What Does It Take To Train Blind And Deaf Dogs? LOVE.

Hayden Kristal shares her remarkable life with two Double Merle dogs

By Justyne Yuen-Lee

Getting a dog is no joke. I went through the entire process of potentially adopting a dog and I couldn’t go through with it because I was afraid that I wasn’t able to commit to the responsibility it takes to provide for a pet. We’re just wrapping up the holiday season and in a few weeks rescues will begin to see an increase in surrender of puppies and other baby animals from families who just weren’t ready. But even if you’ve planned and prepared, a new pet is sure to demand a whole lot from you.


One of the main reasons why I didn’t adopt a dog from the humane society is because I had little faith in my training skills. To other people who have had pets before or have experience in training animals, it wouldn’t be as difficult. But now, sit back and imagine what it might be like to train a dog who couldn’t see or hear your commands? Even some seasoned dog-training professionals may be intimidated by tackling pets who may require a different approach.


In the animal world, we sometimes see the mother reject the runt of the litter or the puppies that she doesn’t believe will survive. So, when it comes to dogs with sensory or other disabilities, people who are looking to add a pet to their home are often too nervous about dealing with what they perceive will be “special training requirements” to even consider them as an adoption possibility.


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

One day I came across Hayden Kristal’s Tumblr and I learned from just one post there are a lot of false facts out there about training dogs who are deaf. Her Tumblr was originally meant to showcase her new dog, Pinkman, but slowly became an source of information for training dogs with different needs. Kristal has two dogs, both of whom are deaf. Her pup, Pinkman can’t hear and her little sister, Bitsy can’t hear or see! She uses touch training with Bitsy and Pinkman responds to American Sign Language!


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

I reached out to Kristal to ask some questions about training Pinky and Bitsy and to offer any advice that she might have for those people who may be considering adopting a pet with sensory disabilities. She was kind enough to excuse my ignorance and give Get Leashed some insight on her life, her dogs, and the ups and downs of training special needs pets.

Tell us about yourself …


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Pinky and Bitsy strike a pose with some of their doggy family!

Hayden: I’ve always loved animals of every kind, but I BEGGED my parents for my first dog. I was a voracious reader as a kid and I read literally hundreds of books on dog breeds, behavior, care, training, etc., before I got my first dog at around the age of nine. I’m FANTASTIC at recognizing uncommon dog breeds and weird mixes because I read every AKC (American Kennel Club) handbook and breed guide cover to cover. I love living in New York now because I get to see so many interesting dog breeds that I would I rarely get to see in person otherwise, and take the opportunity show off my “useless” talent to their owners (haha)!

The “useless” talents that Kristal is referring to are actually her rather extraordinary gifts for training special needs animals .


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Hayden: In school, I actually studied both Deaf studies (I was a even a teaching assistant for the sign language department at my university) and fisheries and wildlife during my undergrad. One of my first jobs was maintaining the reptile exhibit on our campus where I got to work with a wide variety of native snakes, lizards, turtles, and salamanders. (oooOooOoh!)


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Pinkman’s comfy spot – the strangest spot

Hayden: I love educating people about Double Merles…

Let me just interject here for a moment. You maybe asking yourself what a Double Merle is, so I thought I’d take a moment to explain. Wikipedia tells us, “merle is a pattern in a dogs coat which comes in different colors and patterns. Some have blue patches throughout and are considered blue ‘Merle’; same with red, and chocolate, although some describe Merle as only a ‘pattern’. DNA testing identifies the ‘Merle’ gene but not the variety of colors and patterns seen in the coats of the dogs with the gene. The Merle gene creates mottled patches of color in a solid or piebald coat, blue or odd-colored eyes, and can affect skin pigment as well. Health issues are more typical and more severe when two Merles are bred together, so it is recommended that a Merle be bred to a dog with a solid coat color only.” Still with me? Good.

Now, due to an increase in buyer demand for this type of coat coloration in certain types of dogs, some breeders have mated two Merle dogs together to increase the chance of a aesthetically pleasing fur palette. Therefore, a Double Merle is a gene mutation can occur when two Merle dogs, of any breed, mate together. If this happens, each puppy in the litter has a 25% chance of inheriting the Merle gene twice. In Double Merle dogs, the coloring of the coat becomes either very light or completely white and they have a very high chance of being deaf, blind or both. Now, let’s get back to Hayden Kristal.

Hayden: … and deaf/deaf blind dogs and I love helping people with their disabled dogs, but I don’t think I could ever be a professional dog trainer full time. I have very little patience for people with very little patience for their dogs, or who aren’t willing to listen or put in the effort needed to get the result they want. I think I’d burn out quickly, and right now dogs are my happy place.

How did you become such a great trainer?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
The girls and their brother, Gimli, do well with Hayden when they’re not at home!

