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Deaf Dogs Can Learn New Tricks Too

posted September 26th, 2015 by
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American Sign Language bridges communication for owners and albino dogs

By Brianna Broersma

 

A special group of dogs live right here in Oklahoma City.  Ceasar, Swayze, Deeyenda and Marvel are all deaf and have limited vision. Their owner, Mrs. Rojas, uses American Sign Language to communicate with them. Rojas has taught them basic signs such as “sit,” “speak” and “outside.”  Rojas says, “I look at the sign I need and teach them the behavior to go with it.”

The dogs’ hearing and vision problems can be attributed to irresponsible breeding.  In some breeds, a “merle” or “dapple” pattern is prized. This means that there are patches of lighter color fur on the dogs’ coats. Some breeders will try to breed two merle dogs together in order to increase the percent of merle puppies in a litter. However, if two merle or dapple dogs are bred together, the effect is cumulative, and it can lead to a “double merle” dog with a completely white coat. This can also remove pigment from the inner ear that is necessary for normal functioning.

Rojas’ dogs inherited their traits from such breeding practices. Ceasar is a 2-year-old Great Dane, and his deafness resulted from Harlequin-to-Harlequin breeding. (A Harlequin Great Dane has Dalmatian-like coloring.) Seven-month-old Mini Dachshund  Deeyenda had two dapple parents. Swayze, a 1-year-old Australian Shepherd, is a “double merle,” a product of merle-to-merle breeding. Rojas’s 6-month-old Rough Collie, Marvel, has an “extreme white pattern.” This removes a large amount of pigment from the face and ears, often resulting in deafness.  Rojas says, “These issues are completely preventable with responsible breeding.”

Other effects include light-sensitive eyes that can have “starburst” pupils. If Rojas takes her dogs out during daylight hours, she has to put special goggles on them. The sunlight is harsh on their eyes and skin,  due to the lack of pigment, Rojas says. She also needs to put special sunscreen on them to ensure they won’t get sunburned. Often, Rojas finds it easier to take them out during twilight or nighttime hours to protect their eyes and skin.

They are viewed as a burden, and Rojas says, “Usually breeders will kill these dogs because they are not profitable.” Sometimes “double merle” dogs can have related health issues such as digestive disorders, skin disorders and seizures. They can also have allergic reactions to some medications.

She has actually had to convince breeders to give her their dogs instead of killing them.  She is hoping to get therapy dog licenses so that her dogs can visit nursing homes, convalescent hospitals or other therapeutic settings.  She also fosters/rescues deaf dogs until a permanent home can be found.

She believes “it’s easier to train deaf dogs because they get distracted less” and actually prefers deaf dogs to hearing dogs.

“Deaf dogs are just like any other dogs,” she says, regarding the training process. When teaching a hearing dog, the owner or trainer teaches with a verbal “yes” or a clicker when a command is obeyed. Then the dog is rewarded with praise or a treat.

“Well, with a deaf dog, you show the American Sign Language sign you are trying to teach,” Rojas says. “For example, ‘sit.’ You stand in front of your deaf dog and show him the ASL sign for sit. Once he sits, immediately show him the ASL sign for ‘yes!’ Then you give him a treat. He learns, ‘OK, when she shows me this sign, and I sit, I get a treat and the yes sign. Therefore, I’m doing what I’m asked to do.’   Be consistent, and they will learn.

“Teaching ‘outside’ is easy too. Just like asking a hearing dog, ‘Do you want to go outside?’ …With a deaf dog, I stand at the door and show him the ASL [sign] for ‘outside,’ then open the door. He learns, ‘OK, when she shows me this sign, she lets me out.’ So he learns to remember what each sign means with each action. It’s actually easy and less challenging than you would think. Dogs are not born knowing English or Spanish or ASL. They learn when they hear a word, or in my dogs’ case, when they see a word and learn its meaning.”

Another tool Rojas employs is a vibration collar, not to be confused with a shock collar. It is used much like a clicker. Instead of click and reward, the dog gets buzzed and rewarded. “This is an important behavior to learn since when they feel the buzz, they look for the handler for a cookie/reward or instruction in ASL.

“This is so important,” she says. “If for any reason your dog is far off—let’s say at the dog park—and you need to call your dog, you can buzz, and they will think, ‘Oh my mom’s calling me!’ They will immediately look for you to give a command, such as come here, go to the car, stop, or look here.”

For anyone with a deaf dog, Rojas and her pets are inspiration that their pets too can lead a happy, obedient, high-quality life.

She has started a Facebook group to get “double merle” pet parents in contact with one another. It includes owners from all over the country and even international members. The group can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/202055833234792/. Members share information, photographs and support for raising these special dogs. For more information, contact Rojas under the name “Haulinauss Deafdog Interpreter” on Facebook.

Complete list of ASL signs that Rojas uses with her dogs:

1    Speak

2    Sit

3    Lay down

4    Outside

5    Go to bed

6    No

7    Yes

8    Good boy

9    Car

10  Cookie

11  Inside house

12  Move over

13  Back up

14  Stop

15  Walk

16  Look

17  Water

18  Food

19  Drop it

20  Come here

21  Go to dad

22  Up

23  Heel

24  Shake