A month after the devastating loss of our dog of eleven years, the lack of a pitter-patter of paws and boisterous barks in my family’s home was too great. Making the decision to adopt another dog came fairly easy; deciding to adopt a deaf dog was not.
MacDuff’s (or Duffy as we refer to him) journey to my family was one fraught with more hesitation and contemplation than the average dog lover’s decision to bring home a rescue. First was the decision to adopt a dog rather than purchase one. Our previous dog, Lily, whom we had purchased from a store, had been born at a puppy mill (we were new to the whole "dog" thing at the time). After eleven wonderful years with us, she passed away from a collapsed trachea and leaky heart valve, both hereditary dispositions. Wanting to lessen the chance of this occurring again, our decision to adopt or rescue a dog was an easy one to make, made even easier by the notion that we could give some dog a new lease on life.
As we searched the Internet for rescue shelters and organizations, we found Duffy, a four pound, one-year-old Maltese that we thought would be the perfect addition to our family. He had a gorgeous coat of long, silky white fur, he was small enough that we could easily bring him with us wherever we went, and he was young enough that he could still be trained and adapt to a new way of life. It wasn’t until we clicked through the link that we learned the whole story.
Adopting a Deaf Dog
Duffy was born to a breeder who bred Malteses to compete in AKC dog shows, and was of champion bloodlines. But he was born deaf and could not compete — he was a "dud." Our hearts went out to him when we read this, but surely this wasn’t the dog for us, was it? "A deaf dog will need special training, accommodations; it’ll be dangerous for him," were thoughts that kept running through our heads, and to a certain degree these concerns were true. But this guy, known as "little man" at the time, kept pulling at our heartstrings.
We contacted the woman who was adopting him out to get more information on living with a deaf dog, but she wasn’t much help. "He does what the others do," she said to us. She had at least eight other Malteses in her home at any given time, but we didn’t.
Instead of giving up, we began to do research, as the more we thought about this dog the more we wanted him. We found that there were many informational resources available to us, including the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF). Reading that deaf dogs could live almost "normal" lives was definitely a confidence booster for us, but they were still just words. We wanted to see how people were actually able to live, interact, and communicate with deaf dogs. After a quick search on YouTube, we came across user AlishaMcgraw, whose video "Deaf Dog ASL Signs" gave us hope. (Watch the video below.) She had taught her dogs American Sign Language (ASL), and had even developed signs for her dog’s names, Rocket and Coco, which each one responded to respectfully. Within a week of watching this video, Duffy was in our home.
Adapting to a Deaf Dog
It was surreal at first. Duffy seemed perfectly normal! He was affectionate, playful, and he loved his new treats! But when his back was to us and we squeaked a toy or called him over, he didn’t respond. We realized how dangerous this could be if he managed to get out and run into the street. He wouldn’t hear us calling or hear a car ... but these were worst case scenarios, we wouldn’t let him off the leash. We hadn’t considered what could happen in the home, however.
During the first week in his new home, as my family and I sat around talking one day, Duffy decided to explore his house. Out of habit, we called after him. Panic set in as we realized that he couldn’t hear us and come running back to let everyone know he was okay. We each took a room and within minutes he walked up to us with his new chew toy in his mouth, having no idea how worried we were. Although we began to adapt to this by clapping loudly and stomping our feet so that he could feel the vibrations, we considered the option of buying him a collar with a jingling bell so that we could tell where he was at all times. While we ultimately did not go with this option, it is worthwhile for other deaf dog owners to consider.
Life with Duffy continued to improve from the first week on. We found that he preferred to be held rather than roam — a characteristic we are not sure to associate with his deafness or just his personality, as none of our other dogs have ever enjoyed being held for hours on end. Because he preferred to be close by it was easy to keep an eye on him, and even easier to communicate with him.
We developed signs, and though they may not be American Sign Language they get the job done. A two-handed motion towards the body became the sign for "come." Taking the index and middle fingers and pushing them towards and away from the thumb meant "eat" or "treat." "Go for a walk" is communicated through holding the hands at chest level and putting one ahead of the other — although showing him the leash gets the biggest reaction. While we are always trying to teach him more signs, these symbols have provided a strong foundation for our communications.
Duffy, as you can imagine, has brought a lot of love and laughs into our home, and our family would not be complete without him. Sure it took some to adjust, and there are definite risks associated with a deaf dog — the fear of him not hearing you or a car if he runs out into the street, or the possibility of him biting or snapping at us if we wake or startle him (Duffy just looks at us and then goes back to sleep) — but these risks can be eliminated through proper training and by using devices such as vibrating or jingling collars. Living with a deaf dog has become no different to us than living with a dog that can hear.
Image: Duffy by Natalie Rusinko