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Deaf dog finds empathy in deaf-education teacher’s home

July 10, 2021 GMT
Annah Hill and her dog Flynn at their home in Indiana, Pa. Flynn is deaf. (Chauncey Ross/The Indiana Gazette via AP)
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Annah Hill and her dog Flynn at their home in Indiana, Pa. Flynn is deaf. (Chauncey Ross/The Indiana Gazette via AP)
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Annah Hill and her dog Flynn at their home in Indiana, Pa. Flynn is deaf. (Chauncey Ross/The Indiana Gazette via AP)

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) —

He was an incorrigible cur.

This mutt puppy wouldn’t listen to anything he was told.

Three families tried.

Three families brought him back to the Four Footed Friends shelter, each time with worse habits than before.

When he went up for adoption again in late 2016, he had a penchant for chewing apart anything that was stuffed — toys, cushions, and the like. He had a name, too — Flynn. And he had a diagnosis. He was deaf.

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The Hill family’s faithful little guy Wyatt suddenly up and died that year.

Their furry companion, a 10-year-old Husky mix, gave no clues. He was faithful as could be, and had made a habit of cuddling with Annah Hill, who had been having a few down days of her own.

A checkup after Wyatt passed revealed stunning news. He was riddled with cancer. But he had never, well, whined about it.

“He was always comforting me,” Annah said. “I can’t imagine an animal not feeling well himself, yet giving you that devotion.”

Soon, Annah and Greg Hill and their daughters, Jeanice, Leannah and Brooke, and their fat orange cat Mr. PIB were ready to replace Wyatt in their home.

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A sign on Flynn’s cage at the shelter warned that he would tear up stuffed items.

He was a bundle of energy and the Hills were ready to harness him.

He ran circles through the kitchen, dining room and living room of the family’s ranch style house along Carter Avenue in Indiana, bouncing off the furniture, his first day in the house.

“He was like a ping-pong ball!” Annah said. It’s been suggested that he’s a mix of beagle and rat terrier. A “raggle,” with the signature traits. High-spirited, high-strung, hyper.

From the start Flynn was affectionate, too. He reciprocates every scratch and belly rub with dog kisses.

One day Flynn greeted Annah full force, somewhat painfully as he leaped toward her chest and shoulders.

Double checking for a bruise, Annah found worse. A lump that had eluded her detection in her breast. Doctors said she had stage three breast cancer.

“If he had not been all crazy and ran up and hit me, I never would have found that lump fast enough,” she said. “Flynn helped me find the cancer.”

The cancer, she figured, was the unexplained reason she hadn’t been feeling well all those months. She believes it was the illness that Wyatt had intuitively responded to with his comforting cuddles in his final months.

Mastectomy and a rugged course of chemotherapy followed. Medications will always be part of life. The risk of flare-ups is there, too.

“Flynn saved my life.”

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How the deaf dog, Flynn, came into the Hill family was kind of a destiny that the girls made true. It was a month after they lost Wyatt.

Leannah and Jeanice found his listing on Four Footed Friends website.

“They said ’Mom, there’s a dog and he’s deaf! We have to check him out!” Annah said.

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It was natural. Leannah and Jeanice practice American Sign Language. Brooke took it up, too. They communicate with their mom that way.

Annah Hill — Dr. Hill, that is — is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is Program Director for Disability Services, where teaching sign language is her thing.

But wait.

It was out of necessity. Hill has neared deafness herself since 2005, when she was first diagnosed with loss of hearing in her right ear. She was studying that year for her master’s degree in deaf education at the University of Pittsburgh.

How many planets could possibly align like this?

In a household of sign-language users, establishing communication with Flynn was an immediate goal.

Someone at Four Footed Friends had tried to train him in the hand signals that dolphins follow in water parks. He didn’t grasp it.

But Annah, Greg and their daughters developed a set of commands fundamental to any well-trained dog and coupled the signals with universal facial expressions and a system of rewards to bring Flynn to understanding.

A thumbs-up, like the world over, is his sign of affirmation.

A collar that vibrates and sometimes shocks has helped Flynn to learn his boundaries.

Literally.

He has been conditioned to stay in the Hills’ backyard and gets a reminder when he romps too far.

