For Just A Chance
Please visit our sponsor.
"They shouldn't have to live this way, but look at how they can live."
Changing the perception of special needs dogs
So began the story of Toes, who was discovered crying in front of someone's lawn in northern Arizona, before she was adopted by Amazing Aussies Lethal White Rescue of Arizona Co-Founder, Lorraine Ayres. Ayres never had a deaf and blind puppy, but treated Toes like any other puppy, given plenty of toys, kisses, and love, when she was officially adopted into her home at Christmas, beginning obedience classes at five-months-old (Toes also had a big sister, Sage, who would allow Toes to snuggle up to her while she slept). Ayres fondly recalls Toes as a "horrible child!" like any parent recalling the childhood of their children. Despite how misbehaved, or how many gray hairs children give their parents, parents nonetheless love and cherish their children, disabled or not. Toes is the inspiration, illustrating that special needs puppies are just like any other puppy; however, since they can't see or hear, they need "time and patience and lots of love." Unfortunately, the beginning of Toes' story is common, as deaf, blind, and deaf-blind dogs are often discovered discarded in the trash.
Amazing Aussies has saved over 400 of these special souls, assisting 100-200 more, coast to coast, as one of the few Lethal White Australian Shepherd rescues, states Lori Lundberg, Amazing Aussies' Public Relations Volunteer. Unfortunately, the stories of many of these dogs begin with tragedy (abandoned, or even abused because people didn't realize the dogs were deaf or blind); however, their life's journey can be a happy one. The rescue, devoted to rescuing Lethal White Australian Shepherds, matching their dogs with their perfect forever family; "that's what we wait for," states Jim Kilgos. He stresses, "These are normal dogs, they just can't see or hear," the sentiment the Amazing Aussies community shares. The rescue, working tirelessly to educate the public about the consequences of merle-merle breeding, began when Co-Founders Jim and Deana Kilgos adopted Maggie, a deaf-blind Australian Shepherd mix; with the help of their rescue partner, Lorraine Ayres, Amazing Aussies was born in 2005.
Jim and Deana Kilgoses' journey into rescuing lethal whites began when Deana laid eyes upon Maggie when they were in Illinois, visiting a farm that was recently blessed with a litter of four-week-old puppies, all running and playing in the barn. As Kilgos recalls, "One was off in the corner, not paying attention to anyone. Of course, that was the one my wife was attracted to." They noticed Maggie had not squinted when she had looked at the sunshine, and promptly walked into a tractor tire, twice; she was blind.
Deana had said to Jim, "You know that she is never going to be able to live on this farm." Driving, 15 miles down the road, they knew "this dog isn't going anywhere;" she had already built an immediate bond with Deana. It was discovered Maggie was also deaf when she failed to move away from the loud weed-wacker Jim was using when he was landscaping.
The Kilgoses asked every question imaginable, "How is she going to find her food?" "What kind of quality life can she have?" However, they discovered Maggie did just fine, training her where to eat, lay down, stay, shake, high-five. The Kilgoses had an active lifestyle, bringing their dogs, including Maggie, hiking, where nothing fazed her, as she climbed over rocks; she was just a normal dog.
"Lethal Whites" are so named, as many puppies born mostly white have a high percentage of being blind, deaf, or both, ignored at the shelters by potential adopters, resulting in a high likelihood of being euthanized. According to Lundberg, lethal whites can occur in other breeds, as it is a result from irresponsible or ignorant breeding. In efforts to prevent merle-merle breeding, Amazing Aussies implemented an education/outreach program to illustrate the consequences of irresponsible breeding, but most importantly, to educate the public about the abilities of these special needs dogs; Lundberg is adamant, "disabled does not mean disposable."
