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During the last week of September, many take the time to recognize and celebrate Deaf Pet Awareness Week. Throughout this week many focus on highlighting the many breeds that are prone to deafness, how special and loving these pets are, and how you can work and train with your pet that is hard of hearing or completely deaf.
Today, PetFirst wants to share a story of a sweet pup named Diesel and how he overcame many obstacles and found his forever home and mom, Lauren. Keep reading as Lauren shares her own experience with being the pet parent to a deaf pup and how Diesel has impacted her life.
Diesel had seen many others leave, proudly walking out the front door, adorned in new store-bought collars that jingled with tags imprinted with their new families’ names. He had watched as their people stood at the front desk and excitedly signed the papers that would officially lead to their freedom rides.
Sure, he experienced little tastes of freedom – like when the shelter staff took him for walks or when he played outside in the big field.
When volunteers took him outside, families would admire his adorable smile and floppy ears. But he always returned to the cement kennel with a used toy or two and a makeshift bed. It was not lost on him that after each walk, each visit with prospective adopters, no one filled out papers.
I first met this 50-pound, white and brown brindle, Pitbull in early July during the summer I decided to volunteer at my local animal shelter.
I told the shelter manager that I loved big dogs, especially bully breeds, but I wasn’t picky, and I didn’t mind getting beat up and dirty. I was happy to train dogs that “needed work.” I just wanted to help them find forever homes.
And as she walked me through the dog area, a little white and brown pittie in the first kennel on the left tried harder than all the other dogs to get my attention.
“Oh, is he ever adorable!” I remarked.
“Great,” she responded, in a tone, I couldn’t quite read. “Your job this summer will be to train Diesel.” Then she informed me that, though he entered the shelter as Diesel, the shelter staff had renamed him “Hopkins,” most likely because they considered it a less imposing name. “But he’s deaf,” the shelter manager added – as though she was playing a trick on me.
I was undeterred and returned the next day determined to make this boy an adoptable pet by summer’s end.
I approached Diesel’s kennel (which had the large nameplate reading “Hopkins”) and grabbed the leash out of the bin located above it. I un-clipped the secure kennel, careful to clip the latch on to the door behind me, and stepped inside. I wanted to be as non-threatening as possible, knowing that as eager and loving as a dog may be, several months in a loud, impersonal shelter environment can turn even the best family pet into a fearful, un-trusting – even aggressive – dog. Then I let Diesel decide if he wanted to come to me. If I was to build rapport, I had to meet him where he was.
He was not a barker. He was not a jumper. He was muscular, yet he was aware of his strength and remained conscious not to use it to his advantage. When I approached his locked kennel, not only would he wag his tail with excitement, but his entire body would follow suit. His eyes would light up, and when I looked just below his moist, black nose, I could swear this boy was smiling at me. He had a big pittie grin – the one that melts Pitbull lovers’ hearts all over Facebook©, Instagram©, Animal Planet’s Pitbulls and Parolees, and unfortunately fills shelters all across the country.
“So you’re the one who’s working with Hopkins?” one of the shelter volunteers asked.
“Yep. That would be me. I’m Lauren.”
“Good Luck. He’s deaf, ya know.”
“Yeah, I know. I was just–.” But before I could finish my question, the young man had disappeared.
Diesel’s body was wiggly whenever I entered his kennel. I struggled to make him sit before I would put the leash on him. I motioned for him to stay, lifting my right hand up and out in front of him, a motion I had come to think of as a “crossing guard signal.” Once he successfully managed the “sit and stay,” I attached the leash and we were headed out for a walk, his floppy, white ears bouncing up and down as he trotted outside. To any observer who passed the two of us, we were just another woman and her cute dog taking a walk.
Diesel was so cute and friendly, that many people did ask me if they could pet him throughout our many walks and travels that summer. And that is exactly how I became aware of a type of prejudice that humans still feel is acceptable to perpetrate on animals.
Diesel was deaf. He did not lose his hearing because of old age or illness. He was born deaf, so to him, the silence was normal. He did not see himself as different.
However, in a society not always tolerant of differences, Diesel had two strikes against him: he was deaf and a Pitbull.
All the cuteness and kisses in the world couldn’t put him high up on the “adoptable” list. But I was determined because this was a dog who deserved a home. And though no one ever mentioned things like this in a local, small-town shelter, I knew that a Pitbull in a shelter in the US faced one of two fates: a home or a death sentence.
So, what would a deaf dog, who could offer all the love in the world, need for someone to want him as a family pet? If I could answer this question, I felt confident I could help this sweet boy.
I bought a long lead, filled my pockets with treats, and headed to the shelter.
