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March 4, 2004

Deaf dog ready for close-up

From: Salem Statesman Journal - Salem,OR,USA - Mar 4, 2004

The deaf school's mascot will debut on Japanese TV.

Statesman Journal

The cameras had just begun to roll when Patch, the star of the film, decided to take a break.

He scampered out of the dormitory at the Oregon School for the Deaf to fetch his favorite bone.

"Maybe he's nervous," joked handler Jan Sykes, a dorm counselor at the northeast Salem school.

Aside from a few momentary lapses, the lovable, 18-month-old husky mix turned out to be a natural in front of the cameras Wednesday, amazing a film crew for a Japanese television show about animals.

Patch doesn't listen to commands — he watches for them — because he is deaf. That is why he has formed such a special bond with students and staff at Oregon School for the Deaf.

"He 'listens' to orders much better than the pet models we hire in Hollywood," said production coordinator Mika Yamamoto, who works for a company in Los Angeles that provides programming for international clients. "Patch could be a Hollywood star."

For now, Patch and his handlers will settle for the spotlight in Japan, on a weekly program called "Pochi Tama," which means "Dog Cat." He will be featured in a two-hour special about amazing pet stories in early April or June, Yamamoto said.

Austin Martini spoke for many of the students when he said it's pretty cool that Patch understands sign language. Martini demonstrated for the cameras by commanding the dog to sit, shake hands and play dead.

Patch did as he was instructed — for a treat, of course. One of his favorites is cheese.

The cameras and microphones didn't seem to faze Patch, who knows 15 signs in all, including those for "bathroom" and "eat."

The playful white dog with reddish-brown markings — including a large patch on his right eye, thus his name — has come a long way since his days as a stray on the streets of Estacada.

He wound up at an animal shelter and then was given to Project Pooch, a nonprofit organization that pairs rescued dogs with youths incarcerated at the MacLaren Correctional Facility in Woodburn. The youths train the dogs, groom them and find them homes.

It was obvious to Project Pooch that the School for the Deaf would be a perfect home for Patch.

Sykes adopted him on behalf of the school and keeps him nights and weekends. He is the unofficial mascot for Wallace Hall, the dorm for resident elementary school students.

Since Patch arrived, the students have learned the responsibility of caring for a pet. They have fed him and played with him and taken him to the veterinarian. They have taken turns letting him sleep with them until Sykes takes him home when her shift ends at midnight.

Their after-school rituals have changed since Patch came along.

"Before, they watched TV and played videos," Sykes said. "Now they play for hours and hours with him."

Sykes considers Patch a symbol for the deaf community.

"Many deaf dogs and deaf people don't communicate with their families, with the whole world," she said. "Now he gets to communicate."

Copyright 2004 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon