It’s estimated that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of dogs are deaf in the United States. Deaf dogs require a little extra care to communicate with, but they have just as much love to give as their hearing furfriends! At Jolly Pets, we wanted to help celebrate some of our Jolly deaf dog fans by sharing both their and their humans’ experiences with you.
Merley Stevland is a 2 ½ year old blind and deaf, double merle Australian Shepherd. The term ‘merle’ is used for a genetic pattern in a dogs’ coat that creates patches of color in a solid or piebald coat. When two merle dogs are bred, there is a 25% chance that one (or more) puppies will inherit both merle genes, making them a double merle. Double merle dogs can be born blind or deaf, or blind and deaf with a predominantly white coat. A high percentage of double merle dogs are euthanized at birth because of their so-called birth defects.
Merley was born to a breeder in California and was rescued by Savin’ Juice located in Corvalis, OR just hours before he would have been euthanized. Michelle and Ken, Merley’s owners, adopted him from their former dog trainer who had previously trained their other dog.
Michelle explained, “Hugh, as he was initially known, needed a home and we couldn’t resist this adorable 17-week-old fluff ball! But we had NO idea what we were in for!”
Never having owned a blind and deaf dog before, their first step was to learn how to communicate with him.
“We did our research and learned touch language. A tap on his back (sit), a tap on his front paw (lay down), a swipe under his chin (come with me). We learned fast and so did Merley. We also learned that even though we didn’t know anything about a blind and deaf dog, we learned quickly that he is just like every other dog…except he can’t see or hear,” Micelle said.
“His bark is louder than most dogs because he can’t hear himself, but just like any other dog, he has different barks for different situations,” Michelle added.
When he is somewhere new, he walks slowly to map out where he is.
“This can be stressful to watch,” Michelle explained. “Because when he bumps into something, this is when it will happen. Once he has his map, there’s nothing stopping him. He can maneuver around the house, walk up and down stairs, use a ramp (if there is one), jump on the couch…Just like a pro!”
Although he has a pup brother and a pup sister, his love is his best friend Gerti, Michelle’s neighbor’s dog.
They have no problems playing together like hearing dogs do.
“Being a herding dog, we needed to find something for Merley to do in order to keep him busy,” Michelle said. “This is where his favorite thing in the entire world comes in…Enter his ball!”
Though Michelle expressed that they had never considered having a special needs dog, Merley has taught them that, “it’s not what you don’t have, it’s what you do with what you do have.” He uses his nose and sense of touch to communicate. He understands and experiences all the different feelings that a hearing dog would and enjoys car rides and walks like they do, too.
“Merley is 100% the definition of joy!” Michelle expressed.
When asked if Michelle and Ken would ever get another blind and deaf dog, their response would be, “Absolutely! Yes, he may take more work than your standard dog, but at the end of the day, the reward of knowing the love and trust we have created with Merley is unmeasurable. He is an absolute goof ball and one of the biggest loves of our lives!”
Emily, Coosa’s owner, grew up with heelers and completely fell in love with the breed.
“They’re smart, adventurous, loving companions and working dogs,” she said. “While their high energy levels may not be for everyone, it fit our lifestyle perfectly.”
At eight weeks old, Coosa had a new home with Emily and her husband. She and her husband knew Coosa was deaf before picking her up.
“It was our first time bringing home a deaf dog,” She explained. “If I said we weren’t a bit nervous, I would be lying.”
Emily and her husband had done a lot of research and reached out to deaf dog handlers to get advice. “What we didn’t expect was the complete normalcy of life with our new deaf puppy,” she stated.
“Coosa is sharp as a tack, picks up hand signals quickly, and is so incredibly affectionate to her family and to strangers,” Emily said. “We train Coosa the same way anyone with a hearing dog would, we just use hand signals instead of commands.” Despite being deaf, Emily mentions how she and her husband still talk to Coosa, as she uses their emotions and expressions to understand situations.
Coosa, now nine months old, knows over 35 signs. To compensate for Coosa being on her leash a lot of the time, Emily and her husband have made up signs that only use one hand, even though many resemble American Sign Language.
“She goes almost everywhere with us,” Emily explained. “So that bond and understanding between Coosa, my husband and I is vital.” She went on to say, “We will never put her in an unsafe situation, and she trusts us 100%.”
When meeting strangers who learn of Coosa’s deafness, Emily said the usual response is “oh, poor thing”, which she expressed understanding is a habitual reaction. To these statements she responds with, “Coosa is one of the happiest dogs around. She isn’t poor. She doesn’t know any different. She just understands that she has a family who loves her and a great, big world to explore. We like to show people just how normal deaf dogs really are.”
Lastly, Emily added, “We are lucky enough to be Coosa’s first and only home, as we will be for her entire life.”
Serena and Rufus were considered foster fails. A foster failure happens when a foster parent ends up adopting the animal they were fostering. But in the end, it was a success for Serena and Rufus because they ended up in their loving furever home.
Abby Katelyn, Serena and Rufus’s owner, had first met Serena, who is deaf, while she was volunteering at a play group at her local shelter. It was love at first sight.
