Sunday, July 22, 2012

Deaf Dogs Do Bark - Part 1

Recently I've had the pleasure of experiencing what it is like to become a foster failure. I had just signed on as a volunteer with Mid-Atlantic Jack Rescue when a urgent cry went out about a deaf jack in a shelter needing a temporary foster home for a few days over the Memorial Day weekend. Without an available place to go, the dog would not be able to be rescued. Her time was up. The shelter was full. With trepidation, due to Ollie's reactivity to other dogs and Poppy being so high-maintenance in general, I decided to answer the call. She had no place else to go and here was a life I could make the difference in saving. A small thing in the big scheme of things, but a huge impact on this little dog - and now on me. 

Her name is Hocus Pocus - I call her Hokey for short. She was found with her owner's body about 2 days after her owner had died and then taken to a shelter. The shelter attempted to contact family members to come get this poor frightened and confused little dog, but no one ever returned any phone calls. Being at the shelter must have been a traumatic situation for her - to be yanked out of her place of warmth and security, away from the one who loved and cared for her and placed in a cage where she got very little attention. Suddenly, she found herself in a strange place full of strange smells, strange vibrations, with unfamiliar sights and routines. A stressful and scary experience to say the least.
Hokey when she was at the shelter
And precarious - in a world where thousands of dogs get put down every day just for no other reason than not having a place to call home, very few people are willing to adopt a dog that is labeled as "special needs" or somehow seen as being more work than the average dog. Not to mention the lingering myths perpetuated even by some professional trainers and vets about deaf dogs - that they are unpredictable time-bombs, they all turn into biters, they can't be trained, etc. You can read more about these myths here:  Deaf Dog Myths. Cute as she is, Hokey's chances of being adopted before her time was up at the shelter were slim to none.

Then MAJR found her and put out the call. I answered. I welcomed this little dog into my home on a temporary basis. Then decided to stay on as her longer-term foster. Then, because I love her personality and because I love new experiences that allow me to stretch myself as a trainer, I decided to become a foster failure and adopt her myself.

My mind has never been weighted down by preconceived notions of what a deaf dog can and can't do. I've never believed the myths. Having trained several dogs with normal hearing, I know the primary means used for us to communicate is not based on what I tell them through use of my voice or other sound, but rather on them picking up cues from my body language. Years and years ago, when I trained my schipperke in obedience work, I often put him through his paces using nothing more than hand signals. Ollie is able to navigate an entire agility course without me ever opening my mouth. Sound is just another tool; it is not a necessary one.

The title of this entry is "Deaf Dogs Do Bark" because one of the most common questions I get from people is "does she bark?". The answer is a resounding yes! She barks when she wants attention from me. She sometimes barks when she's in her crate and wants to be out. She barks at Poppy when they are running around the yard. She barks at certain sights out the window or through the fence. She sometimes barks when she notices the other dogs barking, but, not always understanding what she's supposed to be barking at, she might point herself in the opposite direction from what they are barking at. When she first came to live with me, she would try to solicit food from me by barking at me every time I ate in front of her. I suspect it was bad habit that had been reinforced in her former home. I quickly and easily put an end to the behavior and now she either is in a down/stay or curled up on the sofa while I'm at the table eating. She also quickly learned that the kitchen is forbidden territory during any food prep activity.

The point that I'm trying to make with this entry is not to say "yes, deaf dogs bark". It is to say, a dog is a dog is a dog. Deaf or not. Hokey is a normal dog in every way. I'm able to communicate with her and train her, just as I would any other dog. She barks. She likes to play fetch with balls and other toys.

She likes to play tug. She likes to harass Poppy and/or engage her in a game of chase and wrestle in the yard. She loves food and treats and is eager to work for a reward. She loves nothing more than to curl up in my lap - in fact, that's where she is now as I type this. She is sometimes naughty. And true to her breed, she can be stubborn and sometimes, albeit not often, downright defiant. In other words, she is a normal Jack Russell Terrier. Her deafness is only one component of who she is as an individual, but it does not define her.

In Part 2, I will discuss special considerations that are specific to her training.

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