Give the dog a bone [video]

Heather Bing

Student’s Siberian husky responds to sign language commands

Jenn Church, sophomore zoology major, uses American Sign Language to spell out “lay” to her dog, Hurricane. Church has trained her dog in four weeks to sit and lay down by responding to hand signals. MICHELE ROEHRIG | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Hurricane, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, bounded around Jenn Church’s living room licking fingers, greeting guests and creating chaos. When she was done exploring, Church told her to sit – without saying a word.

Church, a sophomore zoology major, is taking her second American Sign Language class at the Trumbull campus. She said she is taking the class for her foreign language credit because she would like to work as a veterinarian.

Church has discovered another application, however. She taught her dog to respond to sign language.

“Someone in my class told me you could teach dogs sign language,” she said. “I wanted to test the theory.”

During class, Church found out her professor had taught her dog to respond to hand signals. She decided to try something different by teaching Hurricane to respond to finger spellings.

Four weeks ago the training began, and Church said Hurricane caught on within one week.

“These dogs have their own minds,” she said. “They are very smart dogs.”

VIDEO: See Hurricane in action

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Siberian huskies are often used as therapy dogs because of their affectionate, curious and docile natures. They are smart and trainable, but require patience due to their independent nature, she said.

Church decided to start with two commands that Hurricane already responded to verbally: sit and lie down.

“As I would tell her, I would spell it out,” she said. “After a while, she started to catch on. The only thing is that she won’t do it without treats.”

Hurricane responds no matter what order the commands are given. Sometimes Church repeats the same command twice, or lets her dog run around before signing to her again. Each time Hurricane responds, she is rewarded.

When Church told her professor, she asked for Church to bring Hurricane in to show the class. Church wasn’t sure how Hurricane would do in front of an audience, but she ended up performing as usual.

Nancy Resh, Chuch’s American Sign Language instructor, said it was incredible watching Hurricane respond.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Resh said. “We were all just awed by it.”

Resh, who is deaf, said her dog has been trained to respond to hand signals since birth. Her dog can also alert her to different noises around the house she doesn’t hear, such as someone knocking at the door.

However, Resh said she has never seen a dog respond to finger spellings before, and she has never even heard of it being done.

“She would spell out S-I-T and the dog would sit,” she said. “She would spell out L-A-Y and the dog would lie down.”

Anne Jannarone, who serves on the board of directors for the Association on Higher Education and Disability, said there are service dog programs that also train dogs to serve individuals with hearing impairments.

She said she has heard about dogs learning to do many incredible things. Some dogs can learn commands in different languages, some deaf dogs can learn hand signals and a current debate is whether some dogs can detect odors given off by individuals who are about to have an epileptic seizure.

Jannarone said hunters will also sometimes teach dogs to respond to whistles and hand gestures, but Church’s story is unique.

“I have been working for 12 years with students with disabilities,” she said. “This one is new to me.”

Church said now that Hurricane has mastered her first spellings, she hopes to start teaching her more commands like shake and speak.

“She doesn’t shake right now,” Church said. “Maybe I’ll try signing first since verbal isn’t working.”

Church has another dog, a gigantic German shepherd named Coby, but he doesn’t listen as well as Hurricane. He probably wouldn’t make a good candidate, she said.

The whole experiment was done just to see if Hurricane could do it, and Church said that was fun in itself.

“I haven’t heard of anyone else doing it yet,” she said.

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Heather Bing at [email protected].