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The Magic of Merlin

He's deaf, not dumb!

Does your dog give you the impression that he understands every word you say - or is he deaf to every command you shout at him? If you have ever watched Lisanne Steen guide her working sheep dog Merlin around an agility course, you would be surprised to learn that Merlin was born deaf. He has never heard Lisanne's voice, his pack-mates growls or a squeaky toy. How on earth was he trained to be a good companion and agility dog? Mary Ann Nester interviews Lisanne.

Hearing is usually well-developed in dogs, and they are able to hear sounds that are too high pitched or far away for human beings to identify. This greater range helps them in hunting their prey and communicating with each other. Deaf dogs like Merlin, never rotate their ears to scan the aural horizon.

Mary Ann: Why did you chose a deaf puppy?

Lisanne: I had just had to have my six year old Irish Terrier Brandy put to sleep. Next to his obituary in Dog Training Weekly was an advert for Merlin. It said he was deaf and needed a home. It was too terrible to even think that he might be put to sleep because he couldn't hear. He was nine weeks old when he came to live with me and had two previous foster homes.

Mary Ann: Do you know the cause of his deafness?

Lisanne: No. Although it was obvious that Merlin couldn't hear, my vet recommended I take him to the Animal Health Trust for tests. Maybe there was some residual hearing in one or both ears. Perhaps Merlin could detect some of the higher frequencies, and I would train him to a whistle. I was told that if Merlin had his ear up to a loud speaker at peak decibel at a disco, not a note would register with him.

Mary Ann: What about the other puppies in his litter?

Lisanne: Out of a litter of six miss-marked puppies, one has hearing problems, another is deaf in one ear, and Merlin is completely deaf.

Mary Ann: Do you have other dogs, and how did you introduce Merlin to them? Is canine protocol a problem for him? Can missing a growl lead to serious misunderstandings?

Lisanne: When I got Merlin, I had eight other dogs. One of Merlin's foster homes had Golden Retrievers and the other had Springer Spaniels. He was used to being surrounded by lively dogs by the time he came to live with me. I introduced him to a few dogs at a time. They took it all in their stride and were probably more tolerant because he was a puppy, not because he was deaf.

Once, when Merlin lost sight of me, Flower, my greyhound lost her patience waiting for him to track back to me. She went out and gave him a good poke with her nose and shepherded him back to me. On the whole, they don't treat him any differently from the other dogs.

Mary Ann: What about the other dogs? Do they pick on him because he is different?

Lisanne: As a puppy, I encourage Merlin to meet as many different people and dogs as possible. However, Merlin was taught to look at me before going to visit another dog. That way I could ensure that every meeting was a happy one. I had to discourage him from running after other dogs to socialise because, if he lost sight of me, he wouldn't know where to find me once his canine party was over.

He learned by luck or good judgment to invite a dog to come back to him by presenting his bum to be sniffed or by rolling on his back. Dogs who he meets who growl and bark for a fight are really puzzled by Merlin's lack of interest. He finds it easy to ignore what he can't hear!

Mary Ann: Many of us would find it very difficult to teach a deaf dog to do agility. We see our voice as out chief training aid and use it to direct, praise and correct. Our voice keeps us in contact even when there is some distance between us and our dog. It must have been very frustrating to find your voice was powerless. What do you consider your greatest training aid?

Lisanne: There have been times when I have been training Merlin that I've found quite frightening. When I have been hiding from him to teach him to keep an eye on me, I haven't been able to keep an eye on him! I worried about what he has been doing, and what will I do if he doesn't come back. How long should I stay hidden? His flexi-lead is his favourite toy and my best training aid. He would rather play with that than other dogs. My most used commend is 'watch.' If Merlin isn't watching me, I can't communicate with him.

Mary Ann: Have you invented a special sign language for Merlin? How sensitive is he to facial expressions? Does Merlin have a sign for his name?