Hayden: I think I am naturally more perceptive to body language than most people — possibly because of my own hearing loss — but that is absolutely a skill that can be learned and refined. I loved working with snakes in particular because they honed my ability to read and understand body language in the moment. With more trainable animals like dogs and horses — even cats, really — there’s compromise in communication; It’s a two-way street where both of you are trying to figure out what the other wants and how to make yourself understood. Snakes don’t care what you think or want, so the onus of communication is entirely on you. Their body language is quick, subtle and nuanced, and – while bites from smaller constrictors really aren’t that painful – you have a strong biological drive not to make a mistake. Becoming fluent in their body language has definitely translated to my work with other animals, even though the behaviors and cues are obviously very different from species to species.


Pinky proves that any dog can be a helpful dog with proper training!

Hayden: Here’s the thing though – anyone can be a good trainer if they are focused, patient, kind, and willing to meet the animal where they are. The ability to understand what an animal is trying to tell you comes only from time spent with that animal. The difference between someone who can make a dog do something, and someone who can train animals, is the flexibility and willingness to teach them in manner which works for them. And that’s so much bigger than just using sign language if your dog is deaf! If your dog is stubborn or a slow learner, then all it takes is patience and making repetition fun and rewarding. If they’re fearful, then it’s about recognizing and respecting their limits, while finding ways to boost their confidence as they learn. The heart of good training is saying how do we both get the most of what we want, in ways that are positive for both of us.

Did you think that your Tumblr would become a resource for others learning about training dogs who are blind/deaf when you first started it?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
How did you??? Why did you??? LOL. (Sigh..)

Hayden: I don’t think that I did! I started it to share the ridiculous nonsense that Pinkman would get into (the cover photo on our blog is a picture of her with a trash can lid stuck around her torso) and the fun little tricks I was teaching her. I’m so grateful that it’s turned into an avenue to help other deaf/deaf and blind dogs and their owners.

Many people come to Kristal’s Tumblr to ask their burning questions, admire her pups, and of course to troll (sad). But Kristal uses Tumblr, Reddit, and Instagram to showcase all the things her dogs can do!

Could you give us a little backstory for each of your dogs + what your favorite thing (or favorite story) about them is?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Hayden: Pinkman came from a shelter in Columbia, MO. One of my ASL students, when I was a TA for the University of Missouri, was a volunteer there and asked me if I might be interested in a little deaf puppy they had. Bitsy was born to working parents on a horse ranch. Visually, her dad didn’t look like a Merle and so the three double Merle puppies in her litter of 10(!) were a surprise. Bitsy’s breeder gave her to me when she realized she was deaf and blind and wouldn’t be safe in a working ranch environment.

(Hayden would like to make it known that Bitsy’s breeder was not irresponsible in breeding, but rather made an honest mistake and found her a home where she would flourish.)


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Hayden: Bitsy is beautifully built, incredibly intelligent, and she has the most rock solid disposition of any Aussie I’ve ever met.

One of my favorite stories about Bitsy happened the day we brought her home! Her mama had a huge litter of puppies and I think she sensed something was “off” about Bitsy and stopped letting her nurse. So, I took her home at about five weeks, intending to bottle feed and gradually switch her over to solid food. When we set her down on my living room floor for the first time — her first time away from her mama and siblings, meeting two new big dogs in a brand new place — she put her snout in the air and made a beeline for the food dish, which she then crawled into (lol!), and started eating. Bitsy loves to eat and can find any scrap of food anyone has left anywhere, and I love that she was showing us who she was right from the get go.


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Pinkman and I used to visit a Deaf classroom in our town in Missouri and do tricks and practice signing with the kids. Pinkman LOVES children, but she especially loves Deaf children, and I love watching her little face and tail overload with joy when the kids would dog-pile her with hugs.

Is there anything about training your pups that frustrates you?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Hayden: Pinkman is smarter than I am and we both know it, which is an incredibly frustrating dynamic to work with (haha)! She’s like living with the velociraptors from the original Jurassic Park, if instead of eating you they wanted to irritate the living daylights out of you. She is brilliant and not at all food motivated, so anything you want her to do has to be mutually agreed upon. Sometimes that means she’s an obstinate Tasmanian Devil but it’s also the reason why I absolutely love working with her. I can’t trick her or train her by force, so she’s forced me to become a better dog trainer.


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Baby Bitsy learning to sit.

Bitsy is truly the easiest dog I’ve ever had. She’s food motivated and loves to learn with a very willing and eager disposition. Total dreamboat. The only thing frustrating me currently is her separation anxiety, mostly because I feel guilty when she is distressed and it’s not an issue I’ve had to resolve before so I kind of have to figure it out as I go along.

Tell us a story where you felt most rewarded with your dogs.


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Bitsy may not be able to see or hear, but she makes it up the stairs better than me on a snowy day!

