But are Rosie and other deaf dogs really understanding American Sign Language gestures as an actual language? Pfeifle isn’t sure. “Each gesture is only a single command. The language they understand is body language.”
The same skepticism was leveled at Koko, the famous California gorilla who, as early as the 1970s, was taught in labs not only to understand human sign language but to make signs of her own. Researchers began to wonder: Is Koko really communicating linguistic concepts, or is she just very clever at guessing what humans want her to do?
Unlike gorillas, dogs don’t have hands and can’t sign back, but simply learning to recognize the meaning of various signs, as these Nebraskan deaf dogs did, involves a level of linguistic sophistication far beyond the capabilities of almost any other animal.
Even the apparently simplest one-word command is merely a shorthand way of communicating what is in reality a much more grammatically complex concept. When, for example, we tell a dog to sit, those three letters actually mean, “I want you to immediately bend your back legs and rest your weight on your rear end and then remain still in that position as you pay attention to me.” A dog who learns the sit command is actually understanding language with deeper levels of syntax than most humans assume when they casually toss out that single-syllable directive.
Deaf humans comprise an interactive community, as they communicate with each other using a shared if silent language. But because deaf dogs comprise no such community, they don’t all need to learn the exact same hand signs.
“Each dog may only respond to specific signs, so what works with one may not work with another,” Pfeifle notes. “Deaf dogs obviously aren’t communicating with each other using sign language, so it doesn’t have to be consistent. I think people who have deaf dogs just use whatever sign training works for them and their dog. For example, with Rosie, ‘no’ is a single finger held up next to the face. She’s learned that, and it works. But that doesn’t work for Noah,” the other deaf dog being trained at the Grand Island shelter. “His ‘no’ is a fist held up next to the face.” Pfeifle laughs. “A finger just isn’t enough for him.”
Pfeifle is not the first person to communicate with dogs using sign language, but for some reason her success story has caught the public’s attention.
“Police officers sometimes use hand signs in K-9 training,” Pfeifle points out. “The police need to communicate with their dogs silently when they’re in dangerous situations, so they started using hand signs — even though the police dogs can hear. People who train herding breeds like Australian Shepherds also use hand signs.”
Just a few days ago, Rosie’s story had a happy ending: A deaf woman seeking a companion dog heard about Rosie’s success and has not only adopted her but plans to teach her many new signs.
“She has a home now,” says Pfeifle.
“Noah has learned ‘down’ and ‘roll over,’ among others,” says Pfeifle, who’s now getting help in the sign-language project. “Brett here at the shelter helps to train him now as well.”
This innovative training is all being done at the Central Nebraska Humane Society in Grand Island, an historic Midwestern town more famous among birdwatchers worldwide for its annual sandhill crane migration spectacle than for its cutting-edge canine coaching. But maybe one day, in addition to its pioneer and wildlife history, Grand Island will also be known as the place where human beings first realized that we can talk to dogs with our hands.
Do you have a deaf dog you use hand signs with? Tell us your story in the comments!
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About the author: Kristan Lawson lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes about travel, food, evolution and scavenging.
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