Lundberg recalls a 3 ?-week-old litter, abandoned in a cardboard box in Arkansas in December of 2012, particularly, the smallest of the litter, Holly, weighing only 1.9 pounds (she should have been 8 pounds). Not only was she extremely underweight, Holly needed multiple blood transfusions, due to a low oxygen level, according to Julie Brewer, Amazing Aussies' Education and Outreach Director. Brewer continues, Holly also had pneumonia, but has stabilized. Lundberg offers good news: Holly was able to go home for Christmas. As Kilgos states, "She's here because she didn't give up." These puppies can fight because "Jim and Deana [Kilgos] never give up," according to Lundberg. Brewer continues, many of Holly's brothers and sisters (all given holiday-themed names) have been adopted; Tiny Tim, who was malnourished with crooked legs, which are now straightening with proper nutrition, is still awaiting his forever home.
The Amazing Aussies consensus: special needs dogs are not any different from any other dog; the only difference is in the way these dogs are taught, according to Brewer. Kilgos suggests, the "sit" command is as follows: place a treat near the nose, tap the bottom so he/she sits, then reward with the treat; the tap on the bottom, the touch, is the motion action (rather than a hand signal for a sighted dog). A tap on the right shoulder can signal for "shake" with the right paw. The important thing to consider is that their minds work just as well as any dog.
"[Special needs dogs are] not as difficult to take care of as you think' treat them like a normal dog and you're going to get a normal dog," advises Kilgos. He has enjoyed working with them, where they "taught [him] patience." Kilgos fondly recounts the story of 12-year-old Wally, found wandering in downtown Phoenix; he was deaf and blind (but can make perfect eye contact), and liked to swim. Wally would lay by the swimming pool, dip his right paw in the water several times, and eventually went into the water to swim. When he couldn't get out, he would simply sit on the last step, taking in the scenery, while waiting for someone to get him. This was something he learned on his own.
Most importantly, special needs dogs "can have a wonderful quality of life," able to do things any other dog can do, according to Lundberg. The main challenge is in what people perceive as disabled, as "it is just a perception, [where the dogs] can literally map out a house in a day." Toes was able to map out her new home and backyard in 24 hours. The things to be cautious of are the potentially hazardous items that may be in reach that can harm or fall on the dog, as well as being vigilant of wobbly furniture, as with any dog. Special needs dogs are capable of a myriad of activities, including jogging and hiking, as they are "so in touch with the stimulus around." Deaf dogs participate in agility; deaf, blind, and deaf-blind dogs can become certified therapy dogs.
Brewer's two special needs dogs participate in pet therapy. Spot, the first Aussie she adopted at age one from Amazing Aussies (he is now six), is deaf, with good vision; he has epilepsy, and is now stabilized with medication. Spot, "devoted and wants to please you," visits assisted-living senior centers; "they like knowing he's not perfect either." For the seniors, it is a bonding experience, even for residents of the Alzheimer's Unit. "This guy is hanging in there, so can I."
Spot's partner, his adopted sister, Lizzie-Lou, came to Brewer at six-weeks-old, weighing at only one pound; malnutrition caused her initial blind and deafness. Lizzie-Lou has at least 80% vision, and can now hear. Certified, Lizzie-Lou is still in classes, with a goal of participating in the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dog) program; children gain confidence by reading to the dog, who never judges, perhaps transitioning into therapy work with children.
Demonstrating capabilities is the goal of the education/outreach program the parents have the mind frame of "oh, how sad," but the kids don't even notice until they see the eyes of the dogs are different; however, at this point, they have "already had puppy kisses!" The most enjoyable thing for Lundberg is seeing the parents walk away, saying "wow" (after witnessing the capabilities of these dogs) after their initial reaction. Brewer concurs, many adults aren't even aware of special needs dogs or adopting one; if there wasn't an outreach program, those people wouldn't even know about these wonderful dogs, where a "light bulb goes on for [them]." Ayres encourages people to go out and meet a special needs dog. If there is an opportunity, watch someone working with a special needs dog, where you will be impressed with the dog's abilities, as their "disabilities really don't make a difference."
The outreach program reaches everyone, teaching compassion to children, education for adults, as well as giving companionship for seniors. Brewer's hope is to teach children compassion at an early age, where that compassion is engrained in them. The idea is, like deaf or blind people, deaf or blind dogs are still capable, where that "animal is still worthy," where you "can still care for something that may not look normal in the eyes of others."
