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Deaf Dalmatian

February 18, 2007



Killingworth Journal

Mrs. Bombaci’s Hogan: Apt Pupil, TV Star, Inspiration

Douglas Healey for The New York Times

Eileen D. Baker, a sign language instructor, signing to Hogan, a deaf Dalmatian with a vocabulary of as many as 65 words, as his owner, Constance Grace Bombaci, observes. Another deaf Dalmatian, Georgia, is in the foreground.

Published: February 18, 2007


KILLINGWORTH, Conn. — One evening not long ago, a group of college students clustered around an old, deaf Dalmatian.

“Bow,” his owner told him with a sweep of her hand. The dog, named Hogan, slid his legs forward, slowly because of his arthritis, and bowed.

“Sleep,” the owner told him by making another gesture in sign language.

That was tougher. Hogan seemed to understand, but when he tried to roll onto his side as if asleep, his aged body refused to cooperate. He whined.

“I’m not going to force him,” the owner, Constance Grace Bombaci, told the students.

An old dog no longer able to perform his old tricks might not have impressed many audiences. But when Hogan stood stiffly and turned to face the students, many of them were holding up their hands in a way that said, in American Sign Language, “I love you.”

Tail wagging, he seemed satisfied that he was still able to enthrall a crowd.

The students were in their first year of learning American Sign. As part of the course, their instructor invited them to Mrs. Bombaci’s home so they could practice their skills. They soon learned they were in the company of a local legend. Actually, two of them.

For 13 years, practically an eternity in dog time, Hogan and Mrs. Bombaci have been working to change the way people view deafness, particularly in animals.

Mrs. Bombaci’s immediate goal is for fewer dogs to be euthanized because they are deaf. In the long term, she hopes for something more. “I want people to see beyond their limitations,” she said.

Over the years, their work, though understated among other animal protection campaigns, has caught the attention of Jack Hanna, a zoo director turned host of television shows on wildlife.

Mrs. Bombaci and Hogan have been featured on his show and have made an appearance on “Oprah.”

Mrs. Bombaci has visited schools and given lectures throughout the Northeast, winning attention from news outlets as far away as Japan.

And they are still at it, even though Mrs. Bombaci, 57, is ailing from a degenerative nerve condition and Hogan is suffering the effects of old age.

“They show there isn’t any limit,” said a local sign language instructor, Eileen D. Baker. “The potentials are wide.”

At first, none would have guessed that Hogan had any potential. Animal rescue workers claimed him from his first owner in 1993 when he was barely out of puppyhood. He had been chained in a yard throughout the winter, his body malnourished, bruised and covered with sores.

Hogan was a fearful dog because of the abuse. He had not been trained or housebroken. And he had been born deaf, a genetic trait common in Dalmatians.

Frequently, said Richard Johnston, president of the Connecticut Humane Society, deaf animals are destroyed because of the incorrect assumption that they cannot be trained.

Around that time, however, Mrs. Bombaci had been calling animal shelters in search of a dog and heard about Hogan. Though she had no experience with deafness, she decided to learn American Sign Language and use it to train him.

Most dogs learn a small number of spoken commands — sit, stay, come here and lie down, for example — but Hogan picked up signed words voraciously. Today he knows up to 65 words.

To call him, Mrs. Bombaci attached a pager to his collar and taught him that the buzz meant it was time to come inside. Today, she instead uses the flicker of a flashlight.

“She championed the cause that just because they’re deaf doesn’t make them stupid,” said Prof. Nicholas Dodman, an animal behavior expert from Tufts University. Professor Dodman helped Hogan recover from an anxiety disorder stemming from his earlier abuse.

When Professor Dodman was invited to appear on “Oprah” to promote his book, “The Dog Who Loved Too Much,” and bring a client he had helped, he chose Hogan and Mrs. Bombaci.

Then Hogan’s Hollywood career took off. He was featured by Mr. Hanna, made appearances for Disney and, most recently, starred in a special children’s program with the actor LeVar Burton.

In addition, Hogan has been trained to become a therapy dog for the disabled. And in his spare time, he works out on an agility course in his backyard.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bombaci became determined to help other deaf animals. She and her husband, James, adopted another deaf Dalmatian, whom they named Georgia.

Over the years, Mrs. Bombaci has developed a training manual, started a Web site, visited classrooms, helped place deaf dogs in homes, and offered advice to the thousands of people with deaf animals who seek her out.

“If Hogan can do all that he has done, imagine what we can all accomplish,” she said. “I just need another 13 years with him.”

  1. Michelle
    February 21, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    I had three Deaf Dalmatian long time ago. They were so smart and sweet. I miss them.

  1. June 5, 2007 at 7:17 am
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