When Acorn was brought to Cleveland Animal Care and Control (CACC) by a Good Samaritan, he was just four months old, so it’s no wonder he got bored very quickly in his small concrete and steel cage with no bed, no toys, and no blankets.*
What Acorn did have was a stainless steel water bowl that he liked to bang against the steel bars of his cage over and over and over again keeping the hundred or so other dogs in the kennel riled up 24-7 and driving the kennel staff to distraction. Finally, his behavior became so disruptive that the shelter manager asked an experienced volunteer to take him home, just for one night, to give everyone a break.
Mary Motley was delighted at the thought of spending the night with a puppy — until he chewed the seatbelt and tore up the blanket she gave him for the car ride home and then flew through her house jumping from couch to chair and back again, grabbing pillows and throws and generally making a complete mess of the place. No matter how many times Mary yelled at him to STOP, he just wouldn’t listen. If the kennel had been open, she would have taken him back right then. Since that wasn’t an option, she let Acorn run himself out and then put him to bed in the spare bedroom, fully intending to take him back as soon as the kennel opened.
The next morning, when Mary called to Acorn, he didn’t move. When she opened the door to his crate, he still didn’t move. By now she was getting concerned, so she bent down and touched him on his back. That’s when he raised his head and gave her his beautiful puppy smile. At that moment, Mary realized Acorn was deaf.
A trip to the veterinarian’s office confirmed the diagnosis. Acorn had been born deaf. He had never heard a single sound and he never would. In accordance with CACC policy, he was listed as Special Needs/Rescue Only. Mary offered to foster him — just until a proper rescue could be found.
Mary had been an educator all of her adult life and she’d had extensive experience working with her own dogs, but she had no idea how to communicate with a deaf dog.
At first, she turned to American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL), the go-to communication tools for deaf humans, assuming they would work for Acorn too. However, she soon found that most of the signs in both languages require two hands and she’d need to grow a third limb to manage the leash and hold the treats. Even more important, both ASL and BSL are complex languages that take time to learn and teach. Acorn and Mary needed help right then. Her solution was to rely on simple hand signs she’d been using, along with verbal cues, to train her hearing dogs -— modifying them when necessary to make up for the fact that she couldn’t fall back on her voice.
“I’ll never forget the moment Acorn figured out that my hands were ‘talking’ to him,” Mary recalls. “ You could almost see the light bulb go off above his head.” That’s when the confusing world he’d been living in began to make sense and his behavior began to change. Training became his favorite part of the day and, within a week, he learned Sit, Down, and Come, along with a couple of tricks like giving paw and rolling over. Over the coming months, responding to Mary’s simple hand signs, he mastered most of the basic behaviors we associate with good dog behavior.
Still, Acorn had more to learn before he’d be ready for adoption. With the support of CACC, Mary sought the advice of Carol Peter, CPDT-KA, at her Cold Nose Companions Training Center in nearby Chardon, OH. Carol worked with her on refining both the signs she was using and tactics for teaching each desired behavior.
Once he was ready, many people expressed interest in adopting Acorn — until they found out he was deaf. Again and again, disappointed potential adopters told Mary they didn’t feel they had the knowledge or resources to handle the responsibility of a deaf dog. Still, Mary remained determined to find him the perfect home - until a work trip to China changed both of their lives forever.
Mary took Acorn to a reliable boarding facility where she knew he’d be given the best possible care. Just to be sure, she delivered him with six pages of signs and notes. Although the caregivers meant well, combing through all of Mary’s notes proved to be just too much. They plied him with snuggles and playtime and did their best to communicate, but no-one spoke to Acorn in a language he could understand for ten long days. He became confused and frustrated — as if he spoke only French and everyone around him was speaking Spanish. When Mary picked him up, she saw immediately that his confidence was gone and his behavior had declined. That’s when she realized that she and Acorn were meant to be together. She adopted him the very next day.
Since they’ve been together, Mary has become an advocate for deaf dogs who end up at CACC and a mentor for those who bring deaf dogs like Acorn into their families. As for Acorn, he has become quite the celebrity. His story was chosen by Petco Foundation as one of their Holiday Wishes grant winners, he was Mr. February in the Petco 2019 calendar. Thousands follow his Facebook page DEAFinitely Awesome — the Adventures of Acorn. He is featured in Greg Murray’s book Pit Bull Heroes — 49 Underdogs with Resilience & Heart and his children’s book DEAFinitely Awesome — the Story of Acorn has raised awareness of deaf dogs as great family members across the country and abroad.
You can read all about Acorn’s journey from out-of-control puppy to celebrity advocate for deaf dogs everywhere in his children’s book Deafinitely Awesome – The Story of Acorn, available on Amazon.com.
* Actually, Acorn was given a bed, but he quickly flipped it over and chewed off the legs. As for the toys and blankets, items like that tended to get caught in the old kennel’s antiquated drainage system. Since Acorn’s arrival at the kennel, CACC has moved into a beautiful new facility where beds, blankets, and toys abound.