Meet Aspen, the 4-year-old Austin dog taught sign language

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Volunteers at the Austin Humane Society taught four-year-old Aspen sign language, to help provide non-verbal commands. Aspen is deaf and was adopted Dec. 7. (Courtesy: Austin Humane Society)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s the age-old expression that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And then there’s Aspen, a 4-year-old Austin dog taught sign language through the Austin Humane Society.

Aspen came to AHS in May from the Bastrop County Animal Services shelter, where she was at risk of being euthanized. After arriving at AHS, volunteers realized Aspen was deaf and unable to respond to verbal commands.

But how exactly do you teach a dog sign language?

“If you think about training a dog, or even just think about your own dog, there are a lot of hand signals already involved with that. So when you tell the dog to sit, you give them a signal, or to lay down, you give them a hand signal,” said Katie Kennedy, AHS’s director of communications. “The parts that are a voice command — or in a lot of dog training, you use a clicker as a positive reinforcement tool — we just had to figure out what that clicker was for Aspen.”

For Aspen, her “clicker” was a specific hand gesture, like a thumbs up, paired with a treat to reward her for doing something good. That was the first command in a series of others, including “good girl” and a “watch me” command for Aspen to look at AHS staff and prospective adopters coming through the kennel.

“If you’re thinking about adopting and you see that they’re deaf, that can sometimes be a deterrent for people, because they think that’s just an obstacle that they’re not able to overcome. But it’s really not that hard once you know the language, pardon the pun,” she said. “Our volunteers worked really, really hard with her to teach her sign language commands, and I think that really helped to make it easier for people to adopt her and to be able to realize, like, ‘OK, I can do this. This is pretty easy.'”

Through AHS’s “Foster to Adopt” program, Aspen was able to meet and go home with several prospective owners to find the best fit for her. That perfect match came on Dec. 7, after a meet and greet with potential adopters turned into them returning the next day to formally adopt her.

“They came back the next day to fill out the paperwork, and that’s when our staff member snapped a photo of Aspen sleeping. And it was almost like she knew that this was her time and it was all aligning because she’s smiling in her sleep, which was just so adorable,” Kennedy said. “And so we were all just so happy for her.”

For people considering adoption, Kennedy said it’s important to meet with adoption counselors to figure out the right match for your home, family size, lifestyle and other pets in the household. Through a partnership with the Bissell Pet Foundation, Kennedy said adoption fees have been reduced to $25 during the holiday season, to help make adopting a pet more accessible.

Next month, AHS will celebrate its 70th anniversary. As the shelter celebrates this milestone, Kennedy said she hopes AHS can continue to assist pups like Aspen for the next 70 years as they work to find their forever homes.

“We were all just elated,” Kennedy said. “Because we were just so happy that this special girl finally found her perfect match.”

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