Last week in our therapy dog class, we talked about how dogs experience the world through smell. We discussed what the nose looked like anatomically, what purpose each part of the nose served and how the brain sifted through the information provided by the sniffer. We even talked about how air and wind currents affect what information your dog receives and when.
So it was perfect timing that I was able to watch this process unfold for a very special dog and former student. My friend and former student, Lisa, asked me to give her pack elder, Loki, a massage. Lisa does very special work for Amazing Aussies Rescue, a group dedicated to rescuing Lethal Whites or Double Merle Australian Shepherds. When two Aussies with the Merle gene (it’s a coat pattern) are bred, approximately 25% of the litter will be born with a visual or auditory impairment. Lisa fosters pups like these and finds appropriate homes for them. And some, like Loki, stay with Lisa. Loki is deaf but has excellent vision.
Loki and I had our time together while the rest of the house begged to be let out of their separate rooms to join us. It didn’t bother Loki and it didn’t bother me. We just enjoyed building a trust and being together. Occasionally, Lisa would smile as the others pleaded their case, softly, but insistently. She’d say, “Nicky knows you’re here.” I’d smile and continue stretching sweet Loki.
Nicky is an amazing dog. Lisa approached me a few months ago about bringing Nicky to therapy dog class. When she told me where she wanted to visit (Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind) and why, it was clear that she had a vision for this special guy. Nicky is one of the few Double Merles who is born with significant visual and auditory deficiencies. Lisa told me he has about 5% vision and even less hearing. One of the few things he can detect is the high-pitched barking of his Sheltie pack mate, which has alerted him to a stranger’s presence today.
As a team, Lisa and Nicky grew week by week as she worked on giving consistent touch signals and he ate up the opportunity to be challenged and to learn. They graduated from my class and went on to become a Delta PetPartners therapy team.
So when I finished working the Loki, Lisa asked if I’d like to say hi to Nicky. Of course! She went down the hallway while I waited in the living room. I heard Nicky before I saw him, nails clickty-clacking quickly down the hall. Then I saw a 60-pound pile of white fur, leading with his nose. He knew I was there and was excitedly making his way toward me.
He hesitated at the edge of the living room, sensing the change under his feet from tile to carpet. He threw his head back and inhaled a mighty intake of air. Having gotten his bearings, he set off to follow the scent. Fascinated, I watched quietly as he navigated the maze of living room furniture—soft armchair set at an angle to the right, hard coffee table parallel to the couch to the left, a fireplace hearth with interesting new Fall decorations on the floor in front just past the soft chair—following my scent. His tail and nose were twitching at nearly the same frenetic pace until he bumped into my thigh with a squishy, damp hello. Then he went nuts.
I hadn’t seen Nicky in a month or so and he acted as though he remembered me. In a very un-therapy-dog manner, he jumped up on my chest and sent his tongue on a mission to find my face. Mission accomplished! He was making little happy dog noises, all the while trying to get as close as possible to me.
Watching dogs overcome challenges never gets old. Watching classroom lessons come to life just reinforces that dogs are amazing creatures, willing to use what they’re given to make their way through their lives. And ours.