I went through the usual routine: entered the kennel, motioned for sit, stay, attached the lead, and corrected his pulling as we exited the building. Diesel had been responding to my hand commands. He was sitting and staying for longer periods of time within the kennel. However, I had yet to try these in the outside environment. Not to mention, how would I call him – tell him to “come”? How would I yell “no” in a dangerous situation? How could I tell him “good boy!” – or if need be, not-so-good boy – when so much communication is transmitted through voice inflection?
The treats jiggled in my pockets and I was eager to see how well Diesel would do. Outside, in the beautiful sunshine and freshly cut grass, wearing my excitement like a child with a new backpack and untarnished notebooks on the first day of school, I was confronted with an issue I had never anticipated.
Diesel jumped at the ground, pouncing repeatedly as if trying to kill his own shadow, as I tried in vain to distract him. Undeterred, he repeatedly jumped into the air, each time landing with a vengeance on my shadow, leaving bare, brown patches in his wake, where lush green grass had been moments earlier.
As people came and went from the shelter, some stopped to admire Diesel or to observe his strange behavior.
“Oh, that’s so cute how he chases his shadow like that! It’s like a game,” one passerby noted.
As he became increasingly stressed out, panting in the early July heat, I could tell it was no “game.” I’ll admit it – part of me was disheartened. But I decided I would try a different approach tomorrow. I filled my pockets with fresh treats the next day and started again, with the goal of a better future for this dog.
Sign Language and Diesel’s Identity
Everybody needs a name. A name is an integral part of one’s identity. So why not start there? My little buddy had entered the shelter as Diesel, likely because it fit his small, muscular body. And though I made a half-effort to call him Hopkins when the shelter manager was within earshot, it never stuck. So with the treat in my left hand, I made sure his eyes followed the treat up to my face until he made eye contact with me. Then I raised my right hand, touching the tip of the forefinger to the tip of the thumb and holding the other fingers straight to form a letter “d.” I repeated that motion several times and then began pointing at Diesel and making a letter “d,” to show him you-are-Diesel. And from that day on, I “called” him Diesel with that hand signal.
Once Diesel was able to make eye contact with me, a whole world opened for him. He and I now held the key to communicating with one another. I printed out a chart on sign language and hand signals. I also made up some of my own.
Picture a hand with the middle and ring fingers curled downward, the pointer and pinky fingers straight upward and the thumb outstretched. This is the American Sign Language signal for “I Love You.” It is also a sign I taught Diesel. I repeatedly made this sign, then pointed at him and signed “D” for Diesel. Eventually, I put it all together: “I Love You, Diesel.” His powerful tail wagged in return. We also practiced daily with “sit,” “lie down,” and “stay,” all reinforced with treats, a big smile, and a thumbs-up, which had become my sign for “good boy!”
Shelter visitors and prospective pet adopters often stopped to admire Diesel while we were outside and remarked on how cute and sweet he was. And then inevitably a shelter volunteer made “the comment” as if three words defined him: “He’s deaf though.”
I worried that those words were going to be the determining factors in this boy’s future. I knew the statistics: people adopting from shelters were more likely to adopt small dogs. They were also likely to go for puppies who did not have health or other problems.
Less likely to be adopted were special needs dogs, black dogs, and pitbull breeds. At about a year and a half old, gentle Diesel was fine with children, cats, and other dogs. He was a great dog. It was true; he could not hear. But he could respond to hand signals now. He could communicate. And he could love just like any other dog.
Diesel had recently begun barking incessantly when in his kennel. I can only surmise that now able to communicate, “he found his voice.” I believe he wanted attention. He didn’t want to be in a kennel anymore. Or maybe he just had a sense. Dogs tend to sense things that people overlook. Whatever the reason, his newfound vocal behavior didn’t work out in Diesel’s best interest as the staff didn’t think it made for a great image. Something to the effect of not wanting visitors to see a barking Pitbull when they first enter the dog room.
Consequently, he was moved to a kennel in the far back of the shelter. My heart broke for the little guy, who now had less human interaction. To get to the back of the shelter, people had to pass several kennels, each containing a cute dog or puppy to grab their attention (and their adoption fee).
And that was it. I drove back to the shelter on a sweltering, late August afternoon, easily one of the top five hottest days that year. I filled out the foster contract, got halfway through the signature, and Diesel pulled me out of the building into the parking lot, and by some instinct, to the exact car that would take him to his forever home.
That was ten years ago.
Diesel now sleeps on what was my side of the bed, head on the pillow and all. I sleep on whatever small space is left for me. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
He has made me a kinder person. He has taught me that happiness is just being loved and giving love. And most important of all, love is not about one’s ability or disability. Love is about the size of one’s heart.
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