Discovered wandering, hungry and disoriented, a 10-year-old Labrador-sized white Australian shepherd mix was picked up last fall as a stray by the Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation (WAIF).
In many ways, Sally was a typical stray, except that she also is deaf and can see only shadows.
Sally is among a number of pets with special needs that end up at shelters managed by WAIF, which has the contract with Island County to care for stray or impounded domestic animals.
More than 1,000 animals were taken to WAIF shelters last year, shelter Manager Shari Bibich said. That figure includes pets that have been temporarily misplaced and reclaimed by their owners.
As many as 25 percent of the animals that arrive at WAIF shelters have special needs because they have a disability, require special diets to remain healthy or are senior animals needing extra care, Bibich said. Such animals are cared for until they are adopted.
“We don’t euthanize for space,” said Bibich, adding that WAIF’s mission is to help all animals taken to the shelter find loving homes – even animals such as Sally that might be hard to place because of a disability.
But finding the right match can be a challenge. For example, Sally has already experienced two unsuccessful adoptions.
The shelter looks for people who will adapt their lives to these animals’ special needs and who have the time and patience and creative capacity to work with a pet that doesn’t respond to typical visual or verbal cues.
Sally’s first adoption ended after only one night in her new home. Her new owner decided that her home would not be a good fit for Sally because she barked at the cats and had difficulty adjusting to the two other dogs in residence.
The woman had cared for a blind and deaf dog before, but quickly determined that her home would be too busy for Sally.
Sally stayed in her second home for about two weeks and was returned to the shelter because her new owners said she was not housebroken. At the time Sally was staying with them, the family had been dog sitting for another canine. Since moving into her new foster home, however, Sally consistently waits to go outside to relieve herself, Bibich said.
Prospective owners fill out an application for all pet adoptions through WAIF and receive additional counseling regarding the challenges of caring for a special-needs animal.
The shelter advises some people against adopting a special-needs pet, especially people who do not have the time needed to work with this type of animal or are looking for a dog that can run free in an off-leash park.
A blind and deaf dog such as Sally must remain leashed when in unfamiliar surroundings, Bibich said.
“We steer them to other animals,” Bibich said.
The organization tries to find potential pet owners who will cue into senses that deaf and blind dogs rely on, such as scent and touch.
“The dog can still sense movement and feel vibrations,” said Laurie Cecil, owner of Laurie’s Warm Fuzzies Mobile Grooming and Dog Training. “You can stomp your foot to get its attention.”
Some individuals request a special-needs animal, while others fall in love with one after they visit the shelter to choose a pet, Bibich said. The shelter advertises the animals on their website.
While there are challenges to caring for a special-needs animal, especially at first, it’s also very rewarding, Bibich said.
“They have so much love to give,” said Bibich, explaining their bond to their caregiver. “When you pet Sally, you felt love.”
After waiting on Whidbey for a new home for several months, Sally was moved to a foster home through the Lady’s Hope Dog Rescue in King County.
Sally is doing very well, said Susan Hartland, a board member for the organization who is serving as Sally’s “foster mom.”
Lady’s Hope’s mission is to find loving and responsible permanent homes for unwanted, neglected and abused dogs, founder Yvonne Devereaux said.
“I have taken in and placed several dogs who have unique circumstances and are essentially deemed ‘unadoptable,’” Devereaux said.
Devereaux said that she was concerned about Sally because the dog had been at the shelter for so long – a situation that is very stressful for the animal. But at her new home, like any other dog, she runs and plays. It is difficult to tell that she is deaf and blind, Devereaux said.
“Sally does not realize that she has what is considered a disability. She is sweet, loving and playful,” Devereaux said. “She loves to play with all of her stuffed animals.”