Frequently, Brewer is contacted by schools to educate children about special needs dogs, and possible causes of the disabilities. An eighth grade teacher of the EDU-Prize Charter School requested Brewer bring a lethal white to science class to illustrate genetics; using the basic "four square" model in determining genetics, the students were shown how the lethal white can occur. The students loved big kisser Roxie (who has dilated pupils) and agile Hailey (who has tiny pupils) leaping over 5 ?-feet over the teacher's desk, both illustrating they "shouldn't have to live this way, but look at how they can live."
A third grade teacher of the Imagine Schools Charter Elementary School (who adopted from Amazing Aussies) contacted Brewer to visit the class. After meeting Roxie and Hailey, the children colored black and white "thank you" sheets (for allowing Amazing Aussies to participate in their learning experience), writing sentiments: "I feel the need to help now!" "All the dogs can have happy lives!" and "It's ok to be different."
Amazing Aussies mainly adopts to the Southwest region of the United States, as home visits are essential to the adoption process; the ultimate goal is to place the dogs in their forever homes. Amazing Aussies takes great precautions to ensure that all their dogs are safe, doing home checks to ensure the dogs are not with the wrong people, ending up back at a shelter. A veterinarian living in Colorado had emailed Amazing Aussies in regards to her interest in adopting Lyra, a 12-week-old deaf puppy, with 90% vision. Amazing Aussies required she visit the rescue, bringing her Aussie and Greyhound for a "meet and greet" to ensure all the animals would get along. The veterinarian and her husband packed the car with their dogs, and coats and towels to help regulate their 10-year-old Greyhound's body temperature during the trip. Amazing Aussies took note, not only of what they were willing to do for their Greyhound, but also of the great effort the family took "for just a chance." Lyra is now hiking, and is a certified therapy dog. The adoption application has a clause where their dogs will always return to Amazing Aussies if the family cannot keep the dog. Since the rescue is a network of foster homes, it has the "luxury of knowing that dog is going to be safe," according to Kilgos. Of the dogs that were adopted, only two were returned.
Adopters from the Amazing Aussies rescue is comforted in knowing the rescue is always available to help, as it is a network of foster parents and knowledgeable people, functioning as a community, rather than just a rescue. Lundberg recalls her sister's experience in adopting Ella, who was blind and had bi-lateral hearing; as adopting a special needs dog can be overwhelming, "Lorraine, Jim, and Deana were there to help her figure things." Brewer has come to know every one of the families who have adopted from Amazing Aussies, keeping in contact, emailing for help, and referring other families. These special souls are "like potato chips. You can't have just one," jokingly remarks Brewer; repeat adopters of the rescue have an occurrence of 50%.
To Lundberg, we "have to focus on the ones we can do something for." A rewarding aspect is knowing she was able to facilitate the dogs to the point "where they can be in their lives'that feels really good," always remaining hopeful. Also, volunteer, no matter how much time you can devote. Brewer concurs in encouraging people to be proactive. Rather than reflecting "I wish'" simply begin by asking, "What can I do?" even in the smallest way. "Everyone can do something'it can be something simple."
Special needs dogs are just like any other dogs, "trained like any other dog, just modified," states Lundberg. Mason, an Australian Shepherd-Heeler mix, who is deaf and vision impaired, loves fetch, and would be great in agility; Mason is waiting for his forever loving family. Brewer agrees, observing, they aren't any different than any other dog, so why aren't they as valuable and acceptable as any other dog? As Lundberg astutely observes, "The dog chooses you."
Whether it is a special needs dog, or a homeless dog, Kilgos encourages people to adopt, astutely observing, "Don't buy while others die," as a large number of animals (an estimated of 3.7 million in 2008, according to the American Humane Association) are euthanized. He believes that with such a connection across the United States, if there is a certain dog you are seeking, he/she is out there. In connection, Kilgos encourages spaying and neutering, remedying the need for shelters and rescues. Ayres offers astute advice about special needs dogs, "Look at the[ir] personality, not their disability."
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)