Hayden: I feel rewarded every day when I see that these dogs, that people thought would be un-trainable and would have no quality of life are happy, healthy and thriving. But one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life was when reading my now dear friend Lainey’s story for the first time. Lainey works as the head dog technician for an animal shelter in Texas. She found our blog while researching ways to help Elle, a deaf/blind Catahoula-mix puppy that ended up in her shelter, and that she to adopt. We had never met (and we’ve still never met in person) but she sent me an email letting me know how much our story had impacted her, and I still can’t get through this part without bawling:

 “…I wanted to express how thankful I am to have come across your story and blog via Reddit. Reading about you and Bitsy helped me find the confidence in my idea of Elle, and how she’s not less, just different. You two made me realize that Elle and I are both capable and excited to work our tails off and [hopefully] get to Bitsy level awesome. Please know your work and written accounts of it are why Elle is now thriving!”

I think about the absolute joy that Bitsy brings and everyone who meets her, about how much I’ve learned and grown from the privilege of having her in my life. I also think about the all the people who told me that she was better off euthanized. How easily her life could have been a tragic, meaningless blip. The idea that something I wrote changed Elle from a blip into someone else’s Bitsy, and that their story will likely do the same … it means more to me than I can ever articulate.

Being deaf and blind, how does Bitsy interact with your other dogs?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Bitsy: Tap me if what you see is amazing!

Hayden: She is a little socially awkward and she annoys some dogs because she (obviously) doesn’t read or respond to body language, but most dogs do like her! She communicates to other dogs with growls, barks, and innate body language like tail wagging, teeth-baring, and play bowing. Most dogs realize after a little while that she only responds to being bopped (aw!) or other direct physical contact, and they get her attention that way. People always ask if I think other dogs realize she’s deaf and blind, and while I don’t necessarily think dogs have the theory of mind to understand sensory disability the way that we do, they do definitely recognize that there is something different about her and adjust their behavior accordingly.

How did Pinky take to Bitsy when you first brought Bitsy home?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Sibling rivalry is an old story – an old story that Pinky and Bitsy retold when Bitsy first arrived!

Hayden: For the first few days Pinkman was FURIOUS and very jealous of the new baby. Then she realized that the baby wanted to play with her and they’ve been best friends ever since. She’s an excellent big sister!


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

But like a lot of things, you just have to get used to your situation and Pinky loves her baby sister Bitsy!

This may be an obvious question, but do your dogs rely heavily on scent to get familiar with their surroundings?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
Baby Pinky had her priorities right – sleep now, play later!

Hayden: Pinkman isn’t very nose-dependent at all. Bitsy uses scent to familiarize herself with new surroundings and contextualize them (Is it inside? Outside? What other animals are here? Is there food?), but I think she relies most heavily on touch to learn the layout of a place she visits frequently.

What’s one thing that you wish people would understand about dogs who are blind, deaf, or both?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
The awkward moment when you can’t hear your dog and your dog can’t hear you, but your dog thinks it’s a great idea to play hide and seek …

Hayden: My friend Lainey, who I mentioned above, and I have a saying: different work, different outcome. Our dogs are not more effort for less reward, they are different effort for a different reward. When you love someone, you adapt your behavior to suit each other’s needs. My friend’s dog is afraid of flags so they take the long way home from the park. My sister is a vegetarian so we pick restaurants with stuff she can eat. My cousin watches Frozen with his young daughter even though he prefers horror movies. Bitsy can’t see or hear so I teach her touch cues. We have this weird, unspoken societal misconception that accommodations for disability are somehow more of a burden than the accommodations we make for everyone else all the time and they’re simply not; they’re what you do when you care about someone. 


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Hayden: If you’re willing to meet your dog where they are (and I firmly maintain you shouldn’t have ANY dog if you’re not), a deaf, blind, or deaf and blind dog can be a wonderful addition to your family and they can live happy, fulfilling lives. The only barrier to their quality of life is *YOU*.

What’s your advice to anyone who is learning to train their deaf, blind, or deaf/blind dogs?


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog
In her spare time, Pinky likes to pretend she’s a parrot.

Hayden: Take some classes with a trainer you like and trust, even if they haven’t worked specifically with deaf or blind dogs before (although, if you can find one, that is even better!). The generic skill set is all the same no matter what method of communication you use. If you can teach a dog to sit in English, you can teach them to sit in sign language or with touch cues.


All these dogs were ready for Christmas during the Keller’s Cause celebration!

Hayden: For deaf, blind, and deaf/blind and dog specific issues, there are excellent online resources as well! Keller’s Cause is an INCREDIBLE Double Merle education and advocacy group and they provide a ton of training resources on their website and Facebook page. The organization Deaf Dogs Rock was also a source of tremendous training help and guidance when I first started working with Pinky. There are several Double Merle Facebook groups, too, if you’re looking to crowd source a solution.

Above all: be patient, be flexible, be kind. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it.


Credit: Tumblr / @pinkmanthedog

Get Leashed would like to thank Hayden Kristal for taking the time to answer our questions. We learned a lot and we hope our readers will too! Remember – it’s not harder to train a dog with sensory disabilities, but just different. Pinkman and Bitsy live and flourish with a little TLC. Let their stories inspire you to think differently too!