Deaf sheepdog returns to work after learning to read hand signals

Sam Russell, PA
·2-min read

A deaf sheepdog has returned to work after learning to read hand signals.

Eight-year-old collie Peggy was given up by her previous owners after she lost her hearing and could no longer follow her handler’s voice commands.

She was taken in by the RSPCA’s Mid Norfolk and North Suffolk branch in 2018.

Animal welfare manager Chloe Shorten, whose husband Jason is a shepherd, initially fostered Peggy as a stopgap, then “completely fell in love with her”.

The couple trained Peggy to follow hand signals, with Mrs Shorten describing her as living proof that you can “teach an old dog new tricks”.

Mrs Shorten, from Norfolk, said: “We decided she could stay with us temporarily while we found somewhere more permanent to take her in, but we completely fell in love with her almost immediately and it soon became clear that she wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“She fitted in perfectly at our mad house, came everywhere with us and fitted in with my husband’s job – as a shepherd.

“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.

“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’.”

Peggy
(RSPCA/PA)

The couple were helped by a sheepdog trainer and Peggy practised alongside the couple’s two other working sheepdogs, Sid and Nora.

“While Peggy is generally retired, she goes out to work with my husband Jason from time to time and she absolutely loves it,” said Mrs Shorten.

“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 OK.

“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.

“Now she’s learned to demand fuss by tapping and nudging you on the arm or leg, sometimes she really hits you hard and you feel like you’ve been punched.

“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.”