“I fostered her for a few months, working on training, before adopting her,” Abby said. “A year later, after fostering multiple dogs, the rescue reached out and said they had the perfect next foster for me.”
Rufus was rescued from a hoarding situation and labeled as deaf. He had similar features to Serena. Stunning blue eyes, a white coat and spotted nose.
“Even though I was supposed to be taking a break from fostering, and definitely not adopting another dog, I picked Rufus up and he never left,” Abby said.
During his time with Abby as a foster, she had learned he was actually partially deaf and partially blind.
“Having them both has brought some challenges in communicating, but having impaired dogs really isn’t much different than other dogs,” Abby explained. “Once you get used to how they communicate and respond to training, it’s easier and so rewarding! When in doubt, foster first!”
Karlie and Rhett are quite the dynamic duo because they are both deaf. Karlie was born deaf due to genetics on her dad’s side of the family.
Karlie stated that, “Growing up I have always wanted my first dog to be a deaf dog.”
In 2018, while she was teaching her first year as a deaf education teacher in Austin, Texas was when she knew she was ready to adopt a deaf dog.
“I called shelters around me, looked on Petfinder, rescue groups, and more for me to adopt,” Karlie explained. “One of my co-workers knew I was looking and sent me an Ad posting that a shelter in a small town had a blue heeler who was deaf and had been there for a while.”
Shortly after seeing the ad, Karlie and her parents drove two hours to meet Rhett.
“First thing he did was jump into my arms with lots of love and kisses then dropped down for some belly scratches,” she recalled. “He stole my heart right there, so I brought him home the following week.”
Karlie had always wanted a deaf dog because she felt that she could relate to them.
“I knew there were so many dogs being looked over just because they were deaf instead of given a chance. I wanted to be that person who saw them and gave them the life they deserve,” Karlie said.
People are often under the assumption that deaf dogs cannot be good pets because they are harder to train than hearing dogs. Therefore education on deaf dogs is important for people, because they are just as smart and trainable as a dog who can hear. Since deaf dogs are very visual, they are always watching people and animals' body language to pick up on cues. While training, they are not distracted by environmental sounds like many hearing dogs, which can make it hard for them to keep their focus.
“Rhett just got a baby sister who is hearing, he is always watching her for environmental sounds,” Karlie shared.
The most common questions Karlie said she gets are “How do I get his attention?” and “Where do I start training?”
Karlie shared that there are different ways to get a deaf dog’s attention. Avoid approaching a deaf dog from behind. Gently stomp your foot in front of them as they can feel vibrations or use a vibration collar. Since they are unable to hear you, avoid surprising them when they are asleep. Karlie worked on training Rhett to be comfortable with touch, especially when he is asleep.
“At first I would put my hand close to his nose to have him woken up by my smell,” she explained. “Eventually, I worked on gently petting him to wake him up, he would get startled but grew to learn that it was okay to be woken up this way.”
Karlie went on to share more of her training lessons with Rhett.
“I first taught Rhett ‘thumbs up’ meaning good boy or good job. I did this sign every time he did something good with lots of body language of excitement and facial expressions. Dogs who are deaf are very visual, so he knew he did something right,” she said. “I was very consistent with it, and he picked up on it really quickly. I would give him a ‘thumbs up’ every time he looked at me with lots of praise as well to teach him to ‘check in’ with me every few seconds.”
Karlie has taught Rhett several other signs, as well. He has learned signs for objects such as car, ball, sit, down, dad, mom, walk, kennel, food, and more. To teach him these, Karlie said, “I would show him the object or thing then show him the sign then show the object again along with the sign. So, he can connect the two.”
Karlie had several pieces of advice for deaf dog owners or people looking to adopt a deaf or hard of hearing dog of their own. Her advice is shared below.
Dogs who are deaf are just like every other dog and live happily just like every other dog. Deafness does not define who the dog is or their abilities. They do, however, need an owner who is willing to learn how to communicate with them. Just like a typical dog, they need training, but they do so with sign language and hand signs.
I want to educate others on how dogs who are deaf are just as smart and happy as any other dog. Do not feel sorry for them as they do not know any difference.
Dogs who are deaf are visual learners, they can read your body language and facial expressions and often know what will happen next or what you want of them before you can show them the sign.
I highly recommend teaching sign language or hand signs at a young age no matter what their hearing level is or even if they are not deaf! Research says that all dogs train better with hand signs as opposed to voice commands. There are many dogs who lose their hearing at old age, and it is so beneficial for them to already know signs before then.
My overall mission is to show the world that every one, animal or person, has the same basic needs of wanting to be accepted, loved and given the opportunity to show the world their abilities.
There are many deaf dogs that are needing homes. Check out deafdogsrock.com, Petfinder under “special needs”, deaf dog rescue groups on Facebook, and there are deaf dogs in shelters that do not get into rescue groups.
Educate yourself about deaf dogs before getting one, there are so many resources out there. Once you get a deaf dog, you will always want another!
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