How Sign Language Helped Bella The Deaf Pit Bull

Did you know that dogs can be taught to understand sign language? Moreover, dogs are being taught to sign right here in Nebraska at the Central Nebraska Humane Society in Grand Island. The shelter took on their first deaf dog in 2014, and since then have continued to develop their program of teaching sign language to deaf dogs. One of the most recent dogs to benefit from the program is Bella, a young pit bull mix. CNHS Volunteer Tracie Pfeifle and Bella’s adoptive mom shared her story with me.


Two-year-old Bella came from a small rescue in Oklahoma. She’s mostly white with patches of brown and cream. Her distinguishing feature is her eyes which appear to have eyeliner around them. Those who know her say that Bella has special “looks” that she’ll give to communicate her moods, whether she’s displeased or relaxed. She’s also described as boisterous but gentle.

When Bella came to the Central Nebraska Humane Society, she immediately bonded with anyone who gave her attention. What helped develop her personality more is when she learned the basic signs for: “Good girl,” “Sit,” “Down,” and “Roll over”. And what helped her further cement bonds with staff is when they began to use her signs. Soon, if Bella didn’t receive the attention she craved, she’d demand it with howls and glares.

Bella won the hearts of CNHS staff with her cute ways. Tracie recalls that when Bella would be in the outside pen and the weather was nice, “she would howl at me if I did not come and see her and then take her for a walk. No amount of telling her to be quiet would help. She would then turn her face away when she did not want to see your hands giving her commands.”

In addition, when Tracie would put Bella back in her kennel, Bella “would squeeze out and dash to the door that ledBella_Bed to office area of the building. She had the orneriest/happy look on her face I have ever seen. She never showed any shame.”

In terms of Bella’s likelihood of ever being adopted, her breed was just as much of a disability as her deafness. Bella had come to the right place by being placed at the Central Nebraska Humane Society. According to its website, CNHS serves an area which produces many unwanted pets and stray animals, with a higher number of them being pit bulls. CNHS believes that pit bulls possess many great qualities and make for great, life-long companions.

CNHS was also the right place for a deaf dog. In 2014, Central Nebraska Humane Society started a program to teach deaf dogs sign language so they can better communicate with their owners. The practice began when the shelter took in two hearing-impaired dogs for the first time. According to Nebraska TV, Tracie modified American Sign Language to develop a one-handed sign language that allowed her to communicate with a dog using one hand and hold onto the leash using the other hand. After realizing the process wouldn’t be much different than teaching basic obedience to dogs who can hear, which requires lot of repetition and positive reinforcement, Tracie made this her special project. Her expertise has benefited more than one dog, the latest being Bella.

Bella_BabyCNHS’s commitment to Bella paid off, and a woman expressed interest in adopting her. But by this time Bella had bonded to Tracie and found leaving her to be hard. In addition, Bella can be stubborn. A sign that Bella is now in the right home is that her new pet mom has looked Bella directly in the face and repeatedly told her, “I am more stubborn than you”. However, Bella has faced challenges and simply continues to grow from difficulties that come her way.

Her new family includes two children (a one-year-old and an 8-year-old) and a 9-year-old doxie/lab mix, and various other family members that come and go all of the time. They love Bella dearly, and Bella’s new pet mom says Bella “fits in well with our quirky little family”.

Thank you to Laurie Dethloff, Central Nebraska Humane Society executive director, as well as Tracie and Bella’s mom for sharing her story. The fact that the Central Nebraska Humane Society has a program to work with deaf dogs was exciting news to me, and I’ll be following up with them for more stories and perhaps even visiting the shelter. Keep reading LAA Pet Talk for more stories from Lincoln and greater Nebraska.

Bella_DogAnyone wishing to help pit bulls directly can take advantage of LAA’s special offer to get a pit bull fixed for a reduced price. Until June, the cost is only $25. As the average spay/neuter can cost between $100 to $200, depending on the breed and the vet, the savings to an owner is obviously substantial. Also, please help LAA reach as many dogs as possible by sharing the Mighty/Tiny Project link and by donating to help cover costs. Let’s all work together to help the cause of pit bulls.


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