Dogs with Disabilities: Myths & Truths
| December 1st, 2011

Dogs with Disabilities: Myths and Truths

Winter on Molly Mutt bed

Zoom Room Monterey Bay welcomes all dogs and dog owners to enhance their relationship with each other and have fun together. Each dog is special and unique in his or her own way, and we take pride in providing the best training that meets the dog’s individual needs. We want to introduce one of our very favorite special needs dogs, Winter Downer, a “lethal white” Australian Shepherd who happens to be deaf and partially blind.

We recently asked Winter’s owners Clayton and Kimberly Downer to share with us what have been some of the challenges, rewards, myths and truths about owning and training a dog with disabilities. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: First of all, can you explain what a “lethal white” Australian Shepherd is?

A: Lethal White is actually an incorrect term for dogs. When referring to a dog that is predominantly white, they are appropriately termed as Pattern White or Double Merle. Lethal White is a term used for foals that are born white, usually die shortly after birth, have vision and hearing problems, and are not capable of growing and developing normally. Pattern White’s and Double Merle’s only share the commonality of hearing and vision problems.

Pattern White pups simply are whiter than they should. Double Merle is the common term for homozygous merles (dogs with two copies of the merle gene). A dog with one copy of the gene will have partial lightening (a normal merle coat). With two copies, the effect is doubled, resulting in some to most of the coat turning white.

Q: Readers are probably very curious about the techniques you use to train Winter?

A: Many of the technique’s we use to train Winter are the same that we use on our other Australian Shepherd, Koda. We just have to accommodate to the fact that she can’t hear verbal commands and that she cannot see visual commands from very far away.

The foundation of our training technique stems from basic obedience skills we’ve learned at the Zoom Room. Commands like: watch me, sit, stay, lay down, the name game, etc. These techniques have proven effective with our first Aussie so it was important to us to incorporate them in Winter’s training as well.

Obviously training Winter with verbal commands wouldn’t get us anywhere, so we use visual commands. The basic obedience hand signals of watch me, sit, stay, and down are used alongside a good amount of American Sign Language. Winter knows: water, thirsty, hungry, toilet, gentle, good girl, no, stop, car, home, sleep, off, leave it, walk, and her favorite cookie! She is a smart girl who is eager to learn and please us.

Q: What has been the greatest challenge — and greatest reward — of having Winter as part of your family now?

A: The greatest challenge for us with Winter has been potty training. She does not communicate when she needs to go outside. She doesn’t bark at the door or even sit by it waiting for you. We also can’t yell at her to stop her from going in the house. We have, however, been able to develop our reflexes and sprinting as we dash off the couch and rush towards her to carry her outside to go potty. She has slowly been making progress and we are so grateful for it. So are our carpets.

Trying to think of the greatest reward for having Winter as part of our family is impossible. There isn’t a single reward but many. Winter has taught us to love life, to wiggle when we’re happy, to be patient with others, to be understanding, to not judge, to give hope, to never give up, love like there’s no tomorrow, and to eat as many cookies as possible. People are so quick to say that Winter should be put down or that it’s a shame she is the way she is. The shame is that those people don’t stick around long enough to see her run towards you wiggling and eager to kiss you. They don’t see her accomplish what any hearing dog can. They don’t see that Winter is happy, healthy, and a blessing we are grateful for every day.

Q: What are a couple of the most common “myths” people believe about Winter once they find out she’s deaf and partially blind?

A: The first myth people believe about Winter when they find out that she is deaf and partially blind is that she isn’t happy. Her wiggling little nub of a tail is the best display that she is. The only time her tail isn’t wagging is when she is sleeping. She is fluffy ball of joy.

Another common myth is that she can’t possibly live life like other dogs. People think that she will spend her life on a leash, spoon fed, and constantly guided by our directions. The truth is; she comes running when food hits her bowl just like a normal dog. She plays fetch and runs alongside our other Aussie. Yes, she has to live her life on a leash for her own safety, but that doesn’t mean she is unhappy. When we go hiking, we simply drop the leash and let her run like a normal dog. In a park, she has a 20-foot lead line that she can freely romp around on. Like we mentioned before, Winter is also in a class with all hearing dogs and she keeps up with the best of them.

The third and final myth we hear commonly is that Winter must have mental disabilities and be aggressive because she already has difficulty seeing and hearing. We teach her to be gentle with her mouth, we do collar grabs regularly, and we discipline her when she does something wrong. She also shows no signs of mental disabilities. She just learns at a different rate than other dogs because she has one less sense to use.  She is perfectly healthy and friendly!

Q: What would you say to someone thinking of adopting or getting a dog with a disability? 

A: We would encourage everyone to heavily research the particular disability the dog might have that they are considering for adoption. We researched and learned American Sign Language; we found toys that would stimulate her other senses such as smell and sight. We purchased books, we read blogs, we talked with other disabled dog owners, and we took time to consider our other dog as well. We learned that dogs with disabilities could love just as other dogs do if not more. What research didn’t prepare us for was how head-over-heels in love we would fall for our girl. Since having Winter in our home, we have learned how to be patient and adapt. It takes more time, it takes thinking out of the box, but most importantly it takes love. These dogs are so eager to love and please. They will be by your side at the end of a bad day, they will wag their tails in excitement when you come home from work, they’ll keep you warm and cuddle while you watch a movie, and they’ll kiss your tears away off your face. These dogs are like any other and will love you with all their hearts. Unconditionally.

Winter is enrolled in Obedience 1 at the Zoom Room with 7 other hearing puppies her age. We’re proud to say that she is tied with another dog in her class for the most sits in 15 seconds.


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