Meet Whibbles Magoo.
He’s amazing and incorrigible, sweet and feisty. My new foster puppy is an Australian shepherd who is ridiculously brilliant, unbelievably fluffy and always on hyperdrive. He also happens to be blind and deaf.
Whibbles is a double merle. Merle is a swirly-coated pattern in a dog's coat. Sometimes disreputable breeders will breed two merles together in hopes of getting more merle puppies. When that happens, the puppies have a 25% chance of being double merle — which is what produces that predominantly white coat but also typically means they have some sort of hearing or vision loss or both.
I’m fostering Whibbles through an amazing mostly special-needs rescue in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. I heard about Snooty Giggles after writing about an incredibly cool video the rescue made, showcasing their perfect "Not So Different" dogs. They focus on seniors, hospice, medical and special needs dogs that often get overlooked by adopters.
Ever since I met Shawn Aswad, the rescue's founder, I have been pestering her to let me foster a puppy. She finally caved and let me take in Whibbles about two weeks ago.
Puppy on hyperdrive (sometimes)
I’ve fostered a dozen puppies in the past year, and they've each had heir own personalities. Most of them pretty much go full-on until they fall asleep and then they wake up and it starts all over again.
That’s Whibbles, but on hyperdrive. He's a purebred herding dog, so he's busy, busy, busy. I was thinking that his lack of sight and hearing would hold him back, but nope. His other senses are just incredibly fine-tuned.
He's definitely not a delicate flower. He careens around the house and yard at full speed. It took him very little time to create a map of the rooms where he hangs out. He runs in from outside directly to his water bowl. He knows where the back door is when it's time to go outside. He found the toy box within minutes of arriving.
Of course he bumps into things. And sometimes he bonks his head pretty hard. But he only stops for a second, shakes his head and then takes off again. And he rarely hits the same wall or piece of furniture twice. He figures out where it is and then avoids it.
When we're out in the yard, he weaves in and out of my legs when I walk. It's how he keeps track of where I am, plus he's herding me. He does the same thing to my dog, Brodie. If he loses one of us, he'll usually make bigger circles in the yard until he finds us again. I think he either smells us or picks up on our vibrations. And sometimes he just physically bumps into us.
When he does, he's so happy. The way he shows his giddiness, unfortunately, can be a little painful. Because he doesn't have hearing or sight, he relies on his mouth and nose. So chomping down in glee is how he celebrates. His little teething puppy teeth have left marks on my ankles, wrists, shirts and shoes. I've taken to wearing my son's old tube socks for a modicum of protection.
At times it looks like I'm fostering a feral cat. (We're working on it.)
Whibbles may not want to learn how to stop being a piranha, but he's open to learning everything else. This puppy is crazy smart.
I've taught other puppies by saying "yay!" and doling out treats. Some people use clickers. Deaf dogs can learn sign language and blind dogs can learn voice commands. Blind and deaf dogs learn with touch.
I started by luring Whibbles into a sit by holding food above his nose and tapping him on his bottom as he sat down. It didn't take long for him to figure that out.
When he was eagerly lifting his paw during training, I started tapping his right front leg as he lifted it. Soon, he learned that a tap there meant shake.
Now, he's almost mastered "down" and "up." I'm luring him down on the floor with food right after I tap him on the chest. Then I tap him on the top of the head to get him back up.
He doesn't love the idea of walking on a leash, but a very sturdy donated Kurgo harness is his new way of learning that it's OK to be tethered to his foster mom. I'm hoping that eventually he'll figure out that it's a good thing so he won't have to do his incessant circles when he's lost me.
I usually foster border collies and, like Aussies, all these herding dogs are so intelligent. Nearly all of my fosters have been mostly couch potatoes, though. This is the first high-drive puppy I've had that needs a job, wants to learn all the time, and is a Mensa dog. I think he will be amazing in obedience classes or agility with the right person.
When I first told people I was getting Whibbles, they either thought I was crazy or a saint. I may be a little bonkers, but I'm definitely not St. Francis material. I just wanted to try to help a puppy that might need some extra care. But it turns out, as usual, when you're fostering a dog, you're the one who benefits. He amazes me every day by what he accomplishes.
I have also learned a lot about human nature because of this little fluff ball.
Whibbles is sort of a litmus test of people's personalities. Sometimes there are pity reactions when people meet him, and that makes me sad and mad. People often say things like, "Who would adopt him?" or "What can he do?" and that's just ridiculous.
Yes, he will require a special adopter, someone with a huge heart who is willing to train him a little differently. (In fact, he needs to go to someone with herding dog experience who will know how to handle all his energy and his massive brain. This dog isn't going to just lounge on the couch all day.)
Those pity people who first meet him don't see that he's so smart and loving and athletic. When you realize how ecstatic he is because he found YOU, your heart will melt.
But then there are people who love him immediately. They think it's awesome how he navigates the room or finds his people or throws himself full-tilt at Brodie when he senses him running past. (Brodie isn't in love with the idea, but seems to sense that he has to be extra nice to the little guy and will tolerate all his antics.)
Of course there have been so many times when I have thought there is no way I can do this, like when he woke up from a nap one day right when I started my morning conference call. I normally would've scooped him outside to potty but it was my turn to talk. Of course he squatted and peed in his pen just as I started to speak. I tried to keep my cool as I picked him up and tried to clean his crate. But he started yelling (deaf dogs can't hear themselves so they are extremely LOUD) and nipping me and I couldn't hold him and the phone and the paper towels so I just 'fessed up to my coworkers. Fortunately, they are all dog people and laughed. (Although my editor checked in on me later, saying my voice kept getting higher and higher as I talked.)
But I've found lots of resources online including the experts at Deaf Dogs Rock and Keller's Cause who have great training videos and support blogs and I keep pestering Poet's Vision, a Canadian rescue that deals exclusively with deaf and blind Aussies.
When Shawn posted the video above of Whibbles learning to sit, her Snooty fans were so kind, saying supportive things to Whibbles and to his foster mom, cheering us on from afar. You don't know how much that means when it's bedtime (for me) and Whibbles is still running laps around the living room, convinced there are invisible sheep that need to be gathered before he can go to sleep.
No, it's not always easy. But that's because puppies aren't easy. They are squirming, pooping, biting little balls of hellfire that we forgive because they fall asleep in our laps and wag their tails when they know we are near.