Jonathan Hall, 96 Taught Sign Language To Dogs
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Service
There is no evidence that Jonathan Hall’s Labrador retrievers were smarter than any other dogs — they only seemed that way. From his earliest years, Hall was surrounded by a menagerie of dogs, hamsters, chameleons and even tame rats that he trained to do all sorts of unexpected things.
”Our dogs all could balance a cracker on their nose, toss it up in the air and catch it,” recalled one of his daughters, Stephanie Hall.
Throughout his life, Hall’s view of the world was refracted through the inquiring lens of science. He died of pneumonia Feb. 10 at age 96.
Over the years, he taught the dogs to bark in a whisper, to shake hands and to say ”yes” by nodding their heads. (As much as he tried, though, Hall could never get them to shake their heads ”no.”) He also trained them to retrieve his hat and keys, which proved useful when he couldn’t remember where he’d put them.
But his dogs’ most remarkable skill may have been their ability to understand American Sign Language. Hall was a professor of biology and natural sciences at Gallaudet University for almost 40 years, and his talented dogs were among the many tricks of his teaching trade. They responded to sign-language commands, much to his students’ amusement, and when Hall spelled out the words ”lie down,” the dogs would do just that.
”He was incredibly entertaining,” Stephanie Hall said of her father. ‘He would do anything to capture his students’ attention. He wanted them to have hands-on experience.”
Hall spent much of his life at Gallaudet and was, in fact, born on campus in ”House One,” the president’s residence, on Feb. 6, 1912. His father, Percival Hall, was the university’s second president, holding the office from 1910 to 1945. An older brother, Percival Hall Jr., taught astronomy and mathematics at Gallaudet for many years. Their grandfather, Asaph Hall, was an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory and discovered the moons of Mars in 1877.
Although Jonathan Hall had no hearing impairment of his own, his mother was deaf, and he grew up as fluent in sign language as in English. He had an early fascination with the natural world and technology. As a boy, he filled the president’s house with animals, fossils and outlandish contraptions.
He also loved motorcycles, at least until he had a serious accident in his 20s and took up bicycling. He had a lifelong fascination with photography, passed down from his grandfather, who made glass-plate negatives of his astronomical observations.
His daughter said that Hall knew all the constellations by sight and had “the wildest, weirdest garden you could imagine. It was ordinary for him to refer to plants in the yard by their Latin names.”
Hall grew up with a strong belief in the idea of scientific progress and rationalism. He and his father ”were both interested in this idea of the new renaissance man, the adventurer-scholar,” Stephanie Hall said.
“They wanted to make a difference and do a lot of things.”
After graduating from Eastern High School, Hall attended the University of Maryland before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where he was captain of the fencing team. He returned to Gallaudet for a master’s degree in deaf education in 1937.