From Christina of Deaf Dogs Rock: I want to introduce to our Deaf Dogs Rock community this wonderful young lady Savannah with Savvy Dog Training. Savannah uses positive reinforcement training methods and signs in American Sign Language (ASL) in training videos that help our Deaf community members both train their new deaf or hearing dogs using positive reinforcement methods, and communicating to their dogs in ASL. Her training videos are a wonderful resource for both deaf and hearing individuals.
Savannah has agreed to answer some interview questions for all of us here at Deaf Dogs Rock so we can get to know her better.
Welcome Savannah! Can you tell us a bit about yourself like where you grew up, your family life, and where you attended school?
I am from Saint Augustine, FL. I grew up as the oldest of six girls. The majority of my family is Deaf, including both my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and cousins. I moved to Tallahassee, Florida to go to Florida State and graduated in 2018. During my time at FSU I started teaching dog training classes at a local pet store. I really learned a lot about dog training, body language, classical and operant conditioning.
Now my current job is as the Animal Therapy Coordinator at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare. I screen, train, and evaluate over 180 animal therapy teams that visit healthcare facilities, nursing homes, elementary schools, and other facilities.
How did you become so fluent in ASL?
My family is a multi-generational Deaf family! My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and my sister are all Deaf. I grew up learning ASL first before I could speak English. It has been so cool to be immersed in Deaf culture since I was born. Fun fact: my family recently competed on a Nickelodeon game show called The Crystal Maze. Many people doubted that we would be serious competitors due to our deafness, but we crushed it! (Pic attached of us on the game show, if interested).
June Ann LeFors, an ASL specialist at FSDB, told News4Jax that her family is one of just a few U.S. families to participate. She said what makes her family stand out is that they all have different levels of hearing
(Savannah is on the far left side of this photo).
When did you adopt your first deaf dog?
I adopted my first deaf dog, Sydney right after I graduated from Florida State! I wanted a dog my entire life, but knew I needed to finish school and have a more steady lifestyle to be able to accommodate the needs of a dog. I had been following the Deaf Dogs Rock page for a while, knowing that I wanted a deaf dog. When Sydney’s picture popped up and she was in Atlanta, I knew she was the one!
First time Savannah and Sydney met when she picked her up from her foster home.
Tell us about your deaf dog Sydney, what is her personality like?
Sydney is an Australian Cattle Dog who is now 2.5 years old. Like all Cattle dogs, she has a lot of energy. She is confident to try new things and loves to be by my side at all times because she is definitely a velcro dog.
We have done lots of activities together. She has participated in dock diving, sheep herding, FastCAT, bike riding, hiking, but we especially love agility. She is also pretty spunky, but very food-motivated so she learns very quickly (and has definitely outsmarted me more than a few times).
Puppy class graduation
Did you start training your deaf dog as a puppy?
Yes! It is so important to start training any dog, but especially deaf dogs as soon as they arrive in your home. The first two weeks I wore my treat pouch around the house and rewarded Sydney for offering any eye contact! She now constantly checks in with me, and sometimes even just stares at me because through her training she is now conditioned to do so.
Eye contact is one of the most important things for deaf dogs to learn and be conditioned to do, since they need to make eye contact to get direction from their handler. Growing up in a Deaf family, I also knew my way around getting the attention of a Deaf person. Stomping my feet, flipping the lights on and off, waving my hands, etc. I trained Sydney those things as cues to look at me or find me!
You can see Savannah’s training videos under our Training Videos under our Resources section by clicking here.
What were some of the training resources you used?
Deaf Dogs Rock was a huge resource for me. I didn’t previously know about the risks of using light flashes with deaf dogs, and the website also has lots of other tips and tricks! Positive reinforcement training is extremely important, so I am fortunate that I had been training dogs for about 3 years before I got Sydney, so I already knew a lot of positive reinforcement training information. Training Sydney is no different than training a hearing dog, I just add my hand signal the same time I would add my verbal cue. I actually think deaf dogs are easier because you don’t have the added distraction of noises that hearing dogs have.
Sydney and Savannah working on learning Agility.
Why and when did you decide to do ASL videos to help other Deaf families have a good training resource to train their deaf dogs?
Well, I was thinking that many Deaf people have dogs, but if they wanted to consult a trainer to help them with questions, there would be a huge communication gap. Deaf people are unfortunately used to it, but when it comes to dog training, it’s extremely important to have all the information clearly explained. Stuff like timing, marking the correct behavior with a visual marker to let the dog know at the exact second it made the right decision followed by placement of a high value reinforcement (reward based high value treat or toy), understanding classical vs. operant conditioning, etc.
Savannah marking the correct behavior during dock diving training.
I figured I was one of the few dog trainers out there who was fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), so I had the idea to make YouTube videos explaining in ASL how to train a dog, whether the dog is hearing or deaf! They are voiced over in spoken English for those who don’t know ASL. I am available for in-person training in Tallahassee and St. Augustine, FL, but also do online training via Skype or FaceTime for people who have other questions or things that need to be more customized than a YouTube video!
Savannah and Sydney getting ready to go on a hike in NC
Do you think this will help more Deaf people in the community consider adopting a deaf dog?
I sure hope so! It has been so cool to see the positive response from Deaf and hearing people alike! I hope Sydney and I can be an ambassador for deaf dogs and Deaf people by making lots of training information accessible!
What would you say is the biggest challenge for a Deaf person when training a deaf dog?
There is a saying, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.” This is so true, but I would say Deaf people’s biggest barrier or challenge is the accessibility to communication. Most dog trainers know the information they need to train their dog, but can’t communicate it effectively via ASL to a Deaf client.
Do you have friends that have deaf dogs?
I currently do not have any close friends with deaf dogs. I have fostered and trained a few others, but they were adopted out or lived somewhere else. I think I have definitely encouraged more people to consider adopting a deaf dog after meeting Sydney and I and seeing how well we work together.