What's the sign for 'woof'?

January 22, 1993|By Seattle Times

Juliette's vocabulary ranges from 20 to 30 words, which isn't much to brag about.

Until, that is, you learn she is a 4-year-old deaf Dalmatian that understands American Sign Language. Being a deaf Dalmatian isn't unusual. Comprehending signing is another story.

This is one of those consummate underdog stories about a former Spokane, Wash., shelter resident with two strikes against her. The sign on her kennel run three years ago read: "Can not be controlled" and "Deaf." "We'd been looking for a dog for four or five months," recalls Jody Eisenman. "We went to the shelter periodically but just couldn't find what we were looking for.

"Then, in December 1989, we saw Juliette. Dogs in all the other runs were running, jumping and barking. She sat there quietly watching our every move. It was love at first sight.

The dog gained a nickname, Oreo, the first day at home, when she pulled down a package of cookies from the kitchen table and consumed them all.

Fortunately, for Juliette, the Eisenman home is a language-rich environment. Michael, who has worked with the developmentally disabled, speaks five languages, Jody "a few" and the boys know American Sign Language. In fact, J. J., 9, and Aaron, 7, will enroll soon in a Spokane Falls Community College adult continuing-education class in Intermediate American Sign Language.

During a recent hearing clinic for dogs conducted by Dr. Michael Moore, an associate professor in Washington State University's Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine and Surgery, and Spokane veterinarian Dr. Jeff Watkins, Dr. Moore says the two "just looked at each other in disbelief when one of the boys started signing to the dog and she understood completely. These were not hand signals. This was legitimate American Sign Language."

According to Jody Eisenman, the youngsters deserve most of the credit. "You know what they say about dogs, 'They're a boy's best friend.' In Juliette's case, some of her responses come on command, others are intuitive. Having a treat around certainly helps.

"She amazes us sometimes," says Mrs. Eisenman. "She knows 'I love you,' 'sit,' as demonstrated by two fingers put in a chair position over the other hand, and even things like 'beautiful,' 'play ball,' 'home,' 'food,' 'out,' 'hungry,' 'jump' and others.

The family has added another twist. They can flash the porch lights when they want Juliette to come inside. On one occasion when everyone was gone briefly and Juliette began barking, a neighbor flashed his porch light and the animal quieted down.

Jeanne M. Johnson, assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences at Washington State University, has never heard of a dog learning the language. "I'd like to have a videotape of the children signing to Juliette to show my classes at WSU," she says.

"In my worldwide travels," says Terry Ryan, an internationally recognized dog-obedience instructor and author, "I've never seen or heard of anyone teaching a dog American Sign Language, as intended for humans. It doesn't surprise me, though. Humans routinely underestimate what dogs can do and we tend to set limits based upon our limited expectations."

Dalmatians are one of numerous purebred dogs prone to hereditary deafness. An article in the January 1991 American Kennel Club Gazette reports 30 percent of all Dals are born deaf in one or both ears.

The ailment involves an unknown defect in the inner ear or the auditory nerve, which leads from the inner ear to the brain.

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