In a lot of ways, Keller is your typical Australian Shepherd. She’s active, intelligent and ready for any challenge that comes her way. She has a winning personality, but lost the genetic lottery. A victim of irresponsible breeding, Keller is what’s known as a double merle dog: She lacks pigment, and is deaf and visually impaired. Agility spectators are often surprised to see this remarkably white, deaf dog zipping through the course without a word from her human — and that human was initially pretty surprised herself.
“It’s been a lot easier than I expected,” Amanda Fuller says of life with Keller — both on and off the agility course.
Now an expert on and advocate for double merle dogs, Amanda certainly wasn’t seeking one out when she and her older Aussie, Kai, met young Keller four years ago.
“I was just looking for a second dog. I knew I wanted another Australian Shepherd, so I had started contacting some breeders and reached out to some different rescues,” Amanda recalls.
She was online one day when she spotted a courtesy listing on a rescue site for a tiny, fluffy pup with an oddly pure white coat. She felt compelled to email about this strange looking little Aussie.
“I knew that a white Australian Shepherd wasn’t a good thing, but I didn’t understand the genetics behind it,” Amanda explains.
It basically boils down to this: When two merle dogs (the ones with the dappled, dark over light patterned coats) are bred together, each pup in a litter has a 50 percent chance of inheriting that sought-after coloring. They also have a 25 percent chance of being born with a solid or non-merle coat as well as a 25 percent chance of being born as a double merle.
These double merles lack pigment and are mostly white. They’re not all deaf, but many are, and a high percentage have visual problems or abnormally small or non-functioning eyes. This is why reputable breeders don’t breed merle dogs together. The risk of ending up with blind or deaf puppies is just too high.
Some breeders who end up with double merle puppies sell them to unsuspecting families, others dump them at shelters or find other, more sinister ways to get rid of the so-called problems they created. That was the case for Keller, who Amanda learned was saved from death by a couple of animal lovers.
“They had taken her from the breeder when she was 5 weeks old because the breeder was going to shoot her,” she was told after emailing for more information on the pup.
Over email, Amanda learned Keller was deaf and presumed to be blind (which turned out to be incorrect, as she does have some vision). Although nervous about adopting a special needs dog, Amanda did some research and decided to go for it.
“They happened to be just two hours from me — I guess it was fate — so I drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and met the women who had saved her from the breeder. Keller and Kai got along great, so they were like, ‘I guess you can take her.’”
Keller fit right in at home with Amanda and Kai, who were taking agility training. One day Amanda decided to see if Keller could tag along to one of their classes.
“My trainer was like, ‘well, I’ve never had a deaf puppy in my class before, but bring her along. Worst case scenario, she can just watch,’” Amanda recalls.
She couldn’t hear what was going on, but Keller could see that the other dogs were having fun and she wanted to join in, so when she was about 4 months old, Amanda let her. She says it was actually easier to train Keller than Kai, because Kellar wasn’t distracted by background noise.
“She took to it perfectly,” she recalls.
Keller’s can-do attitude spurred Amanda to become an advocate for double merle dogs. Along with her friend Rose — whose dog, Braille, is also a double merle — Amanda founded Keller’s Cause, a non-profit dedicated to double merle education. She hopes to see the AKC and all kennel clubs adopt the policy of the UK’s Kennel Club, which bans merle-to-merle mating, and encourages people to adopt special needs dogs.
“Disabilities are only what you make them,” she says. “If you take that dog and treat it like a normal dog, it will succeed.”