On falling in love with a special needs dog

Me cuddling Doris on her first day in our family

It was love at first sight when I saw the first photo of Doris posted on Facebook. She looked disheveled, frightened, and confused. She was lying on a lawn with her front leg in a bandage and her ears plastered back against her head. I knew there and then she was the right fit for our family of three pups and two humans. I also knew from the start that she was deaf — a deal-breaker for many potential adopters.

That morning I had been volunteering for the animal welfare charity Penny Marathon at the Sydney Dog Lovers Show. I’d been lucky enough to play with two other special needs pups. I got to hug Turtle from Denise at Paws who wears a little diaper due to his spina-bifida, and Protein from Life of Pikelet who was born with a cleft lip. Both these dogs are real characters, and it was great to see visitors patting and interacting with them despite their ‘flaws’. Maybe I was naive or unreasonably positive, but I couldn’t see many ways in which they differed from a typical dog.

I opened up Facebook Messenger and told the folks at Deaf Dogs Rescue that I’d love to be considered for that tiny baby Doris whose sad face had struck me so powerfully. To my great delight, they said ‘yes’!

As we progressed through the adoption process, we received more information about Doris’ condition. She was covered in bite marks after being attacked at the pound, she appeared to have trouble with her vision, she was wonky on her feet, and her growth was stunted due to her rough beginnings. We knew it would be a few months before she weighed enough to be safely desexed, and we also accepted that there were many aspects of her current condition that would never go away.

After she arrived, subsequent vets noticed that Doris’ poor vision was due to blindness in one eye. Her back legs are longer than they should be, and she has evidence of severe skull trauma where her breeders may have tried to kill her before the bones solidified.

As with humans, there are many reasons why a dog can become deaf. Doris has always been deaf due to a genetic condition. She has two copies of the ‘piebald’ gene, which causes her white coat and pale blue eyes. Piebald dogs can’t produce ‘melanocytes’ — the cells that make melanin. Without melanin, their body lacks colour. Many piebald dogs are also unable to hear. This is because they are unable to grow an important layer of cells in their cochlea. These cells help a typical dog (or human) to turn sound waves from the environment into nerve impulses in the brain. While we’re not sure why, this layer of cochlea cells is also supported by melanocytes. If a dog has no melanocytes, the nerve cells in the cochlea die. This is irreversible and cannot be fixed by surgery or a hearing aid.

So has her deafness been difficult to manage?

I’m happy to report that it hasn’t. Doris needs a few adjustments, such as messages delivered through hand signals, but she’s not the only member of our rag-tag rescue gang who needs a form of extra help.

Doris takes many signals from her dog siblings who communicate with her via body language. There’s also no real need to announce exciting events like meal times or walks, as she knows these are coming when her bowl is brought out or her lead appears. She can see with her one functional eye, and enjoys the rich worlds of touch and scent.

Despite her very sad start to life, Doris is filled with love and enthusiasm for all humans. She charms so many people on her daily walks. If someone makes eye contact with her, she will stare back until they give her a pat. In fact, she will often have a tantrum if she does not get enough cuddles from strangers! When she gets a little older, I’m confident that these same attributes will make her an excellent therapy dog.

If you are considering a new canine family member, please keep dogs with special needs in mind. They’re not ‘broken’. They’re just a little different!

PhD in Religion and Economics communications specialist by day. Angsty writer by night.

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