BY REBEKAH OLSEN
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BERNARD LIMA-CHAVEZ
In honor of National Deaf Dog Awareness Week (September 20th- 26th, hosted by Deaf Dogs Rock), we sat down with Bernard Lima-Chavez -- a deaf dog parent, trainer and advocate -- for a little Q&A about rescuing, living with and loving deaf dogs. Chavez, who worked as a veterinary technician in animal welfare for many years, now raises awareness about the needs of deaf dogs through his blog, Dog and His Boy. He and his husband, Omar, live in Miami, FL with two deaf dogs, two hearing dogs and six cats.
Nashville Paw: So, tell us about your two deaf dogs, Edison and Foster.
Bernard Lima-Chavez: Well, Edison was my very first deaf dog. I had never knowingly interacted with a deaf dog, so I wanted to know how to train a dog that was deaf. In addition to the practical things, I wanted the emotional support. I wanted to feel like [my husband and I] could do this, because it felt so big and overwhelming to not be able to use our voices. We spent a couple of weeks living in our search engines and learning to train Edison. About a year and a half later, I was coming home from work, and I was driving past a dog park. I looked and I saw a dog crate in the middle of the park. There was this white puppy inside... I quickly realized he was deaf as well. We kept him and named him Foster. We never actively looked for any of our dogs. They all chose us.
NP: I know you also have two hearing dogs and six cats. How does your furry household communicate and interact with your deaf dogs?
BLC: One thing that I learned early on, thanks to Deaf Dogs Rock, is that it’s really important for new pet parents, when they’re thinking about deaf dogs, to understand that there’s a hierarchy. First and foremost, they’re dogs. Yes, my dogs are deaf, but they communicate like a hearing dog does, and the vast majority of their communication is with their body. Second is their breed, and any breed specific considerations or behaviors are going to come into play. And third, you have the deafness. So, as important as the deafness is, the fact that he’s a dog and his specific breed is also important because that’s going to determine how he’s going to interact with people and other animals, and how receptive he is to training. All my dogs love cats. So, they all get along very, very well.
NP: How do pet guardians communicate with their deaf dogs?
BLC: In the deaf dog community, we have something we call ‘Deaf Dog Sign Language’. You can use any sign you want. We can make it up, use an obedience command, an American Sign Language (ASL) sign or a modified ASL sign. The great thing is, you can pick a sign that works for you and your family. Whatever works for you, will work for the dog.
NP: Is training a deaf dog different from training a hearing dog?
BLC: It’s different, but it’s not necessarily hard. I’m a huge proponent of positive reinforcement training. We’re just modifying clicker principles to deaf dogs. Instead of the click, to mark the behavior and then reward, what we do is use a flash of the thumbs up. For me, a ‘thumbs up’ is my click and then I reward the behavior. A very important skill to teach deaf dogs is ‘watch me’, that way you can communicate information to them.
NP: What’s the most important thing we should know when interacting with another pet guardian’s deaf dog?
BLC: If the dog can’t see you, they don’t know you’re there. They listen with their eyes. We communicate with people that our dogs are deaf dogs. My dogs have a tag that says ‘I’m Deaf’, and they also have a vest that says ‘I’m Deaf’ and ‘Ask to Pet’. When people come up, I always let them know he’s deaf and if you want to touch him, I have to tell him you’re here first. I let Edison or Foster know that someone is behind them, they look and then they accept the affection.
NP: What steps do you take to keep your deaf dogs safe?
BLC: I do a lot of things. I’m very overprotective. When I was a [veterinary] technician, I worked in shelter medicine, which simply means, everyday I saw everything that could go wrong. They are all microchipped. I think that’s very important for every dog, hearing or deaf. But one thing that I do with the microchip, instead of just their name being ‘Edison’ or ‘Foster’, it says ‘Edison I’m Deaf’. I want it to be very, very clear that if they were to ever get lost... and somebody called the microchip company, that this is a deaf dog. Every time my dogs are in public, they’re wearing vests. I use a company call DoodiePack.com.
NP: Your blog posts are pretty humorous. Do you have any funny stories about Edison and Foster you can share with us?
BLC: I have a million funny stories. My dog Edison is much more calm, he’s very much an adult and he’s very much a princess! He doesn’t greet me at the door anymore. Every other dog greets me when we come home, but Edison sits there and waits for you to come over and greet him. In his mind, he’s very special, and our role is to greet him. Foster is kind of a noodle head. A while ago, he got into the spice rack and ate an entire bottle of Mrs. Dash. He then lay there like ‘Oh my stomach hurts, but totally worth it, though!’
NP: What do you love most about being a guardian to deaf dogs?
BLC: There’s something very magical about deaf dogs. Part of this is about me; I always root for the underdog, and deaf dogs are generally underdogs, especially if they’re in the shelter system. They form an incredibly strong bond with their people. No matter where I go, my deaf dogs are there. I want to help them, and I want to help the people that are living with deaf dogs because there was a time in my life when I didn’t know what to do.