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June 28, 2004

Deaf dogs can make great pets

From: Vail Daily News, CO - Jun 28, 2004

Julie Sutor
June 28, 2004

Kristen Kirby's 16-month-old Australian cattle dog, Summit, does just about everything you'd expect out of a puppy.

He runs in the park, fetches tennis balls, plays with Kirby's toddler and sometimes darts into the neighbor's yard, playfully ignoring his owner.

Summit is much like every other dog in the neighborhood, except for one thing - he can't hear. Kirby, who now lives in Atlanta, adopted Summit last spring from Summit County Animal Shelter just before she moved east.

"I got him because he was so cute and adorable," Kirby said. "He's an extremely lovable dog, and he's very trainable because of his breed. Most of the time, I forget that he's a special-needs dog."

Summit was born without the ability to hear, but Kirby's training regimen has given him the ability to sit, stop, go outside and drop a ball on command through the use of hand signals.

"The very first thing you do is teach the dog to constantly check in with you. Every five paces, he'll look up to me to see if I'm trying to communicate with him," Kirby said.

Kirby uses a combination of American Sign Language and home-grown signals to give Summit commands: She holds her palm up flat to tell him to stop; she makes a fist when she wants him to sit; she opens her fist to get him to drop a ball.

"I'm so accustomed to it now. The only time it's hard is when he's running away from me and I can't get his attention. But that's part of being a puppy. Even if he could hear, I could yell at him and he might not come back then, either," Kirby said.

The extremely tactile nature of a deaf dog's training fostered a strong relationship between Kirby and Summit.

"He relies on contact so much more. We had to touch him to get his attention and I think we bonded more," Kirby said. "At times, it made the training more frustrating, but it's just a matter of learning to do it a different way. Once we learned how to do it, it wasn't difficult anymore.

"It's been a great experience."

Much like training a dog who can hear, training a deaf dog depends on repetitive exercises that use rewards like food, toys and praise. Training should start as early as possible to ensure success.

Kirby also makes use of vibrations to get Summit's attention, in order to avoid startling him.

"In our house, we stamp our feet on the floor to get him to come to us," she said.

Area shelters periodically have hearing-impaired dogs available for adoption.

"They can give as much love as a dog who can hear," said Summit County Animal Shelter administrator Donna Taylor. "They just need a little extra patience and attention."

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