Pixie the border collie has many talents — playing fetch, rolling over, dog-paddling in the ocean. Oh yeah, and she knows sign language.
That’s right: Nine-week-old Pixie, who is deaf, recognizes several hand commands and “can do anything a hearing dog can do, except hear,” says Liz Grewal, a specialist who is fostering Pixie in her home in Coffs Harbour in southeastern Australia. Grewal has taught sign language to some 20 deaf dogs in the last six years, ever since falling in love with a deaf pup she came across in a local shelter. “That little guy was going to have a hard time finding a home,” she tells PEOPLE Pets. “He was going to be the last dog picked, and that really moved me.”
Some breeders will put deaf dogs down at birth because they believe they can’t sell them, fearing that they will startle easily and bite. Grewal and other advocates for deaf dogs say they’re actually a cinch to train, and make wonderful pets. “One of the myths is that a deaf dog will chase a rabbit or something and you’ll never be able to call them back,” says Grewal. “But the truth is, what are the chances you’d be able to call a hearing dog back? I train all my dogs to focus on me when they play fetch, and they soon realize it’s more fun to come back than to chase something else.”
Grewal, who is not a licensed trainer but is mentored by experts in obedience and agility (she and her husband run a small business), combines hand signals designed for dogs with American Sign Language to create a small vocabulary for her deaf dogs. Pixie understands about 10 signs so far, but some border collies — one of the smartest breeds of all — recognize well over a 100 signs. The key to teaching them “is consistency,” says Grewal. “It’s the same signs and the same rewards over and over.”
Pixie knows when to sit (“I close my fist in front of her nose and move it upward”), drop to the ground (“I put my palm facing the dog and move it downwards”) and come (“I move my open palm towards me”). Grewal claps three times to alert Pixie to scurry outside to the bathroom, while a thumbs-up means “good girl.” “If you think about it, a lot of hearing dogs interpret hand signals, body language, facial expressions,” says Grewal. “All you have to do is reach for a leash and your dogs know they’re going outside.”
Grewal recommends that anyone who owns a deaf dog should supervise them when they are around children 12 and under. “Little kids move fast and dogs don’t always understand that,” she says. “But otherwise, they’re perfectly fine with children.” She will continue to foster dogs like Pixie — and do whatever she can to change the prevailing wisdom among breeders that deaf dogs should be put down. “We call deaf dogs Velcro Dogs, because they want to be glued to your side 24/7,” she says. “Pixie is like that. She’s just a beautiful soul, and I love her.”