Search
  • Thumbs Up Training

A venture into dog sports with disabled dogs.

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but have never been able to put all my thoughts together.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I spend most of my free time training or trialing, I love dog sports, basically of all kinds.

I’m fortunate to be in a location that gives me access to many sports, even if my dogs aren’t welcome to compete in some of them.


This will mostly just be me ranting and hoping for change in the future. Dog sports are fun, and unless safety is a concern, all dogs should be welcome assuming the the game isn’t altered to accommodate them. I will die on this hill and if you don’t agree, that’s ok, but hear me out.


When I was 18, I got my first Aussie. She’s turning 11 in a month which is absolutely insane to think about. From the moment I got her, I wanted to do agility and be like the people I had watched on tv. It looked so fun and now I had a dog that was practically made for it.

2 years later, I got my second dog, and my first special needs dog, Keller. She was the cutest little Aussie puppy, who was also deaf and vision impaired. I quickly learned that this puppy, while considered “disabled”, was still very much an Aussie and had normal Aussie tendencies, including a need to “work.”

*Kai, and Keller as a young puppy

At the time Keller joined my family, I was actively involved in agility class with my now eldest, Kai. I will never forget the day I went to the instructor and asked about doing classes with Keller when she was a little older.


She looked at me long and hard, I could tell she was pondering the question because she knew that my new puppy couldn’t hear and couldn’t see 100%. She eventually responded and said “I’ve never had a dog like that in here, but we can give it a try.”

*I should make a note that Keller is in fact vision impaired in addition to being deaf. She can see pretty normally unless there are dramatic light changes, or she’s in bright sunlight. You can see her pupils are abnormal.


In 2013 when Keller was born and joined my family, deaf dogs were NOT welcomed or allowed in ANY AKC sporting events/competitions so it makes sense looking back that my teacher was hesitant. Why take classes if I could never go any further with the dog?


Much to everyones surprise, Keller was amazing in classes. She was fast, she was drivey, and because she was deaf, she was much more focused than a lot of the young dogs. She was fearless on contact equipment, even the teeter (probably because she had no idea it makes a huge bang!)


It wasn’t until 2015 that deaf dogs were welcomed to compete in agility with the AKC. Please read that again, it wasn’t until 2015 which is only SIX years ago.


The AKC wouldn’t allow deaf dogs to do agility until 2015. They weren’t allowed to participate in a sport that literally requires no need for hearing. They weren’t allowed to participate in a sport that emphasizes body language SO heavily. They weren’t allowed in a sport where verbal cues are the last piece of the puzzle.


I remember seeing all the petitions and fights for the rule change and signing every single one of them because my dog shouldn’t have been penalized. She shouldn’t have been excluded. She shouldn’t have been pushed out as if she wasn’t capable or good at the game when she was SO good and so excited to play with me.

I remember our first trial like it was yesterday. It was not an AKC because even though the rules had changed, I was truly intimidated to try there. We went with CPE and it was such a welcoming experience, we started trialing more and more and making friends and of course teaching people about deaf dogs.

*Keller at a CPE trial


Then, a few years later, I added a third dog, another deaf Aussie. Keller had been so much fun to train and trial with, I wanted to do it again. I felt a deaf dog had so many advantages over a hearing dog so I jumped in for round three of raising an Aussie, and round two of raising a deaf dog.


*Calamity/Clam joining the family


My new puppy was named Calamity and we started training different foundations and things from the moment she walked through the door. (This was 2017, for what that is worth and as a note for later on.)

Calamity liked agility classes, but she wasn’t as into it as Keller. She would do everything and had a beautiful 2 on/2 off (which she still has to this day if I guide her over an a-frame.)


By this time in my life, I was actually assisting in teaching the very classes that got me started in agility. I had learned about other dog sports, and I was so excited to venture into new things with this puppy when she was old enough.


As she started getting older, I could tell agility probably wasn’t for her and we began training for rally. She absolutely loved it, and she was really good at it. Thankfully, at the point in time when Clam came along, deaf dogs were welcome in rally. I even found a Facebook friend who had gone so far and earned so many titles with her deaf Aussie, it was truly inspiring to watch.


So Clam and I trained and played and had fun working on rally, while Keller stayed with her love for agility and going real fast.


When it came time to trial in rally, I decided to enter a WCRL trial after talking to some sport friends about what to do. They mentioned that WCRL was very beginner friendly and that they allowed you to treat your dog at stationary signs. This seemed so wonderful for a young dog!


Our first trial was great, we Q’d in our runs, the people were nice, they were welcoming, and I didn’t feel like anyone cared or judged me for having a deaf dog (which I can say has not always been the case!)


Then, what I thought was my worst nightmare happened and Calamity lost the vision in her right eye. This threw a wrench into our heeling as the eye closest to me was now blind. I was absolutely devastated and convinced our sport days were over.

WCRL continued to welcome us with open arms. Fellow competitors cheered us on, offered support and kind words and I started to feel better about the situation. We kept trialing in WCRL to gain some practice and make me feel more confident before we tried going to AKC.


In 2018, I added my fourth dog, another Aussie who was deaf in one ear. His deafness really didn’t change much, but I had still learned so much since I started down this road with Keller. We were able to lay so many foundation skills for agility, and prepare for rally until he was old enough for agility trials.


*Canon joined the family


My plans for Canon were big, since he could hear, I wanted to make sure we did everything since my girls weren’t allowed. I wanted to try obedience with him, and we’d do rally, and then agility when he was old enough. I liked the idea of fastcat and dock diving too.

