Dogs and Sign Language
It has long been known how clever dogs are and how invaluable they can be to people who suffer certain disabilities. Certainly, guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs for the deaf have long been demonstrating how man’s best friend can become more than that and be a lifeline. So many deaf people will have been grateful for the attentions of a hearing dog, who will do things such as alert the deaf person if an alarm goes or if the phone or doorbell rings. But now it may seem that dogs are even more communicative and intuitive than first thought, for a dog in the USA who is deaf himself has been taught sign language himself to allow him to understand what people are saying to him.
Sparky’s StoryThe dog, named Sparky, was taken in by prisoners at a prison in Missouri as part of a scheme called Puppies for Parole. The scheme places dogs which cannot be homed, and would otherwise be put down, in prisons for prisoners to look after and either demonstrate their caring side or practice new skills such as sign language. They decided that they would teach the dog, a dachshund, sign language so that he would know how to obey commands such as sit, stay and fetch. Once he had learnt these basics, he was taken in by students at the Missouri School for the Deaf, who were determined that little Sparky should not be homeless because of his disability. The students there are teaching him new signs so that he can enjoy as fulfilling a life with them as possible and he takes it in turns to sleep in the rooms of different students.
The Benefits for the HumansBut it is not just Sparky who has benefited from his new home life. As would be expected, the students are the school have taken to him very quickly and enjoy teaching the school pet their language. But it is also improving the confidence of the students. Their teachers have said that they are so used having barriers put in their way because of their disability that it is a change for them to help someone else overcome their own – even if it is a dog. In fact, taking Sparky in and concentrating their efforts on helping him to learn sign language has had such a beneficial effect on so many of the students that they are now considering taking in another deaf dog to attempt to recreate the benefits Sparky has brought for another generation of students.
It is clear then, that dogs are not just man’s best friend. Nor should we assume that it is only the clever dogs who can become hearing dogs for the deaf who can help humans with a disability. Caring for Sparky has benefited two very distinct groups of people – the prisoners, who have learnt some responsibility by caring for Sparky, and the students, who have seen that no barrier is insurmountable.