One morning, shelter staff arrived for work to find a gray-faced black Lab wandering the parking lot. She was stiff-kneed and seemingly confused, but happy to see them. She put a slight bounce in her step as the humans slapped their legs to call her to them. Animals were usually surrendered at the front desk during business hours, and staff were able to get the pet’s history. All they knew about this old girl was what they could see: she was probably about 10, a bit arthritic, and sweet as they come.
Days passed while staff waited through the old dog’s mandatory stray time, doubting anyone would come looking for claim her. She wasn’t lost; she’d been dumped there. In her kennel, she bounced and wiggled when caretakers opened the kennel door, but she rarely lifted her head to make eye contact with people walking by making friendly, encouraging sounds. Maybe she was a bit withdrawn, they thought. Poor old love had been abandoned, after all.
When her stray hold was up staff called me, the first person who always came to mind when elderly black dogs were in the adoption kennels. Big, old, and black (BOB): the well-known trinity of bad luck for dogs in crowded shelters. In those days — the early 2000s — the shelters were always full. For some reason, potential adopters overlooked BOB dogs. And this one, with the way she stared at the walls rather than visitors, it was unlikely she would be adopted anytime soon.
The dog happily got in my car for the short drive home. I showed her to a new dog bed in the living room, and she plopped her old bones down. Never a sound, or a demand, or a nudge from a wet nose: the old girl just kept to herself. She didn’t seem distressed; in fact, she walked into my house and claimed the bed without a hint of surprise — as if she knew she’d be coming to a house like this and a bed like that.
I settled in and picked up the book I was reading. Maybe just sitting quietly nearby would help the old girl come out of her shell. I realized I needed to call her something other than “Old Girl.” She needed a name. From my spot on the couch, I started calling out names of female characters in my book. “Chelsea?” No response. “Gretchen?” Zilch. “Becky?” Nothing. “Maya?” Hey! She lifted her head and looked right at me. “You like the name Maya?” Her floppy ears perked up, making wrinkles just above her silver brows. “That’s your name then, Maya. Okay? Maya?” Nothing. Her head dropped back down on the dog bed.
By the time Maya had her first medical checkup two days later, I was starting to wonder if maybe she was deaf. The vet said she’d do a quick exam to find out.
“Maya. Hey! Maya!” the doctor called from four feet away. Maya’s ears didn’t move. Her head didn’t rise off the tile floor.
“Yep. She’s deaf,” the doctor said. “Can you believe I have twelve years of college to do this job?” she laughed. Maya was otherwise in generally good health, and there was no way to know whether she’d always been deaf or had lost her hearing with age.
And suddenly, I had a big, sweet, lumbering, deaf buddy. Pretty soon, though, I could easily forget she was deaf. Because Maya settled in and adapted to the household the way any dog would.
None of this surprises Susan Licari, founder of St. Martin’s Animal Rescue in Sheridan, OR. “Having a deaf or blind dog is never any more trouble,” she says. “And that includes finding adoptable homes for them. They always get adopted and they always do well in their homes.”
Licari has rescued elderly and special-needs dogs for much of her adult life. When she founded her rescue in 2012, she became a refuge for many elderly dogs with hearing and vision loss. Animals find their way to Licari when families can’t keep caring for them or when out-of-state shelters with high euthanasia rates can’t devote the resources to help them find ideal homes.
According to Licari, though, the necessary time and energy are almost inconsequential. That’s largely because of dogs’ and cats’ sharp senses. “If they can’t see anymore, their sense of smell and hearing just become more pronounced. Same with deaf dogs: their sight and smell just get stronger.”
For many of us, acquiring a deaf or blind pet is a gradual process. That is, our dog or cat will undergo this loss with age. While some breeds are more prone to vision and hearing loss, all animals (like humans) experience some changes with age. Animals whose faculties diminish over time have the advantage of being familiar with their surroundings. In later years, the dog might get bumped by an opening door because he didn’t hear us approaching, or the cat reaches a paw to feel for a ledge before jumping because she’s learning not to trust her depth perception. Such small things are often the sum of their changes. Once they adjust to their new sight or hearing levels, they carry on as usual.
“It’s good to keep furniture where it is,” says Licari. For her, such practices are a given, and she’s happy to coach new adopters through the steps. By definition, a rescue organization places animals in new, unfamiliar homes. For deaf and blind pets, that transition requires just a bit more attention, but the accommodations are simple.
Licari sometimes outfits animals with halo-type bumpers while they learn the layout of a new home. This allows them to explore without bumping their heads or noses against walls and table legs because the halo bumps first and gives them a warning. Soon, they don’t need the halo.
Licari also uses pets’ sense of smell to help guide them to different zones of the house. She’ll place different essential oils in each zone, such as citrus near the door where the dog will learn to go out to potty, and a comforting fragrance near the cat’s new bed.
Aside from these temporary fixes, Licari says these pets only need a bit of understanding. “Try not to startle them. A lot of times they’ll feel the vibration of the floor as we walk toward them,” she says, adding that can still be easily startled.
At my house, Maya sometimes didn’t hear footsteps in time to move away from a swinging door. I learned to open them slowly. At the dog park, she’d put her wiggly gray nose to the ground to follow a scent, lost in her own fragrant world. I’d only need to catch up and tap my finger near her shoulder, and she’d look up, always surprised. “Oh, hey! You’re at the park, too. Isn’t it great?!?”
Michelle Blake is a Salem, OR-based massage therapist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications. Her husband wants you to know she's a REALLY crazy dog lady too.