Home   Ipswich   News   Article

Deaf sheepdog taught sign language by new owners to allow her to keep working




An elderly sheepdog which could no longer work after becoming deaf is now able to continue rounding up flocks after her new owners taught her sign language.

Border collie Peggy was signed over to the RSPCA when her previous owners could no longer keep her, after she became deaf and her handler could no longer communicate with her.

But when RSPCA animal welfare manager Chloe Shorten, from the Mid Norfolk and North Suffolk Branch, took Peggy in, she fell in love with the pooch.

Chloe Shorten, 28, with Peggy her deaf Border collie
Chloe Shorten, 28, with Peggy her deaf Border collie

And she vowed to help nine-year-old Peggy get back to the job she loved.

Sheepdogs are traditionally trained to obey whistles or voice commands, with short, simple instructions such as 'Away', 'Come-by', and 'Steady'.

But now, Peggy is thriving after learning to read hand signals and body language from Chloe and her husband Jason - who just so happens to work as a shepherd.

it is not clear why the veteran sheepdog became deaf, as vet checks have revealed no obvious lumps or inflections in her ears
it is not clear why the veteran sheepdog became deaf, as vet checks have revealed no obvious lumps or inflections in her ears

Chloe, 28, said: "We completely fell in love with Peggy almost immediately, and it soon became clear 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.

"We started by teaching her to look at us for hand signals.

"We used repetitive and positive reinforcement and instead of pairing a verbal command with an action we’d use a physical hand gesture.

Peggy is thriving after learning to read hand signals and body language from Chloe and her husband Jason
Peggy is thriving after learning to read hand signals and body language from Chloe and her husband Jason

"She reads our hand signals and body language as a way of telling what we’re asking for. For example, thumbs up means 'good girl'."

Now, Peggy has learned to watch Chloe and 34-year-old Jason closely for hand signals - and loves being set loose in the fields to help her owners at work.

The couple trained Peggy with the help of a sheepdog trainer in a safe and secure environment, and their other two working sheepdogs - Sid and Nora - helped too.

Chloe said it is not clear why the veteran sheepdog became deaf, as vet checks have revealed no obvious lumps or inflections in her ears - and her previous owners had "no idea" why, either.

Peggy has learned to watch Chloe and 34-year-old Jason closely for hand signals
Peggy has learned to watch Chloe and 34-year-old Jason closely for hand signals

But the eager sheepdog has learned to recognise such gestures as a thumbs-up - meaning 'good girl' - and a flat, outstretched palm indicating for her to stop.

Chloe and Jason also sometimes point in a certain direction to indicate where they want Peggy to go, and will pat their knees to summon her back to them.

And to ask her to slow down, Chloe says she will make a similar, waving gesture as if slowing down a car.

Chloe said: "She’s still learning new things and improving all the time.

"The main thing for us was being able to tell her that she’s a good girl and reassure her she is going to be okay.

An elderly sheepdog was signed over to the RSPCA when her previous owners could no longer keep her
An elderly sheepdog was signed over to the RSPCA when her previous owners could no longer keep her

"It took her a while to learn that we loved her and to gain her trust but it’s been so rewarding knowing that she now understands our praise.

"It can be difficult with a deaf dog, because you have to wave at them to get their attention, and sometimes she doesn't realise straight away.

"But she's such a happy little dog. She's no spring chicken, and she is generally retired - but she loves going out to work with us and running around in the fields, helping out.

"We don't always take her out with us, just so as not to push her too hard. But I think if she had the chance she'd do it all the time.

"She absolutely loves running around like a nutter so we have a GPS tracker on her collar just in case we get separated and she couldn’t see us, as she can’t hear us calling her.

"But it’s amazing to see her with this new lease of life and enjoying her life with us.

"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."

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk