When we moved into our new house last year, we wanted to expand our family. It was time to get a dog. I grew up with a dog in my family and wanted my kids to have the same experience. I expected that would mean random items around the house would get destroyed by the playful puppy. What I didn’t expect was having to learn sign language.
A relative emailed and asked if we would like a puppy. The email came with a picture of an adorable little white blob and we were hooked. The second message relayed the concern that if we didn’t take the puppy, its future was uncertain. The puppy was albino and unwanted by the breeder. That set the hook and we now knew that the puppy was coming to our house. The third message was trouble. The puppy may be deaf.
At first we were about incredulous about the deafness. With a little research we discovered that pigment plays a role in a dog’s hearing. If there is unpigmented skin in a dog’s inner ear, the nerve endings atrophy and die off in the first few weeks of the puppy’s life. Our puppy was albino so this was the likely cause.
As you can see from the picture above, our puppy had a few black spots so we wondered if albino was the right label. It was the wrong label. It’s a double merle gene that results in little pigmentation. However, when a passerby asks about his color it’s easier to answer “albino,” which people understand, than “double merle” which results in a blank expression.
We quickly realized that a deaf puppy is not handicapped. We know he can’t hear. But he doesn’t know that. He does not realize that he is missing something that other dogs have. He was born into silence and from his viewpoint silence is normal.
Even though he would not respond to his name, we couldn’t just keep calling him puppy. While reading the latest Game of Thrones book the choice became obvious: Ghost, Jon Snow’s unwanted white direwolf.
Training a deaf dog requires a major commitment and lots of patience. Of course that’s true with training any puppy. Puppies just want to have fun. In our case, “fun” means eating shoes, tearing apart magazines, and pulling the guts out of stuffed animals.
A deaf dog needs to learn visual cues, through hand signs and facial expressions, instead of words. For Ghost, we use a vigorous finger wag instead of a stern “no” to deter bad behavior. To be honest, I still say “no.” It just doesn’t work.
There are some special considerations when raising a deaf puppy. Free range is more likely to result in a lost puppy. He won’t come when you call him. So if you lose direct visual contact, you lose the ability to communicate.
He’s not a very good watch dog. A bad guy busting through a window is not going to attract the deaf dog’s attention, unless he’s staring at the window. On the plus side, he doesn’t bark at the mailman.
Training is important. For us, training would be especially important. Ghost was not going to remain a cute little puppy. He is a Great Dane, with a rate of growth that is astonishing. If you peek below you can get some sense of how much he has grown in six months, and he’s still growing.
If you want to read a bit more about raising a deaf puppy, I just read Amazing Gracie: A Dog’s Tale. Gracie was a deaf Great Dane that ended up being part of the inspiration for the chain of dog bakeries: Three Dog Bakery.
This story originally appeared on Wired.com’s GeekDad.