This month for our Working Class Dogs series, we chat to Nicola (human) and Lenny – a miniature short haired Dachshund. Eight years ago Nicola began losing her hearing and as a result she learnt to lip-read, had a cochlear implant, and learnt Australian Sign Language (AusLan). While these measures help her to hear and understand most speech again, Nicola still struggles to hear general environmental sounds; people approaching, door knocks etc. That’s where Lenny comes in – over to you Nicola!
Why did you decide to teach Lenny AusLan?
After I started losing my hearing, I began learning to lip-read and last year I had Cochlear Implant Surgery. The surgery enabled me to communicate both orally and through AusLan however my CI’s sole purpose is to understand speech, so everything else gets a little lost in translation.
It was everyday sounds, especially household noises that I felt I needed extra assistance in, that’s when I decided to get Lenny – he hears everything!
Can any dog learn sign language?
Most breeds can, the difficulty of it depends on the dog. I have past experience with teaching another dog sign language. I rescued a deaf American Bulldog from Animal Welfare League a couple of years ago, named Winter. Winter was a beautiful boy, but no one had every taught him how to communicate. Teaching a deaf dog sign language was easy – he was visual and I was the first to communicate with him in a visual language.
Teaching Lenny sign language is a different story. Lenny learns both verbal commands, as my partner is hearing, and signing as that’s how I communicate with him. And Lenny is very, very stubborn. This takes a lot of patience plus a bit more. I guess the key is consistency; I try my hardest to only sign to him to teach him that’s how I communicate. Lenny is starting to understand that if he wants a treat from me he has to pay attention to what I am saying with my hands, if he wants a treat from Justin he has to listen to what he is saying. Currently Lenny is more responsive to my partner, so it’s still very much a work in progress.
How do dogs learn Auslan without fingers?
There are two ways to train your dog; visually and verbally. Teaching Lenny sign language is just a visual way of communicating with him – it gains the same outcomes but is just in a more comfortable language for myself. There are a lot of benefits to this such as your dog tends to look at you a lot more, you can hold their attention for longer. Such as at the dog park a visual communication dog will look at you a lot because he can’t rely on hearing you yell his name.
What does Lenny do in his downtime?
Lenny is still a normal little puppy; he loves long walks, and absolutely loves the beach – but not the water! Len has cow brothers that watch his move every minute he is outside and lick him over the fence when he gets too close.
What do you love most about working with Lenny?
Although Lenny is taking a little longer to learn visual communication, he does actually help me around the home a lot. This is one thing that has surprised me the most, his natural body language lets me know almost all the things I miss and am not able to hear, which was my main goal. Things such as my partner approaching a room I am in, previously I would jump almost every time but Lenny’s reactions and body language alerts me now. If there is someone at the door, if the microwave finishes those types of things, Lenny only has to look up, move his head or look at me and I now know what he is thinking. In a way, the role has reversed – I’ve learnt to read his visual communication more than anything!
Join Lenny on Instagram as he becomes a Hearing Support Dog to his human, Nic @lennydox. Do you know of any other dogs learning AUSLAN that we may be able to meet?