Sometimes you meet a person and instinctively know they have a story, and that their story has the potential to change lives. I met someone just like that last year. Bernard Lima-Chavez is a man with a passion for deaf dogs and a dedication to advocating on their behalf.
“I am frequently asked, ‘Why deaf dogs?’ It’s an understandable question, and my stock answer is that I always root for the underdog. Deaf dogs need advocates, they need awareness of their existence, and people who share their lives with deaf dogs need both support and camaraderie,” he explains.
A lot of deaf dogs end up in shelters, with their previous owners never being aware that they were deaf. They were simply labeled as unruly, misbehaved, stubborn, or ill-mannered, and owners couldn’t cope with the stress of a dog who just wouldn’t listen. The truth is, they couldn’t listen. These deaf dogs have a bleak future in a shelter or with a rescue. Few people want to adopt a dog who was given up because of a refusal to learn, especially if he’s already an adult.
This is where Bernard comes in. He tests these dogs for deafness and helps train them so that they are more likely to find a loving and understanding family.
“I volunteer to train dogs on hand signs. I also teach the staff and volunteers on hand signs as well as the social needs these dogs have,” he says. While working for the Humane Society of Greater Miami, Bernard trained and adopted out almost 20 deaf dogs in less than three years. “I am still in touch with many of these families and make myself available to them if they need help.”
Bernard was a veterinary technician for five years, always choosing work in animal welfare rather than private practice. Even while attending vet tech school, he knew he wanted to work at a shelter, rescue, or in investigation. He has a heart for the homeless and most needy dogs, and because of his skill and passion, he was quickly promoted to the position of animal care and program development manager.
It was during his time with the humane society that Bernard’s love for deaf dogs began. There, he met a 10-week-old deaf Pit Bull-mix puppy who had just been made available for adoption. Already owning two dogs, he wasn’t looking to add another to his home, but when he locked eyes with the puppy, he had an instant connection.
“He felt like family,” Bernard recalls. “Since I had never worked with or trained a deaf dog, I doubted my ability. I was intrigued, but scared. I knew he would grow to be a big, adult bull-breed dog, and I also knew that I couldn’t screw this up.”
Bernard initially took the puppy home as a foster for the weekend, to gauge both what life with a deaf puppy would be like and his husband’s reaction to adding another family member to their already full home. Within 30 minutes, the couple settled on the name Edison, and the puppy became a stepping stone to the next chapter in Bernard’s life.
Bernard writes the blog Dog and His Boy, where he shares deaf dog training tips, resources, and links to help other owners cope with the deaf dogs in their lives. Bernard has guest lectured at veterinary technician programs, talking about the reasons for deafness, how to diagnose it, training techniques, safety issues, and other special considerations.He transports deaf dogs from homes where they are unwanted to foster homes or shelters where they are safe from euthanasia. He also hosted a fundraiser to benefit the nonprofit rescue and advocacy group Deaf Dogs Rock, where he personally matched every dollar that his blog readers donated.
“When I meet with potential adopters, I make four suggestions: When you feel overwhelmed, and you will, take a breath, pick up an ASL [American Sign Language] pocket dictionary or download an app, never use your hands to punish or correct, and finally, connect with Deaf Dogs Rock,” Bernard says.
Deaf Dogs Rock is a goldmine of information for deaf dog advocates and their owners. It has been a lifeline to owners who find themselves in a new and uncertain situation and aren’t sure how to cope. “I know that if the adopter follows these suggestions, I have set the dog up for success.”
Advocating for deaf dogs seems to be part of the social contract that goes along with sharing your life with a deaf dog, but Bernard has gone above and beyond to help these dogs find a new and happy life and teach owners to understand them.
“I made a promise to Edison very early on: I will work to help his people any way I can,” he says.
Bernard has made good on that promise and is a true hero to these often misunderstood dogs.