Can a Deaf Dog be a Therapy Dog?
Deafness—the trait some regard as a disability—has made one dog a more successful therapy pet
Deafness has been called the invisible disability. The inability to hear is difficult to detect, and those who are deaf can feel cut off from others—invisible. “Non-deaf people don’t always feel comfortable around deaf people due to the communication barrier,” says Melanie Paul, who lost her hearing when she was 12 years old. “Therefore, they often shy away from communicating with a deaf person.”
But Paul has always been able to bridge the hearing and deaf worlds thanks to her clear speech and strong lip-reading skills. And now she’s extending that bridge to others with the help of her white Sheltie, Lothair, who also is deaf.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to have a deaf puppy to work with deaf and hearing children,” Paul says. The summer after retiring from her 30-year career in deaf education, Paul asked a trusted, experienced breeder to put the word out about her desire. “I didn’t expect to hear back so soon, but within three days, they’d found a deaf puppy,” Paul says.
She welcomed Lothair, named for an 11th century French king, into her pet family, which includes two other Shelties named Molly and Locksley, not to mention three senior cats. Paul was eager to get Lothair started on the path to becoming a therapy dog. After all, she’d worked in pet therapy for 12 years, training three of her own Shelties during that time.
But she knew Lothair’s path would be different. First of all, traditional obedience classes, which rely heavily on verbal commands, would not be very useful. “They simply do not know how to train a deaf dog,” Paul says.
But, with her personal and professional background, Paul did know how. To communicate with Lothair, she turned to American Sign Language (ASL). “I trained Lothair in the exact same manner I would teach a deaf child,” Paul says. “For example, when the sign for ‘cookie or biscuit’ is given to a deaf child or dog, the object must be shown before and after the sign is given. It must always come as a positive stimulation.”
Most of the signs Paul taught Lothair are ASL signs, but two—“come” and “sit”—are not. These two ASL signs just weren’t working for Lothair or Paul. The standard sign for “come”—using one or two hands in a rolling direction toward the signer—was not getting Lothair’s attention. The sign for “sit” uses two hands, but Paul needed one hand to tap Lothair on his bottom to show him she wanted him to sit.
So Paul improvised. To train Lothair to come, she showed him a piece of food and put it in her fist. She then tapped the side of her leg. When Lothair came to her, she rewarded him with the food. Paul gradually moved farther away: first 10 feet, then 20, then 50 feet away. She felt confident Lothair had mastered the sign when he came 100 percent of the time from the various distances.
To teach “sit,” Paul placed a small dog biscuit in the middle of her palm, holding it in place with her thumb. “Lothair kept his eyes on this biscuit,” Paul says. “As I gradually extended my hand over the top of his head and backward, his head would follow the biscuit. Then I was able to tap him on the behind to get him to sit.”
Lothair now knows 14 signs, a few of which include “wait,” “treat,” “go outside,” and “watch me.” “A really important sign for him was ‘watch me,’ because Lothair can’t hear me,” Paul says. “Just like with deaf people, deaf dogs learn with their eyes.”
And Lothair was a quick learner—so quick that he’s now a certified therapy dog. One of his jobs is to accompany Paul to therapy visits at the hospital at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. Lothair works as part of a two-dog team with Locksley, one of Paul’s other Shelties. “Dogs are the last thing the people in the hospital are expecting to see,” Paul says. “Faces light up when the dogs walk into the room.”
While he’s proving to be a wonderful therapy dog at the base, it’s Lothair’s work with deaf children where he truly shines. Teachers and librarians across the country have begun to recognize the value of therapy dogs in helping children learn to read. The dogs provide encouragement to kids who may be too shy to read aloud to people. Lothair is exceptional in this capacity. “Hearing dogs sometimes fall asleep when listening to children read,” Paul says. “But not Lothair. He watches people. He looks at their eyes and faces. He is so sensitive and tuned into activity with his eyes that he is the best kind of audience for a child.”
When it comes to being a reading buddy, this quality is very valuable. “As a counselor, I know how children feel if they aren’t paid attention to,” Paul says. “So Lothair is a powerful motivator for children learning to read.”
Both of Lothair’s parents are champion Shelties who’ve won blue ribbons in the show rings. “Lothair will never win ribbons,” Paul says, “but he has won the hearts of many individuals with his loving and friendly nature. He’s demonstrated ‘quiet courage’ to meet people of all ages even though he cannot hear their voices. So Lothair is a true champion in his own way—a thoroughbred in body and soul.”
Signs of Love: All Dogs Can Learn
Training deaf dogs might seem difficult. Even though doing so may require some special skill, Dr. David Brinker—who sees Lothair and is his owner’s longtime veterinarian—wants everyone to know deaf dogs can make wonderful pets. “Patience and tolerance are important when training these dogs, since it’s a little more challenging to communicate with them,” says Dr. Brinker, who owns Todds Lane Veterinary Hospital in Hampton, Va. “The good news is that dogs are intelligent and adaptable and usually fit into their home situations well even when faced with challenges such as deafness.”
Lothair’s owner, Melanie Paul, agrees. In fact, she believes almost any dog—hearing or deaf—can learn sign language. She has little patience for those who say their dogs wouldn’t be able to pick up the signs, often responding to these people with a sentiment she learned during her years in education: “‘Every child can learn. Not on the same day, and not in the same way,’” Paul says. “Now I know that dogs are like that too. It just takes patience, love for the dog, and understanding of the methods to use.”