Updated: Sep 24, 2019
When Christina and Chris Lee adopted a deaf dog called Nitro, training was tough to begin with because of the lack of resources surrounding non-hearing dogs.
But by the time he was only 10 months old, Nitro had achieved his Canine Good Citizen Award and the couple decided to set up an organization to support other owners of deaf dogs.
Imagine you’re watching a movie and all the actors are speaking in a foreign language. . .and there are no subtitles! How much more frustrating and confusing it would be if someone suddenly turned off the sound? You might be able to make out some of what is happening by having your eyes glued to the screen and noting subtle movements or gestures.
That’s just a taste of what it might be like for hundreds of deaf dogs around the country. In honor of National Deaf Dog Awareness Week, we interviewed Christina Lee, one of the founders of a Roanoke Valley non-profit that’s made national headlines helping deaf dogs and their owners navigate life.
For Christina and her husband, Chris of Salem, Virginia, it all began nine years ago with a deaf puppy they named Nitro.
“A shelter reached out to us and asked us to consider adopting a deaf boxer puppy,” she says.
“We did some research and decided we would make a good home for a deaf puppy.
We adopted him, named him Nitro, and within 24 hours I felt like I was way in over my head as far as training but my husband Chris assured me we would figure out Nitro's training together.
We started his puppy training at a local training facility.
He soared through all of his classes and earned his Canine Good Citizen Award by the time he was 10 months old.
When a local TV station did a story on our deaf puppy Nitro, the story went national and we had a lot of people reaching out to us for training help and help rehoming deaf shelter dogs.”
The Lees decided to create a website to serve as a resource for deaf dogs and their families, shelters, and rescue groups. They launched Deaf Dogs Rock in August of 2011. The website also lists deaf dogs available for adoption. The organization also sponsors deaf dogs from shelters to get them into rescues throughout the U. S. and even in Canada.
“We have sponsored 607 deaf dogs/puppies into rescues across the United States as of August 31st of this year and we have had well over 3500 - 4000 deaf dog adoptions from the adoption listings on our website.
Add about another 1500 for our Deaf Dogs Rock Facebook page where we put up urgent listings from shelters across the country when a deaf dog is out of time in a shelter.
We have people see those listings and go adopt the dogs we network on our DDR Facebook page.”
Through the partner organization Highway Heroes Rescue Transport Team, Lee says transports are happening every weekend to get deaf dogs into rescues.
Deaf Dogs Rock has also changed how deaf dogs were perceived by the public.
“I was just talking to Erika Proctor with our partner rescue Green Dogs Unleashed the other day and we were talking about when we first started working together many years ago how so many puppies were culled from litters of breeders and put to sleep.
If a deaf dog or puppy showed up being dumped at a shelter many times the puppy was considered "unadoptable".
I used to get emails from people who would tell me their veterinarian recommends that deaf puppies be put to sleep because they are deemed more dangerous.
There were also breed organizations that required breeders to cull any deaf puppies in their litters.
All of that has changed because of Deaf Dogs Rock. My full time job is to educate shelters, rescues, individuals and vet clinics how a deaf dog is a dog first, deaf second and the breed third.
We send them information on how it is a total myth that deaf dogs are more aggressive (they are actually 20% less aggressive than a hearing dog).”
Christina Lee says their Rocker Puppy Program works with reputable breeders to transport deaf puppies to a rescue and then to a foster home where they learn basic sign language, are crate and potty trained, and socialized before being available for adoption.
Lee says training a deaf puppy isn’t much different from training a puppy that can hear.
“We only promote and use positive reinforcement (+R) clicker training methods to give each deaf dog an opportunity to make the right choice and support that choice by marking the choice with a marker, followed by treating the dog with a high value reward.
Positive reinforcement training is basically the same with a deaf dog as it is training a hearing dog (with the exception of using visual commands and markers verses verbal commands and the sound of a clicker).
Many new deaf dog families feel they must find a dog trainer who specializes in training deaf dogs.
You don’t need a “deaf dog trainer” because the training classes are to train you to train your dog.
The only difference is with training a hearing dog, a person would give the dog a vocal command (with a deaf dog you give a visual sign), then a person would lure the dog into place with a high value treat (same with a deaf dog).
When the dog does what is asked, the handler would normally click a clicker to mark the correct response from the dog at the exact second the dog makes the right choice.
With a deaf dog, we mark the exact second the deaf dog makes the right choice by smiling and giving the dog a thumbs up sign as a marker.
After we use the visual marker, we follow up by giving the dog HIGH VALUE treat as a form of currency to reward the dog.
Then we repeat, repeat, repeat. So the only difference is using a visual command vs. a verbal command and using a visual marker vs. the sound of a clicker to mark the correct behavior from the dog.
With a deaf dog, the dog must be looking at you to be able to give the dog a visual command so we always practice Watch Me training often.”
But Lee advises you do your homework before adopting a deaf dog. And you can find a lot of information on their website.
“It is important to make sure each person has the time commitment needed for raising a deaf dog.
It takes a time commitment of daily consistent training, socialization and signing up for positive reinforcement training classes to make each person stays on track and is held accountable.
Many deaf dogs are prone to Separation Anxiety (SA) and some are prone to OCD behaviors (many of the deaf herding breeds like Aussies and Australian Cattle Dogs) so it is important to do a lot of research.
We offer so much information on our Deaf Dogs Rock Training blog. Also we like to point out the Top 10 Reasons Why Deaf Dogs Rock “
Sadly, Nitro passed away last November but he leaves behind a huge legacy that continues to help deaf dogs in need.
***As Christina mentioned, training is essential for a deaf dog. If you have a deaf dog and would like some help, contact us here at The Well-Trained Dog & Pet Care for information about training. We’re also available for dog walking and pet sitting services for deaf and hearing dogs and other animals. ***