Deaf Dog at Austin Shelter Learns Commands Through Hand Signals, Finds Home After 240 Days

Deaf dog Aspen found the perfect forever home and new confidence after learning commands through hand signals at the Austin Humane Society

Deaf dog
Photo: Austin Humane Society

Aspen has reached peak happiness.

The white pit bull mix's story starts at Bastrop Animal Control in Texas. As an open-intake shelter — a shelter that takes in any pet — Bastrop is often inundated with animals, which overcrowds the facility and puts pets at risk of euthanization.

Luckily, Bastrop has no-kill animal rescue partners that frequently pull pets from Bastrop when they have the space in their shelters. Seeing that Aspen might need a little extra love and time to find a home, the Austin Humane Society, a Bastrop shelter partner, decided to take the canine in.

"The Austin Humane Society is a no-kill shelter, so we were able to give Aspen all the time she needed to find her perfect match," Katie Kennedy of the Austin Humane Society told PEOPLE.

It turns out that Aspen needed a little more time than some pooches, especially after the Austin Humane Society made an important discovery about the dog once she was in their care.

"Our friends at Bastrop and our intake team at AHS strongly suspected Aspen was deaf based on initial interactions, but she responded to our commands when she was being initially evaluated by our vets," Kennedy said of the shelter's discovery. "We were able to determine she was deaf based on consistent staff and volunteer observations. She didn't react to loud or interesting noises (like a squeaker toy) when she was resting or facing away."

Deaf dog
Austin Humane Society

"She often failed to notice when someone approached her kennel (this also made it a challenge to get her adopted because she wouldn't interact with potential adopters if she wasn't already looking in their direction). She was also extremely calm in her kennel — even when the other dogs in the shelter were barking, she was able to sleep peacefully!" she added.

After learning that Aspen is deaf, the Austin Humane Society started teaching her commands through hand signals, so she and her future owners could understand one another.

"These commands helped Aspen to engage more with potential adopters, and they made her more confident. As she learned, we started to see her sweet and goofy personality shine through," Kennedy said of how the training changed Aspen.

Throughout her training, Aspen learned hand signals from the shelter's staff for commands like sit, watch me, and wait. The Austin Humane Society posted a sign with the different hand signals on Aspen's cage at the shelter, so potential adopters could interact with Aspen and learn how easy it is to care for a deaf dog.

As Aspen's personality and confidence started to shine through, interest in adopting her also increased. After 240 days at the shelter, Aspen found her perfect match.

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"It seems like everything aligned for Aspen on the day she was adopted: Her perfect match came to the shelter, she knew the commands to engage with them, and we were in the middle of our Empty the Shelters Holiday Hope adoption promotion, sponsored by BISSELL Pet Foundation!" Kennedy said of this special moment.

Thanks to the BISSELL Pet Foundation's Empty the Shelters Holiday Hope adoption promotion, Aspen's adoption fee was just $25, which removed another barrier for potential adopters. Aspen was one of over 15,000 pets adopted during the 2021 event.

"Holiday Hope 2021 is officially the largest funded adoption event in the country, and it was the best way to end a challenging year of saving lives," Cathy Bissell, the founder of BISSELL Pet Foundation, said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. "It is so heartwarming to think about the thousands of pets who made it into loving homes just in time for the holidays."

Aspen has spent the holidays, and every day since, with her new pet parent Gianna Luciano, who has renamed the dog Xyla.

"We decided to take her out to see her based on the fact that she had a sign on her cage that said she had been in the shelter for a while and that she's deaf. I imagine those two go hand in hand. I know adopting a deaf dog can be intimidating to a lot of people, so I assume she had been passed up quite a few times because of that," Luciano told PEOPLE about what pulled her and her roommate Sydney to the dog.

"As soon as we took her out, she sat right on my feet and looked up at me, waiting for me to pet her. There was no hesitation. The shelter did a phenomenal job of teaching her hand signals, and we've been practicing them since she's come home with us," she added of meeting her future pet.

Deaf dog
Austin Humane Society

Now, Xyla has happily settled into her forever home, where her "extremely sweet and loving" personality is unmistakable.

"She's always right next to me. When I'm cooking, when I'm sleeping, when I'm watching TV. She's right there with me. She loves attention!" Luciano said of Xyla.

"She's the happiest, most cheerful dog and loves every ounce of her new life, and I'm so thankful that my roommate and I were able to give that to her, and I'm thankful that the Humane Society took such great care of her to get her to this point," she added.

Both Luciano and the Austin Humane Society hope that Xyla's story inspires future pet parents to consider special needs furry friends.

"At AHS, every dog we serve is special in their own way, and they all deserve to find a forever family that will love them for who they are, despite their challenges. Aspen is deaf — but she's so many other things, too: sweet, smart, goofy, and full of love! We are so happy that Aspen is getting the second chance she deserves!" Kennedy said.

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