My Story of the Joy and Challenges of Living With Deaf Dogs

photo by Ross Bellamy

photo by Ross Bellamy

by Viki Eierdam

To say adapting to these dogs was easy would be a lie. To say it’s been rewarding would be an understatement.


Over two years ago I opened a local newspaper to a photo of two striking white dogs up for adoption. The limited information indicated that they were deaf and sight-impaired and needed to be adopted as a pair. The smaller one reminded me of our beloved Lady who was also a rescue and the source of many years of amazing memories. I just had to meet them.

I made an appointment with the Humane Society for Southwest Washington and was cautioned every step into the meeting room about how different they were and what to expect. They’d been with the shelter for 30 days—enough time to assess that they were indeed a bonded pair who needed to be adopted together.

2-5-14 Challenge and Baby Girl

They are double merle Australian shepherds which means two Australian shepherds, each carrying the merle gene, were bred together. When that happens, there’s a 25 percent chance that their offspring will be deaf and blind or sight impaired. Our dogs have cataracts in all four eyes and three of them are microphthalmic (abnormally small). Because of that, surgery is out of the question.

Crazy rushed into my head. I hadn’t even been looking for one dog let alone two—let alone special needs dogs. But, then, I hadn’t been looking for the six cats we’d had over the years or our dog, Lady. Sometimes they find you, right?

Truth be told, the boy terrified me for a couple months and brought me to tears on our daily walks. He’s strong and stubborn and I had to learn that when he stands very still looking at my feet, it’s not to attack me at any moment. He’s trying to track me through his limited vision. Turns out, he’s a fantastic cuddle bug.

Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach

Even with their impairments, the very first night Challenge chose his night time spot on the floor next to my side of the bed and Baby Girl chose to be near the entrance to the bedroom door on my husband’s side. Over two years later, that’s where they go every night.

We sought the expertise of Chelsea Tuning, trainer for Deaf Dogs of Oregon, right away although I was a poor student. Instead of buying a treadmill which is an excellent way to tire out two energetic Australian shepherds, I decided to walk them twice a day EVERY day and that has been my routine since January 7, 2014 (yes, the treadmill would’ve been easier). As a freelance writer, I have that kind of luxury but most people probably do not.

Baby Girl latched onto me quickly. I became her girl in a not so healthy way and she nipped or bit three people over the course of the first six months. Against the advice of some people, I persevered and encouraged avid dog lovers only to kill her with kindness. I’m not saying that’s a good idea but, for Baby, it worked. She’s inquisitive of people now. She likes to be touched and pet. As a wine writer, I take her to tasting rooms every chance I get. They go into Lowes, Home Depot, Wilco, every opportunity I have to integrate them with people, I take it. I touch them and I encourage other people to touch them. The fact that they can’t hear causes them to startle. I have witnessed that positive touch is extremely important to build their trust and desensitize them to being startled.

11-24-15 Cannon Beach (3)

Patience has made all the difference. Wherever we go, people love these dogs and compliment us on how well-behaved they are. We’ve taken them to tap rooms where they sit under the table and as we get up to leave, people will remark they had no idea a dog was in the room, much less two. I attribute their mellow dispositions to:

1. Knowing they belong in a permanent pack

2. Adequate exercise

Deaf dogs are not for the couch potato. They’re trained by sign and, in the case of sight-impaired dogs, touch. A stroke under their chin means ‘come’, a tap on the bum means ‘sit’, a sharp tap on the right shoulder blade means ‘no.’ These are the signs we’ve created and, since Australian shepherds are so smart, Challenge and Baby Girl learned quickly. I literally have to sharply tap Challenge’s shoulder blade once and he will disengage from whatever bad behavior he was doing. I’ve heard owners say ‘no’ to their hearing dogs repeatedly and the dog continues to misbehave. It’s like Chelsea says, once you learn how to communicate with a dog that no one’s ever communicated with, a light bulb goes on and they’re yours forever.

Challenge & Baby Girl (5)

Challenge and Baby learned in their past life that no one was talking to them. Now all eyes are on them as they walk on the beach or down the street or through a store. There is no place I go that someone doesn’t stop to ask about them and I’m happy to answer their questions. I’m happy to let people pet them and listen to them exclaim how soft they are and show them that special needs dogs can have a happily ever after.

To say adapting to these dogs was easy would be a lie. To say it’s been rewarding would be an understatement.

Caveat: I am not a professional dog trainer nor do I claim to know how best to train someone else’s dog. Anyone interested in adopting a deaf dog should consult the expertise of Deaf Dogs of Oregon.


When she’s not hanging out with her husband and her pups, Viki Eierdam writes the wine column for The Columbian newspaper. Check her out on Facebook at Corks & Forks, Twitter @WACorksandForks or follow Challenge and Baby Girl on Facebook at Seeingdoublemerle or Twitter @seeingdblmerle.