I recently took my dog Oliver to a new groomer. His usual stylist was booked solid until the end of the month, so I figured I’d try a place closer to my office. He’s a long-haired Dachshund, so every year around this time, I have him shaved down completely. He’s more comfortable when it’s hot out, and the cut makes him look 10 years younger. It’s a win win!
When I came to pick him up, the groomer carried him out and handed him to me. She had that look people get when they aren’t sure how to share bad news. Ollie looked terrific and his little tail was wagging wildly as though he had just had the best time of his life – so I was a little puzzled by her expression.
“Ollie is just a joy,” she said, “I wish all dogs were this easy to groom. He’s just the sweetest.”
Her kind statement didn’t seem to match the expression on her face though, so I asked, “So everything went ok? Or is something wrong?”
She paused, searching for the right words.
“I think Ollie might be deaf,” she said looking down at him with pity, “It’s pretty common for dogs his age, but I thought you should know.”
Oh. I guess I forgot the mention that when I filled out his forms. Oopsie!
“He is deaf,” I confirmed, “and blind, too. I completely forgot to put that on the form. I’m sorry! To be honest, I often forget that he is deaf and blind in the first place.”
“You forget?” she said, incredulous.
“He doesn’t make a big deal about it, so why should I?” I joked.
That’s the great thing about dogs. They’re adaptable and swiftly compensate by using their other senses to navigate the world. It’s pretty amazing actually. In Ollie’s case, what he lacks in eyesight and hearing, he will makes up for with his sense of smell. He still loves to go for walks (preferably in a straight line with no walls or cactus along the way), plays with his chew toys, and likes to sniff out treats hidden around the house or office.
It does sometimes occur to me that I have a dog with special needs, but for the most part, he’s just a completely normal dog who happens to bump into furniture occasionally and doesn’t come when you call him.
Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that dogs with predominantly white coats can be prone to deafness? True story.
What does a white coat have to do with hearing loss? The ability to hear is made possible by a special layer of cells within the inner ear. This specialized layer of cells, and the cells that determine hair color, come from the same stem cell source. Without this stem cell, the dog’s body won’t be able to make this specialized layer of hearing cells and will likely be white in coloration.
Dogs that carry the piebald gene are often affected by deafness. Piebaldism results from the absence of melanocytes, the cells that create the pigment melanin. These melanocytes are the part a dog’s DNA that determines coloration, such as brown or black hair, or blue or brown eyes. (Blue eyes are not a true eye color, but rather result from the lack of color-producing pigment within the iris.) When a dog is born without melanocytes, a predominantly white coat (and often blue eyes) is the result. Breeds commonly affected by the piebald gene include Bull Terriers, Boxers, English Setters, and Dalmatians.
Congenital deafness is also linked to the merle gene, which causes a dog to have a merle (or dapple) coat and blue eyes. Breeds commonly affected by the merle gene include Old English Sheepdogs, dapple Dachshunds, Welsh Corgis, and Border Collies.
One of our shelter residents, Sookie, a 10 year old, white pitbull mix was born deaf. But it doesn’t slow her down either.
When she first came to us in February, she was a total wallflower. Being in the shelter was scary for her at first, so she never came out of her den and was resistant to interaction with our staff and volunteers.
But one day, one of our behavior experts, Quinn, was in the kennel with Sookie hoping she’d start to warm up and interact. Quinn, who also knows American Sign Language (ASL), thought she’d try to communicate with her using a few basic signs.
When Sookie was looking, Quinn signed, “Are you a good girl?”
Sookie immediately perked up, excited to finally be talking to someone in this strange place. She instantly became engaged, playful and excited to be relating to humans again. It was beautiful. She knows “come”, “sit”, “go play”, “Let’s go”, “Good girl” – and is learning new signs every day. Her ability to pick up signs is so impressive, she’s become a staff and volunteer favorite.
She’s available for adoption now – so if you’re looking for a great canine companion well versed in ASL, this is your gal!
To learn more about Sookie’s journey, watch this video.