Silent Shelter Success

Nitro is Chris and Christina Lee's deaf boxer. They communicate with him using American Sign Language.

Nitro is Chris and Christina Lee's deaf boxer. They communicate with him using American Sign Language.

Roanoke College professor, Chris Lee, and his wife, Christina, communicate with their deaf boxer Nitro using American Sign Language. They recently launched a website, "Deaf Dogs Rock," to share their experience.

By Mike Stevens

Spring 2012 Salem Magazine

Since 1968, the Salem Animal Shelter has successfully placed thousands of dogs and cats in good homes, but it's safe to say that none of those adoptions ever created more positive publicity for the shelter than the placement of a scrawny, deaf dog named Nitro.

"The fact that Nitro came from a public, municipal shelter has really helped take away the negative stigma that is often associated with shelters nationwide," says Rebecca Custer, Salem Animal Shelter Manager. "For us, he has helped people understand that we truly are caring people who do everything we can to help these animals find good homes."

This particular puppy was found along the Salem portion of the Roanoke River back in November 2010, and if Animal Control hadn't spotted him he would have been a goner. When he was brought into the shelter for evaluation he had a very gaunt appearance and poor motor skills.

"It was obviously an abandoned dog that was probably taken away from its mother too soon," says Custer. "It was malnourished, its eyes were sunken-in and it had trouble walking. Honestly, it was in rough shape for a 10-week-old puppy."

"People think you automatically have to put down deaf or blind animals, but that's just not the case" says Salem Animal Shelter Lt. Bill Bandy. "They can still bring a lot of joy to somebody, so we do all we can to find the right person to adopt them."

But like so many animals that come through the Salem Shelter, Nitro started to bounce back after getting some healthy helpings of TLC from the staff.

"The one thing that dog had was a strong heart," says Custer. "Its poor condition didn't affect how much it wanted attention from people and soon he was eating and gaining weight and being more social. Once the Lees adopted him, he began to really blossom."

Chris and Christina Lee are lifelong animal lovers who live just outside of Salem. Chris is a mathematics professor at Roanoke College. Christina is a blogger and an equestrian who has done everything from design work for the once popular Sidney's clothing chain to advertising sales for Wheeler Broadcasting. The couple already had three dogs in their home and three horses on their property, but when Christina showed her husband a picture of the pathetic little white boxer in need of a home, he never hesitated.

"I knew the plea came because we had a fenced yard and we had proven ourselves to be conscientious dog owners," says Chris. "We were apprehensive, but we looked at this as an opportunity and never an obligation."

They immediately named him "Nitro" and began training him at Vinton's "Field of Dreams" training center. He was the first deaf dog the facility had ever hosted, but he quickly became a star pupil. Because Nitro couldn't hear the commands of other owners and the barking of his fellow canines, he was much more focused on his owners and learning. By using a combination of American Sign Language and a treat-based rewards system, the Lees have taught Nitro a menagerie of commands. In fact, he has accomplished so much in his formal training that he is now certified to begin classes to be a Therapy Dog.

"It's been life-changing," says Chris. "He's made us much better dog owners and advocates for formal training for all dogs and their owners."

Having Nitro has actually been more of a life-changing experience than anyone could have ever imagined 19 months ago when they took the dog home. Nitro's amazing story has been featured on local, regional and national TV and his adoption and development have been chronicled in print everywhere from this publication to The American Dog Magazine that is circulated nationwide.

"He has generated a tremendous amount of publicity for not only the Salem Animal Shelter, but for special needs dogs everywhere," says Custer. "Nitro has become the poster child for deaf dogs."

In fact, his celebrity status is now worldwide on the web. The Lees have launched a website called "Deaf Dogs Rock" where among other things they post photos and information about deaf dogs that are in need of homes all over the United States. Currently, over 300 deaf dogs waiting for adoption are listed on the site.

"We thought part of our role with this website would be to help deaf dog owners get over the anxiety they might feel, but instead we're finding people who want to help dogs in need and adopt," says Chris.

The "education to inspiration" site also has allowed them to connect with other deaf dog owners and help tell their equally amazing stories. One such owner is Mac Adams, a homicide detective in Richmond, who has adopted four deaf pit bulls.

"I had just posted a listing on the website and he sent me an email telling me that he was driving all the way to Georgia to get the dog," says Christina. "He later sent me a picture of his dogs and we were blown away that he had four deaf dogs. We started calling him the 'Mac Four Pack'."

Their message of education and inspiration also reaches thousands on their Deaf Dogs Rock facebook page that is filled with helpful posts.

"Our weekly reach on facebook is now 5,000 active users, which is excellent," says Christina. "People know I'm the crazy dog lady and we have gotten so big so fast that we're now looking to establish a foundation, so we can help even more deaf dogs."

Through all of this, Nitro's trademark has become his one blue eye that is framed perfectly by a black circle and topped with a brown accent patch. 

"He sucks people in with that eye," says Christina. "People usually don't see it at first until he looks up at them and then it's like wow! He's really a handsome boy." 

A pretty nice compliment for what was thought to be a washed-up boxer.


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