Deaf Pets and Their People

Cathy Miller Saye and her deaf dog FelixDeaf Pets and Their People

In honor of Deaf Pet Awareness Week (September 23rd through September 29th) we celebrate the unique bond between deaf pets and deaf people.

Domino and Anne

When Anne Tomasetti, 38, decided to adopt a cat she knew she wanted it to be deaf like her. She searched the Internet, but was unable to find a deaf cat near her home in New York City. Finally, she saw a listing for Domino, a deaf one-year-old white kitty with black spots offered for adoption by Purrfect Feline Friends in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Anne rented a car to meet Domino, who was sleeping on a cat tree when she arrived. To make sure she was deaf, Anne put her mouth close to Domino’s ear, careful not to breathe on her, and vocalized. Domino continued to sleep soundly. Then Anne gently touched Domino, who opened her eyes to see the woman who would give her a home.

I am an interpreter fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and recently had the pleasure of visiting with Anne and Domino via Skype. Anne said that just as deaf people get each other’s attention with a light tap on the shoulder, Domino taps her with her paw when she wants something. Domino also responds to visual commands. Anne said that when she signs the word “outside” Domino runs to the door to be let out into the yard and when she asks her “Where is the red dot?” Domino searches for the reflection from the laser pen.  To demonstrate, Anne twisted the tip of her index finger on her cheek, the sign for “candy” and turned the camera on Domino, who ran to a kitchen cabinet and waited for a treat. Then Anne signed, “scratch” and Domino used her scratching post on cue.

Sparky and the Students at the Missouri School for the Deaf

Sparky, a one-year-old white Dachshund with brown ears, was slated to be euthanized because he was deaf. The Humane Society of Missouri enrolled him in Puppies for Parole, a program where offenders at the South Central Correctional Facility train dogs to make them more adoptable.

During the eight-week training the inmates taught Sparky the signs for “no,” “sit,” “stay,” “stop,” “heel” and “lay down.” When it was time to send Sparky back to the shelter, the inmates had a better idea. They raised the funds for his adoption fees and offered him as a gift to the Missouri School for the Deaf.

Barbara Garrison, the superintendent of the school, and the owner of four hearing Dachshunds, was thrilled to accept. Two and a half years later, Sparky is well loved and provides a valuable service. “Sparky was not trained as a therapy dog, but he performs therapy every day,” said Barbara in a phone interview. She recounted how she frequently observes students, who range in age from 5 to 21, “telling Sparky everything” when they are unable to open up to their counselors. Students are eager to help care for Sparky and can earn the privilege of having him spend the night in their dorm. Barbara said that the students share a special bond with Sparky, whom they describe as being “deaf like me.”

Cathy Miller Saye, a Deaf Woman Who Rescues Deaf Dogs

“Breeders and shelters are quick to put deaf dogs down,” said Cathy Miller Saye in American Sign Language via Skype. “They wrongly believe they have no hope for a good life. But just like deaf people communicate in sign language, deaf dogs respond to hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions.”

Cathy first became involved with dog rescue in 2003 when she volunteered to transport three deaf dogs from the Atlanta area, where she lives, to a shelter in the Northeast. She volunteered with a network of organizations to learn the ropes, and now works independently, taking in dogs from shelters and from individuals who find them abandoned outdoors.

Cathy cares for her fosters alongside her two deaf dogs with behavioral problems that made them difficult to place: Tiny Tim, a Maltese, and Felix, an Aussie mix with one eye. So far she has found homes for 75 dogs, and said she “wished she had more arms like an octopus,” so she could do more.

Cathy has had great success adopting to deaf and hearing people alike. She said that while hearing people are sometimes nervous at first, “once they see how easy it is to teach a dog to respond to simple sign commands like ‘stop’ and ‘come’ they get excited.”

“It’s just like having a hearing dog,” she explained, “except that the communication is non-verbal. The eye-contact that occurs with a deaf dog leads to an especially close bond.”

Resources on adopting and caring for deaf pets:

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