In 2018, deaf dogs were not allowed in AKC obedience. Yep you read that correctly, it was November of 2018 when that rule changed. It’s been barely 3 years. Deaf dogs weren’t welcome in obedience as if a dog needs to be able to hear to heel, stay, etc.

When Canon had just turned 6 months, we had a rally and obedience trial at the facility we helped teach at. I signed him up and figured this was the perfect chance to try Calamity in AKC. It was our “home turf” so really there was no better time. I also signed Calamity up for obedience. This was something I had NEVER considered because she wasn’t allowed. This trial was 3 weeks after the rule change to allow deaf dogs to compete. Since Calamity was only blind in one eye, we signed up and we did the trial.


She earned her first Q in AKC Rally Novice and was over the moon. Our obedience run was ok, but ultimately a NQ. I figured we would practice and try again soon. I had goals of becoming one of the first deaf dogs to earn a title.



*Calamity with her novice rally Q ribbon and placement rosette

Then my actual worst nightmare happened and Calamity lost the vision in her left eye as well. She was not completely deaf and completely blind.

The emotional roller coaster I went through was awful. I was sad for my dog to go through this, but I was also so sad for myself and the fact that we would no longer get to enjoy sports together. We would never earn our rally novice title, we wouldn’t be one of the first deaf dogs to earn an obedience title, that was just it.


I transferred all of the behaviors and tricks she knew into touch cues and she was actually still really good at staying with me, heeling, and doing different positions and obedience cues. It was really really hard to think about all of our hard work just being gone.


One of my rally friends then reminded me that WCRL allowed modifications for disabled dogs and/or handlers. That sent me on a different emotional rollercoaster. My hope was back and I was ready to go play with my dog again.


In April of 2019, I stepped into the ring with my deaf and blind dog to compete in Level 2 rally through WCRL. If you aren’t familiar with WCRL, level 2 is pretty comparable to advanced in AKC, it is off leash.


Prior the start of the trial, I had to submit a form to the judge outlining my request for modifications. In our case, I was requesting to use touch cues. This meant, instead of verbally or visually giving her a cue, I touch her in a specific way in a specific spot to indicate to her to do a behavior. This is in no way luring the dog through the course, it’s no different than someone telling their dog to sit/stay etc.


WCRL very clearly states that all modifications are at the discretion of the judge (so they could very easily say no to the request) and that they are to be judged in accordance of all rules and regulations.


I never once felt like we judged differently than the hearing or seeing dogs we competed against and we definitely earned a few really low scores to prove it.

Calamity and I continued to compete in WCRL and she earned her through to her ARCHX (similar to a RAE for AKC) before I retired her this spring (2021).


*Not the prettiest run, but one of our last rally runs.

Calamity and I are now competing in scentwork, which surprisingly she is welcome in all venues, including AKC.

As life continued on, I tried fastcat with Canon, which he naturally loved. I immediately thought how much Keller would love that, she LOVES to chase things.

Then the more I thought about it, I realized fastcat trials are always outside. If it was really sunny that day, she wouldn’t be able to see the lure to follow it.

Keller is conditioned to wear rex specs and with them, she can see no problem. In my mind, the problem was solved. I’d sign her up, and she’d just run in her rex specs that way there was no chance the sun could mess with her eyes.

It was a great plan, except dogs aren’t allowed to wear them for “safety reasons”…

I still to this day would like to know how dogs can run muzzled and that’s ok, but rex specs aren’t. A dog in a muzzle is more likely to get snagged on the lure line than a dog in rex specs.

*Keller in her rex specs


I gave up the idea of Keller doing fast cat. Remember earlier when I mentioned how rules had JUST changed for other sports? I knew there was zero point in trying to change anything and that it would never happen in her lifetime so that was that. We’d stick with agility where she’s allowed across the board.


Canon and I started dock diving and Keller loves to jump of the dock. She has zero hesitation, but again, when it’s sunny, she can’t make out the toy. She will still jump, but the sun reflection on the water makes it impossible for her to track the toy.


So again I’m thinking no biggie, we can wear rex specs. Nope, not allowed for safety reasons. Dogs can jump in life jackets and swim shirts (which if fitted improperly can effect their ability to swim,) but not goggles.

*Keller on the dock. How would goggles affect her ability to do this?


Why can’t accommodations be made for dogs who are capable so long as the game is not changed? My dog wearing rex specs isn’t altering the purpose of the game or giving her an advantage.


I won’t sit here and say that my deaf and blind dog should be allowed to compete in agility still (even though she has a better 2on/2off than most dogs I know,) that’s just silly and unsafe, but when the game is not being altered why can’t reasonable accommodations be made?


Dog sports are supposed to be fun, they should be welcoming, they should be inclusive. Just like they are no longer solely for purebreds, dogs with special needs should be welcomed.


I love dog sports and I will continue to participate in everything we are able, but I think a change could really open things up. Obviously there won’t be lines of people with special needs dogs wanting to compete, but there are a great deal of us who would love to be able to do more with our dogs.


If some venues can do it, why can’t others? (Looking at you AKC!)



I wanted to add to this and compile a list of sports and venues that welcome deaf and/or blind dogs! There are a lot of venues so this list is in no way complete.


AKC:

Deaf dogs are welcome in all sports. Deaf and blind dog are welcome in scentwork. Deaf and blind (in one eye) are welcome in all sports.

CPE:

Deaf dogs are welcome in agility, scentwork, and speedway. Deaf and blind dogs are welcome in scentwork.

WCRL:

All dogs are welcome with requests for modifications.

CWAGS:

All dogs are welcome with requests for modifications.


Barn hunt (BHA):

Deaf dogs are welcome. Deaf and blind dogs are not permitted.

334 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All