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Misbehaving or misunderstood? Cleveland pup's tale teaches about the love deaf dogs have to offer

A book has made Acorn an international star all while helping other dogs like him find their forever homes.

CLEVELAND — Acorn's story starts where a lot of dogs' stories start: in a shelter. Found wandering the streets as a pup, he was picked up and taken to Cleveland Animal Care and Control (known today as City Dogs). An American Staffordshire Terrier with a beautiful snow white coat, Acorn was lovely to look at, but his behavior left something to be desired. 

"At the old kennel, they couldn't have toys. They couldn't have a bed. So he was bored," explained Mary Motley, a longtime volunteer at the kennel and experienced dog owner. 

"They would fill up his water bowl and he would wait for someone to walk by and he would pick it up and swing the water on them. And then he would bang his stainless steel water bowl against the kennel walls, which were concrete, 24/7."

Credit: Cleveland Animal Care and Control
Acorn was picked up as a stray in 2016. He was such a distraction at the kennel, staff asked Mary to take him home for the night. That's where Mary and Acorn's relationship began.

The mischievous pup was driving the kennel staff -- and the other dogs -- crazy. So the shelter manager asked Motley if she would take Acorn home, for just one night, to give everyone a break.

"I thought, 'Oh, it's going to be so much fun to have a puppy for the weekend!' So I brought him home and immediately wanted to take him back because he was horrible," Motley recalled. 

Acorn chewed up an air horn, a seat belt and a comforter before he finally tired himself out. 

"He gets in the house, he's knocking things over. He's crazy. I'm screaming at him," Motley shared. "I'm trying to catch him and I can't catch him and he won't stop no matter what, I yell at him, he won't stop. So finally wears himself out. I put him in the crate and I'm thinking, 'You're going back to the kennel at 8 o'clock in the morning, because I can't deal with this.' So I get up in the morning and I go to the room and open the door and he doesn't look up."

Not until she nudged his shoulder did Acorn respond. In that moment, Motley realized it wasn't that he wouldn't listen. In reality Acorn couldn't listen. 

He was deaf.

A vet soon confirmed Motley's suspicions. Acorn was born deaf. 

The sad reality about deaf dogs in shelters is that they are rarely or often the last to be adopted. Sometimes, their hearing loss is not diagnosed. And their behavior, like in Acorn's case, is misinterpreted. Too many deaf dogs, that would make someone a wonderful companion, are being euthanized. 

"There are a lot of myths out there that they are aggressive, that they are not smart," Motley said. "Many people have not felt comfortable adopting a deaf dog because they don't know what they're gonna do with it."

This dog-loving devotee wouldn't have it. She would work with Acorn, to help him reach is full potential, and to rewrite the story of hearing-impaired canines. 

That's where Carol Peter, founder of Cold Nose Companions Dog Training came in. 

Credit: Mary Motley
Acorn loves a good sweater, or costume. But more than fashion, he loves to see what's to eat in the kitchen.

Motley enrolled Acorn in the school's "teenage terrors" class. 

"So it was clear from the start that Motley, she's an experienced handler, she knows what she is doing. But she had a real handful in Acorn," Peter said with a chuckle recalling those early days. 

One thing Acorn did have working in his favor? He wasn't distracted by the other dogs making noises or loud motorcycles driving by the school. 

Acorn did make progress, so Motley and Peter began working together to teach Acorn signs. 

"A deaf dog is really not very different than a hearing dog. You just talk with your hands instead of your mouth. And I still talk with my mouth with him, too," Motley said. 

Credit: Mary Motley
Acorn loves the outdoors and loves to go places with Mary. One of his favorite things to do is to go camping.

There are some signs used by the American Kennel Club that they incorporated. Others, Motley and Peter created, using the guidelines that they had to be simple enough for Acorn to understand, and easy-enough to do with one hand. After all, Motley had to keep the other hand on Acorn's leash. 

"We felt it needed to be very accessible, a very intuitive kind of a sign language for deaf dogs," Peter said.

Today, Acorn recognizes about 30 signs. He's become an ambassador for deaf dogs all over the world. 

Petco's All For Love Foundation selected Acorn as a holiday wish grant winner, and put him in their 2019 calendar. 

He is also featured in famed pet photographer Greg Murray's Pit Bull Heroes book. 

Moltey and Peter knew the could do more, for dogs just like Acorn. So they brought in fellow rescue advocates Timy Sullivan to write Acorn's story, and Jenny Campbell, a children's illustrator and author of cartoon strip, Flo & Friends, to add the visuals. 

Sullivan is also the founder of Petfix, the low-cost, spay and neuter non-profit organization, serving northeast Ohio since 2006. Ending preventable euthanasia and finding homes for shelter pets is also a passion. 

"I'm very passionate about it and did a lot of writing for (City Dogs). And then when the opportunity came along to focus on a particular individual, a wonderful dog and wonderful dog mom, I was really excited to be involved with that," Sullivan said, who also called on her background as a journalist for the Chagrin Valley Times to write Acorn's story. 

Credit: Mary Motley
A walk through autumn leaves requires the proper clothing.

The book is called "Deafinitely Awesome: The Story of Acorn" and it has reached readers all over the world. They share their love of the story on Acorn's Facebook page. He currently has friends in 49 states and 14 different countries. 

In addition to the book, there is also a paperback of "Acorn's Dictionary of Signs," which goes through and explains the signals Acorn uses. Readers can use it to teach their own dogs signs, too. 

The ultimate goal is to get more deaf dogs trained and adopted. That's the purpose of The Acorn Project, which is a toolkit of resources designed to help staff members and volunteers working with deaf dogs in shelters and rescues to prepare them for successful adoption into loving homes. 

"We've given them this, this really quite simple, straightforward way of preparing that dog for adoption and success," Sullivan said. 

The rewards come in e-mails and letters from those inspired by Acorn's story. Motley , who is now Acorn's adopted mom, is overjoyed by the impact he's had. 

"I mean, I'd say 50 dogs had been adopted because  people will write me all the time and say I adopted my own Acorn," Motley said. 

Learn more about the Acorn Project HERE.

Learn more about Cold Nose Companions Dog Training HERE.

Check out some of the dogs available for adoption at City Dogs

Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published in a previous story on May 26, 2022.

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