Deaf sheepdog learns sign language to continue rounding up livestock

A collie who ended up in rescue when she lost her hearing and could not longer work has learned sign language so she can continue rounding up livestock.

Eight-year-old working collie Peggy was signed over to the RSPCA in December 2018 when her previous owners could no longer keep her.

She was taken in by RSPCA Mid Norfolk & North Suffolk branch and, as it was just before Christmas, animal welfare manager Chloe Shorten took her home to foster until they could find her a space in kennels.

Chloe, from Norfolk, said: “We decided she could stay with is temporarily while we found somewhere more permanent to take her in but 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.”

Peggy was a bright and efficient sheepdog but as she’d loft her hearing, she’d lost her communication skills with her handler. But that wouldn’t stop Chloe from helping Peggy get back to the job she loved.

Chloe said: “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’.”

The couple trained Peggy with a sheepdog trainer’s help in a safe and secure environment and their other two working sheepdogs – Sid and Nora – helped too.

Chloe added: “While Peggy is generally retired, she goes out to work with my husband, Jason, from time-to-time and she absolutely loves it. 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. 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.”