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Santi the Deaf Sheepdog Uses His Facebook Fame to Help Homeless Pets

Santiago makes friends wherever he goes, on the city streets and through social media. He's currently raising money for the no-kill organization PAWS Chicago.

Heather Marcoux  |  Jun 1st 2015


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Santiago the Sheepdog just celebrated his first birthday, but that’s not all this Chicago pup has to celebrate. The hairy social butterfly can also toast to all the friends he’s found on the streets of the Windy City, as well as online. Despite losing his mother and only littermate on the very day of his birth, this happy dog is never lonely.

“He loves everybody,” says Marina Zalewski, who created a Facebook page for Santiago when he was about nine months old. The page has attracted more than 115,000 fans in just three months, and the people-loving pup continues to attract human friends during his daily walks around downtown Chicago.

“Seriously, he just loves everyone. I don’t just mean he just shakes his butt when he sees people — I mean, like, even when people he doesn’t know stop to pet him on the street and then they walk away, he whines.”

Santiago (or Santi for short) can be vocal when he has to say goodbye to new buddies, but even if his fast friends offer farewells just as loud as his, the young Sheepdog won’t hear them. He was just two months old when Zalewski and her husband, Mark, adopted him, and the couple quickly realized their new puppy couldn’t hear much, including human voices.

Santiago and Zalewski, who says she can’t imagine life without him. (All images courtesy Santiago’s Facebook page)

Santiago and Zalewski, who says she can’t imagine life without him. (All images courtesy Santiago’s Facebook page)

“We thought it was kind of funny that he didn’t hear the train and he didn’t get spooked by our Ninja when we were making smoothies. We thought, ‘He’s such a calm puppy,’ but then we noticed he wasn’t learning his name.”

Santi’s deafness didn’t faze the Zalewskis, who had both grown up with dogs but had never had them as adults.

“We’d always wanted a dog,” recalls Santi’s human mom, who says she and her husband waited until they were ready for all the responsibilities of pet ownership before starting to look. That happened in the summer of 2014, and the timing of new puppy cuddles couldn’t have been better.

“I’m Brazilian, and during the last World Cup we lost to Germany at home, and nothing in the world would make me happy,” says Zalewski, whose husband knew someone who was looking for a home for a puppy just after Brazil’s sad soccer loss.

“That’s when Mark got me the dog. That was the only thing that would cheer me up.”

The love of soccer obviously runs in the family.

The love of soccer obviously runs in the family.

The couple doted on their adorable new pup, who hadn’t had the best start in life. He was born to an older dog who had been suffering from increasingly poor health in the months before Santiago’s birth.

“He was an accident puppy,” Zalewski explains. “His mom had gone to the vet to be put down, and they found out that she was pregnant with two puppies. When they went to get the puppies out, the mom died and the sibling died.”

Santiago went home with his mother’s human, who hand-reared him until the Zalewskis adopted him two months later. It’s unclear if his surprise birth was a factor in the deafness his humans soon noticed.

“We took him to the vet, and the way that they test is very simple. The puppy is facing the wall, and the vet walks in from the back, and then they make all sorts of noise, they knock on the door to try to get the puppy’s attention — and Santi wouldn’t look,” Zalewski remembers.

The couple realized something was wrong when the puppy didn’t learn his name.

The couple realized something was wrong when the puppy didn’t learn his name.

She notes that Santiago is not 100-percent deaf, as he has been spooked by extremely high-pitched noises, but most of the time nothing startles him.

Having a dog who can’t hear did present some challenges for the first-time puppy parents, but the couple quickly found ways to communicate with their shaggy little friend.

Zalewski says Santi now has his own language, a combination of improvised and standard signs that the couple has documented in a booklet they provide to anyone who watches Santi.

“We touch him twice on the lower end of his back, and then he knows the signs for sit, stay, shake, drop, yes, no. Some of them we just made up because we were just learning about this, and then we took him to puppy school and we started learning the standard.”

Santiago’s calm and friendly demeanor helped him learn quickly, and it also made him a hit with the humans in his neighborhood. The little dog acted as a social bridge between people in the big city, creating instant connections his human mom hadn’t felt before.

Santiago feels right at home on the streets of Chicago.

Santiago feels right at home on the streets of Chicago.

“We’ve lived in the city, and we would walk around, and you don’t get a very warm feeling from people. But then when we got Santi, and we would walk around, everyone was just smiling and so happy to see the dog!”

Seeing the kind of instant happiness Santi inspired in strangers, his humans decided to extend his social reach online.

“We decided to create this profile for Santi, and now when we walk around the city we pass around little stickers that say ‘Like Me on Facebook,’” explains Zalewski.

“Whenever someone comes around to pet him we tell them about Facebook, and people right away get really excited and they look him up and like his page. I think he’s just a really likable guy.”

This precious pup always wants to be where the people are.

This precious pup always wants to be where the people are.

His humans are putting that likability to good use, hoping that Santi can influence his fans to donate to animal charities. On June 14, Santiago will participate in a 4K pet-friendly walk in support of PAWS Chicago. The no-kill organization hopes to save 1,500 pets from the city pound with money raised during this year’s Run For Paws (and the slower walk Santi will do).

Zalewski says Santi has already raised hundreds of dollars. And now she has a new conversation to strike up with her dog’s sidewalk admirers.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Like me on Facebook,’ we explain what he’s doing and ask for a donation.”

She says this dog had changed her life, and she’s hoping he can change the lives of homeless pets as well.

“I can’t imagine not having Santi around. He’s just such a bundle of joy.”

Read more Monday Miracles by Heather Marcoux on Dogster:

About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.