NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – As Lothair, a white Sheltie therapy dog, walks tall and proud into the hospital for his weekly visit, he is greeted with a hug from a receptionist at the front desk.
Lothair continues on, carrying himself like royalty, appropriate for a dog named after a French monarch. From the time he was a puppy, he had a proud, dignified air about him, said his owner, Melanie Paul, who became deaf at age 12.
“He was beautiful,” she said. “He was like a king.”
Lothair’s interactions with patients at United States Air Force Hospital Langley in Hampton, Va., don’t reveal that he has been deaf since birth.
“Deafness is an invisible disability,” Paul said via e-mail.
Lothair learned American Sign Language from Paul and began serving as a therapy dog — providing emotional support to patients in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings.
He is registered with New Jersey-based Therapy Dogs International, which has dogs in all 50 states and Canada. Along with tests required by the organization to become a certified therapy dog, deaf dogs must also undergo a startle test. During the test, someone will come up behind the dog and pet and touch its rear quarters, and the dog must not be startled or react negatively, TDI’s website states.
Paul has had therapy dogs for more than 15 years. She started a pet therapy program at Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton more than a decade ago and created the same program at Langley Air Force Base about five years ago.
She usually brings Lothair and another therapy dog to Langley once or twice a week and makes regular visits to local hospitals and nursing homes.
Paul decided to acquire a deaf dog as she prepared to retire from Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in 2009 after a 30-year career in education, intending to use the dog to help deaf children improve their literacy skills, she said.
She ended up taking in Lothair as a 3-month-old puppy. Both of his parents are Blue Merle Sheltie champion show dogs, and breeding them together increases the likelihood at least one of their puppies will be deaf or deaf and blind, she said.
Paul, who became deaf after incorrectly being diagnosed with an illness and being prescribed the antibiotic streptomycin, said there tends to be some hesitation among some deaf people to have a deaf dog, as they end up relying on the dogs to hear for them. However, because her husband as well as her other dogs can hear, that wasn’t an issue for her.
“In fact, maybe because of the affinity that the puppy would also be deaf, ‘just like me,’ I enthusiastically looked forward to the experience of adopting and raising a deaf dog,” Paul wrote in a 2011 article about Lothair published in Sheltie Pacesetter magazine.
When she didn’t see results from traditional obedience school, Paul taught Lothair American Sign Language, and also created her own signs, applying techniques used to teach deaf children, Paul explained in the article.
In the course of training Lothair, her other dogs learned the signs, too.
Staffers at the hospital enjoy Lothair’s visits as much at the patients do.
“The therapy is not just for the patients, it’s for us, too,” said Monique Rolle, a civilian registered nurse. “I wish they came more often.”