By MARCUS WILKINS
The Fulton Sun
Cowgirl (left) and Lucky (right) patiently await treats as Jennifer Dignan, a teacher at MSD, trains the two, well-behaved friends. Lucky is deaf and Cowgirl is hearing, but both dogs respond to hand signals like sit, bathroom and no. They are learning to shake hands with the American Sign Language sign for friend. (Contributed photo)
Most educational institutions try to stick to one mascot at a time when deciding on a representative character.
For visitors at the Missouri School for the Deaf, it's hard to deny the beauty of the majestic eagle adorning uniforms and emblems.
But that's just because they haven't met Lucky.
Lucky is a 4-month-old boxer who has recently become very comfortable at MSD. Like many of the other young ones on campus, he learns signs, plays with companions, eats and sleeps.
Lucky is also deaf.
Originally owned by a family in Jefferson City, the pure-bred pup has a snow white coat and a mellow disposition. According to MSD superintendent Barbara Garrison, the original owners chose to donate him to MSD.
Now Lucky has found a home with MSD middle school instructor, Jennifer Dignan, and her other beloved puppy, a German shepherd named Cowgirl. Dignan has taught the boxer several signs, and Cowgirl, who is hearing, has been a helpful companion.
“She obviously knows Lucky is deaf because she physically touches, pushes or bites him when she knows I want his attention,” said Dignan. “He is very mischievous ... he is such a sweetie.”
Cowgirl and Lucky have bonded and are now an inseparable duo.
“Training is the same as it is with a hearing dog ... you just feed them treats when they do it right,” said Dignan.
Dignan is comfortable with the behaviors of the animals having grown up around another pair of dogs - one deaf, one hearing. She is also deaf herself.
“The deaf dog I had when I was little did not know how to bark until he met my parents' other dog,” she said. “He noticed my other dog barking, felt the vibration on the wooden floor and started barking, only he didn't sound normal. It was really funny.”
Dignan must grab Lucky to make sure he is focused and make sure he sees her hands - and smells the treat.
“Eye contact is very important when training a deaf dog,” she said. “Some people are afraid to train a deaf dog because they don't know American Sign Language, but you can make up any sign you want.”
She also explained that, although a deaf animal isn't distracted by surrounding sounds, they can't hear their master when they're lost. This can be troublesome.
“He's been outside when it has been dark and I've been worried, but usually not for long,” said Dignan.
Lucky and Cowgirl are now regular guests in the classroom where they playfully wrestle and nap. The middle school students sign to the dogs and give them plenty of affection.
Soon, the dogs will be too big to spend as much time at school as they do now. They are already, occasionally, too distracting.
“Our students love him,” said Garrison. “Sometimes they call him ‘D.D.' for deaf dog.”
“They'll even argue over who gets to clean it up when they have an accident,” said Dignan with a laugh.