Flynn soon mastered “sit,” “lay,” “play dead” and “roll over” with ease. He retrieves his toys when told, if he wants to play.

Annah Hill said her daughters challenged him further.

Climbing up and going down the sliding board in the backyard is part of his skill set. He jumps through a hula hoop on cue.

Flynn once climbed the ladder to a top bunk bed in the older girls’ room. He enjoys winter sled riding with his humans.

That’s a range of performance that has made the Hills a resource for other families with hearing-impaired dogs.

“Four Footed Friends will contact us and say ‘we think we have another animal that is deaf. What did you do with your dog? What do you suggest?’” Annah said. “I love that. I don’t mind. I tell them to let the people who adopt the dog contact me. I can say what I did; I don’t know if it will work, but I’ll let them know.”

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Research posted at the American Kennel Club (AKC) website reports that 5 to 10 percent of dogs are partially or fully deaf.

There are no numbers for deaf dogs for which owners successfully establish communication, but the site gives owners plenty of encouragement.

“Deaf dogs can live normal lives but need to have a special dedicated owner. Deaf dogs are not suitable for families with young children as they can be startled easily,” the site offers.

Pshaw.

Jeanice is 13. Leannah is 12. Brooke is 7, two years older than Flynn. When he was first adopted, Brooke called him “little brother.”

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Life without sound is natural to Flynn. Overcompensating visually could make it natural for him to pick up on signals and cues from humans. But it’s his advantage over humans that lose hearing well into a life of enjoying all the sounds the world offers.

Annah and Greg started their family as her hearing deteriorated.

“I had Jeanice in 2007 and the first thing I thought was, ‘is it progressive and is it going to be so fast that I am not going to hear her speech?’” she pondered. “And then I thought, I’m not going to hear Greg’s voice anymore. I had so many things going on in my head because I knew too much from my schooling in deaf education. So that really hit me hard.”

Annah Hill said she and her doctors haven’t pinpointed the cause of her dramatic hearing loss. Acoustic neuroma, scar tissue, use of erythromycin, ototoxicity, environmental factors from her childhood on the Neal family farm in Center Township and genetics are the factors on the table. She said she’s leaning toward genetics because some in her family have developed hearing trouble in recent years.

The progression of her hearing loss was slow at first. But in 2013 her “mild to moderate” classification jumped to “moderate to severe.”

Her own education in the subject became her understanding of her condition, how she had to adapt, and how she has empathy for Flynn.

Annah Hill said some parts of the sound spectrum are easier for her to hear than others. High frequency sounds are lost. She suspects it’s the same with Flynn, and that he either hears very low frequencies or is sensitive enough to vibrations to recognize things like footsteps.

Or a passing motorcycle.

A year ago, he tugged and broke the chain that tethered him to a tree in the Hills’ front yard. He ran into the street and bit the tire of a passing motorcycle, Annah said.

Flynn was thrown to the side of the road and left in a daze, but suffered nothing worse than a broken tooth and a hard-learned lesson.

Much of his days now are spent watching the world go by from the picture window in the living room. The Hills call it Flynn’s TV.

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The reason for Flynn’s deafness hasn’t been a major concern.

“Deaf dogs can be trained using the same luring and hand signals that dogs with the ability to hear use,” the AKC website advises. “Eventually you can begin to rely on hand signals alone. Have fun and be creative! You can use American Sign Language to teach your dog all kinds of words and tricks!”

That’s all second nature now to the Hill family. Call them all trilingual, conversant in English, ASL and doggy signing.

Coincidences to some — Hill’s hearing loss, her professional understanding of deafness, and her family’s adoption of a deaf dog that has outperformed expectations — are part of a plan with a purpose, Annah is certain.

“God has a reason. He knows,” she said. All the steps pointed toward this. She gave up her dream to attend the highly-touted deaf education program at Bloomsburg University and followed her father Brad Neal’s wishes to attend IUP.

Otherwise she would not have met Greg Hill.

“I’ve been able to persevere through all these things. My hearing loss. Not going to Bloomsburg. Getting my doctorate. Having children and working at the same time — again the perseverance and determination,” she said. “Then when I got diagnosed with cancer. I think, in my life, these things have been up to God: ‘She can handle it.’”

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