Dogs Behaving Better
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Lisa's Blog


Lessons from a "less adoptable pet"

Dear Readers, This month, I am taking a different approach for our blog. While we consider all animals at Baywater Animal Rescue to be very special, we have a unique and wonderful, loving adult English Bulldog mix who is deaf.  All who have met, cared for and played with this precious dog have been rewarded with tail wags, kisses, and ‘smiles’. Thena enjoyed time with a foster family, which allowed us an opportunity to learn more about her needs and abilities, such as how quickly she learned sign language and her preference for a home without other animals. The following is an interview with Thena’s foster friend (FF=Foster Friend).

LB: Why did you decide to foster a dog who was deaf?  

FF: It was only after we met Thena that we learned she was deaf. This did not change our mind about fostering because we knew we would learn to communicate with her one way or another.  

LB: What did you do to prepare for her to come home--or did you adapt as challenges arose?  

FF: We brought Thena home the night we met her.  During the first few days, we noticed Thena would experience anxiety around objects or situations that could be minimized by us. One example was objects that would cast reflections onto walls or ceilings--we would do our best to eliminate them: switch lights off, use different lighting, anything to prevent a reflection.  Another anxiety trigger was anything that flies, such as insects, birds, passing shadows. We learned to manage these triggers as much as possible.    

LB: How did you keep her from being startled by things she can’t hear?

FF: For the most part, Thena did not startle easily.  For instance, when we would have to wake her, in the beginning we would put one hand near her nose and gently caress her rear end.  We hoped she would smell us and not be frightened when waking up.  She would eagerly jump up, wiggling all over and showering us with affection.  Sometimes she might roll over for a belly rub first. She would always respond positively to our touch, no matter the time of day or night.

LB: How did you learn to communicate with her?  

FF:  We decided to use hand signals. The first couple of days, we began using a signal for her name, and then taught her others for come, sit, stay, etc.  Every day, I would work on her signals and she learned so quickly.  It was very rewarding for all of us to see her excelling and how excited she would get each time she learned something new. I had looked online for information on signing for dogs, but ended up using American Sign Language. We had to take into consideration that if we were outside with her on leash, we might have only one free hand to perform the signal. It helped that the books we consulted had illustrations and hints about what to think of when you're giving the signal, to make them easier to remember and execute properly. Soon I could just wave my hand and Thena would know I'm trying to get her attention, When I gave the sign for her name, she would focus on me until I gave another command, even if she was playing with another dog.

And when we gave verbal commands to our other two dogs, we began using the hand signals too, to help her understand and mimic their behavior.  We also gave her lots of affection.  She loves hugs and kisses.  She would make little noises or sometimes move her mouth without any sound, like she's trying to talk back to us.        

LB: Did your two other dogs seem to notice that she could not hear?

FF: I don't believe the older one ever realized it, but the younger one did.  Thena would lie next to him with some part of her body touching his. I believe it was so she would be alerted when he got up.  If he did manage to sneak away while she was sleeping and something would get his attention, like us arriving home or coming into the house, he would run over to her and nose her to wake her up. They were very connected o each other.

LB:  Do you think she looks for information from them as much as she looked to you?

FF: In our absence, yes, I believe she relied on the younger dog to let her know when something was going on.  But whenever we were home, she was relying on us.  She didn't sleep nearly as much as our other two, so she would sometimes alert them more than the other way around. She would also position herself so if someone would be leaving or entering a room, she would feel it.  For example, she might lie directly in front of the door I went out. Or she might lie against a different door that she could watch from, that would also vibrate if another door in the house were opened.  She's very resourceful on her own.    

LB: Did anything turn out to be easier than you anticipated? 

FF: Learning to communicate was challenging but even more rewarding. We looked at the training times as bonding experiences, gaining her trust, giving her the one-on-one attention that she needs. We were fearful that if she ever got off her leash, we would have no way to get her attention. On the rare occasions when she was off leash, she stayed within a few feet of us and would continuously turn to make eye contact.

One upside of her deafness was that she didn’t notice loud noises that were scary to my other dogs. It also strengthened her other senses, particularly her sight.  As an example, when my other two dogs go outside, they focus on what is right in front of them. When Thena goes outside, she's taking in everything.  She looks ahead, to the side, up in the air, into the trees. It almost looked like she was on a special ops mission, the way she would be scoping out her surroundings.  Something could come out of nowhere and surprise my two boys, but Thena would already be aware of it.

LB: Would you consider fostering another special-needs dog?

FF: Yes, in a heartbeat and without a doubt. Overcoming the challenges with Thena empowered us.  Even though it was a lot of hard work, every bit was completely worth it.  We don’t view her in terms of her disability, we just see her as a great, loving dog.  After this experience, I would consider a special-needs pet over one without special needs. And remember that many pets eventually develop a special need. Just like people, they can lose their sight or hearing over time.  That's life; you have to adapt.

What was much harder for us was handling the reactions we got from some people, many of which were very hurtful.  I show off pictures of my dogs all the time, and while some people would say how pretty she was, others would make fun of her severe under-bite and crooked teeth. Some lectured us about how deafness is just a death sentence for a dog or that we should be using what we view as cruel methods to get her attention. They didn't see her as a normal dog. Others took pity on us for having a "disabled" dog.  This caused me to question my faith in humanity and to have an even stronge faith in my furry companions.

LB: What advice would you give to someone considering adopting a sight- or hearing-impaired pet?

FF:  Above all, I would suggest keeping an open mind about apparent limitations because the dog doesn't realize it has a limitation and otherwise is a ‘normal dog’. It does require the humans to be more tuned-in to the dog's feelings and needs. Owning a pet is a huge responsibility and commitment, regardless of the individual's capabilities, so you need to make sure you are willing and able to spend the extra time that a special pet needs. It’s not always going to be easy, but few good things in life are!

Getting to know and train your new special-needs friend can be such an enjoyable experience--and gives you more opportunities to bond. They'll likely impress you with their determination to please you. And spending extra time together means you will both benefit from additional exercise, playtime, and snuggle time. The strong bond you develop will more than repay all your time and effort

Many factors can make a pet seem “less adoptable” including ‘disabilities’ (or ‘differently-abled’), age, or color. PetFinder’s research indicates that these animals wait for a home nearly four times longer than the average adoptable pet does … sometimes more than two years. In fact PetFinder's survey of shelter and rescue group members found that have the hardest time finding homes for:

Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016

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