It was love at first sight when I first spotted my new "mom," Connie Bombaci. When mom, an educator, first came to meet me, our hearts immediately met. You see, I am a Dalmatian with special needs. From birth, I was what approximately 10% of all Dalmatians congenitally are at birth: completely deaf. Nearly twice that number is deaf in one ear.
Mom was seeking a companion for India, a playful Black Labrador pup, and visited the Connecticut Humane Society. That was in October of 1994. I was 18 months old and had never experienced being part of a family. I was kept outside from the day I was born and didn’t know the warmth of the inside of a home. I wasn’t housebroken and no one ever took the time to try and communicate with me so I could understand. I grew very lonely and tried to get attention from my backyard pen by barking. This met with great disapproval. The lonely hours grew longer, and the veterinarian mom took me to suspected malnourishment.
All that changed when mom brought me home. She didn’t care that I had one challenge – being deaf. (She knew that deaf animals are usually destroyed.) Mom also wanted a lot of people to be able to "talk" with me so decided before she even brought me home that she would teach me American Sign Language, ASL. Of course, she didn’t know any herself so Papa went out and bought a pocket manual for ASL. Within the first 24 hours, I knew the sign of cookie (my favorite) and sit.
When she introduced me, Hogan, to her friends, she was cautioned I’d be "too much of a burden." But the didn’t stop her! Viewing the challenge with the same devotion and energy she brings to her profession as Associate Principal at a high school, she jumped in with both feet. My mom’s eyes light up and she becomes immediately animated whenever she describes with incredible depth and warmth her desire to communicate with me: "These (deaf) dogs are no different in any way from other pets – they love to play, they want to be loved, they like to be with people, and they love to be touched. We just need to communicate with them in a way they can understand."
Well, not only did she save me and promise me a home for life (Hogan means ‘shelter’ in Native American), but also she brings the greatest gift to pet owners with deaf dogs around the country. Using more than 50 signs from American Sign Language, together we have proven than communicating with deaf dogs produces fun-loving, happy pets. And my little sister, Georgia who is also deaf, understands, too!!! (She was supposed to be a foster pup, but Mom couldn’t give her up!) Both of us comprehend signed words and short sentences the same way that India, our hearing sister, understands spoken word. In fact, my mom has even said that, in some ways, deaf dogs can be easier to train than hearing dogs. And our success helps erase the stigma too often associated with dogs born deaf. There’s no need to destroy us! We can and do learn. And we make wonderful pets.
Mom’s high energetic style and passion for working with deaf dogs is contagious. When Jack Hanna came to visit us to tape an episode for his Animal Adventures nationally broadcast television program, he was nothing short of amazed. Upon learning in less than a minute how to tell me to ‘sit,’ his response was an unbridled, "oh, wow – cool!"
My mom does more that just teach us ASL. We are now trying to help other deaf pups and their families by taking our message to others. Our work has been featured in over 95 newspapers across Connecticut, local television networks, and nationally on Dateline NBC and CNN news. Using email, we have communicated with people all over the USA, not to mention in Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Canada. (I help by licking her face and then sleeping at her feet!) Her encouragement, support, information, and knowledge in working with deaf dogs have helped families keep their deaf pet and learn to communicate with them. Jane says, "I wouldn’t have kept Spot who has turned out to be a bundle of love in my life," and Dave adds, "With your help, I have found that a hard-of-hearing animal is no more trouble than one with normal hearing."
We go to organizations, schools, churches, and even a college course to demonstrate how we can make wonderful family members if people just remember that we have some special needs. We’ll go just about anywhere and talk to anyone.
Adopting any pet is a real responsibility and commitment. It takes time, true dedication, and deep love. The rewards are endless.