Deaf Norfolk sheepdog Peggy learns ‘sign language’

April 13, 2021
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A sheepdog given up to the RSPCA when she lost her hearing and was unable to work on a farm, has been taught a form of sign language enabling her to “get back to the job she loved”.

Peggy, a collie, was adopted in 2018 by a member of the charity’s staff, whose husband is a shepherd in Norfolk.

Together they began the “long process” of teaching her how to herd using hand signals rather than voice commands.

Peggy, 10, is now working part-time with the couple’s other two dogs.

Peggy was a “bright and efficient sheepdog” but as she had lost her hearing, she had lost her communication skills with her handler, the RSPCA said.

A farmer handed the dog, then aged eight, to the charity’s Mid Norfolk and North Suffolk branch, where Chloe Shorten, an animal welfare manager, worked.

With no room in the kennels just before Christmas, Peggy went home to stay with the Shortens and their other two working sheepdogs.

“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,” said Mrs Shorten.

“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.”

With the help of a sheepdog trainer, Peggy came to understand hand signals and body language.

The process took time, Mrs Shorten said, and it also took time for Peggy to “learn that we love her – and understand our praise”.

A thumbs up means “good girl”, she said.

While the collie is “generally retired” she still goes out to work from time to time with Mrs Shorten’s husband. When it comes to time to play, Peggy has to wear a GPS tracker as she runs around so enthusiastically and cannot hear her owners calling her back.

“It’s amazing to see her with this new lease of life, and enjoying her life with us,” said Mrs Shorten.

“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.”

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