Lisanne: When I got Merlin, I wrote a list of hand signals I was going to use. This helped me to be consistent in signing and to anticipate problems before they occurred. I reckon he understands as many hand signals as other dogs understand verbal commands. All dogs like to make their owners smile.

Some signs I use include a thumbs up or clapping for 'good,' fingers to lips for 'watch' and putting my fists together and twisting them in opposite directions for 'I'm going to wring your neck!' I don't have a sign for his name. Matching my signing to my body language is not always easy, but then I find it difficult to match my verbal commands to my body language with my hearing dogs! We've all at some stage said 'tyre' as we've run towards the tunnel.

Ambiguity can be a problem for the hearing dog just as for the deaf dog. I've taught Merlin to follow my hand or to look where I point - not easy to be exact when you are running! Merlin works out in front of me and, if I am not exactly in the right spot, facing the right way and pointing in the right (correct) direction, I'll inadvertently send Merlin the wrong way. One thing that I really worried about was how Merlin would react to the judge's hand signals to his scribe. Fortunately, he has always ignored them unless the judge has clapped after a good, clear round!

Mary Ann: I once coached a young, deaf girl in gymnastics and would always put the cassette player on the ground so she could feel the music's vibrations for her floor exercise and keep in time to the beat. Do you think Merlin feels vibrations and have you made use of this in training?

Lisanne: I tend to use clapping to show Merlin I'm pleased with him. I clap him through the weaves not because it causes vibration in the air, but because it is a more sustainable sign for a long set of weaves than a prolonged 'thumbs up.' Also, if I have been running at full pelt and slow suddenly at a box, Merlin is likely to knock a pole. He may be picking up a changed rhythm in my foot falls from the ground. I've watched this happen to hearing dogs. It is not the noise of stamping feet or slapping equipment that attracts Merlin's attention so it must be vibration.

Mary Ann: There are many challenges that face handlers and their dogs when they are in the ring. How are they different for you and Merlin?

Lisanne: There are advantages and disadvantages to working a deaf dog. Merlin will never be distracted by the handler playing with a squeaky toy in the queue. On the other hand, I have to walk the course very carefully to ensure that Merlin can see me. I have to meet him a tunnel exits, and once he lost me on a course because a judge obscured me from him. But basically, my expectations for Merlin are the same as they are for my hearing dogs. He's deaf, not dumb!

Mary Ann: What is the secret of your success?

Lisanne: I don't think he has a sixth sense, but I do think he has certainly become adept at reading me and predicting my actions. I have certainly had to work hard to read him, and now we are becoming a team. Merlin seems to understand that there is a right and a wrong way to work a course, and he wants to do it the right way. Merlin always goes to sleep with part of him touching me. It's as if he's afraid of waking up and finding me not there. Who's he kidding - I'd be lost without him. That's the secret to my success.

Mary Ann: Thank you. That's remarkable story.

For more information about training deaf dogs, see Deaf Dog Roundtable


About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
is a member of APDT. Born in the USA, she came to Britain in 1972 as a student. She has pursued a mixed career - fruit picker, gymnastic coach, keep-fit instructor and academic librarian. In 1997 she set up Aslan Enterprises, a dog-training school named after her first agility dog.

Running Aslan, a lurcher dog, at agility competitions got Mary Ann hooked on the sport and Bounty, a German Shepherd Dog, and Tam, the Border Collie were soon added to the household.

Mary Ann's most successful dog to date has been Brillo Pad, a Miniature Poodle who took her to Olympia and Crufts. Brillo also competed in the Draw Challenge on National Lottery Live!, winning Mary Ann the privilege of pushing the button that released the evening's lottery balls in front of millions of television viewers.

Daz, another miniature poodle and most recent addition, was bought for competition in the Mini ring, cut grew too tall! He has proved that size doesn't matter. He entertained the crowds at Olympia as one of the 'fun dogs' and has strut his stuff in the ABC competition (Any Breed but Collie) at Crufts.