HALIFAX — She was born deaf, and surrendered to the Nova Scotia SPCA as "untrainable.''
But Seven, a suspected border collie who was rescued as a three-month-old puppy, recently received the Agility Trial Champion of Canada title, completing a seven-year climb through the ranks of canine athleticism with the rescuer who became trainer and teammate.
"It was a huge sense of relief because we'd been trying so hard for so long...I felt the window was closing,'' said dog trainer and agility coach Adina MacRae. "We needed to prove that deaf dogs can do it, because that's why she was surrendered - she was 'too deaf to train.'"
MacRae said she adopted Seven to show the world that deaf dogs can do whatever hearing dogs can. The now nine-year-old isn't the first deaf dog to achieve the title, but MacRae said she believes she's the only Nova Scotian pup to ever do so.
Seven, a deaf All Canadian rescue dog, poses at Nova Dog Sport in Halifax on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Seven, with the training of her owner Adina MacRae, is one of the only deaf dogs to earn the coveted Agility Trial Champion of Canada title. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese)
Agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs their canine through an obstacle course, aiming for both speed and accuracy. The dogs must navigate jumps, a teeter-totter, weave poles and tunnels — normally following a human partner's hand signals and verbal cues.
The Agility Trial Champion — known as the ATChC — is obtained only after achieving every other title at the starter, advanced and masters level of competitive agility. Fittingly, MacRae and Seven clinched their title exactly seven years and a day after their first-ever qualifying score.
It's been seven years of relatively peaceful competition, as crowds at agility competitions tend to fall strangely silent whenever Seven steps in the ring.
"We needed to prove that deaf dogs can do it, because that's why she was surrendered - she was 'too deaf to train.'"
"For some reason everyone goes quiet when they're watching her compete,'' said MacRae with a laugh. "We can't figure out why that is, because she's going to be the least distracted dog on the course when it comes to noises.''
During a recent interview at Nova Dogsport in Harrietsfield, N.S., just outside Halifax, MacRae said she trained Seven by figuring out what motivated the medium-sized, grey and white pup with piercing blue eyes — and it was food.
She said instead of speaking to the dog, she uses hand signals such as a thumbs up to indicate a job well done.
"I knew that she was starting to understand the thumbs up hand signal when she started licking her lips in anticipation of the treat,'' said MacRae as a restless Seven waited at her side, pink tongue lolling from a grinning mouth, eyes darting watchfully around the gym.
Why training was easier than you'd think
MacRae said using hand signals is actually a much more natural way to communicate with dogs because canines rely heavily on body language to communicate with each other, making the training less of a challenge than might be expected.
"So because she's never had to conform to my human way of speaking, I've had to conform to her way of communicating and it's been a fairly easy process,'' said MacRae, an agility coach and dog trainer with Sublime Canine.
"Once I taught her the obstacles like I would teach any dog the obstacles using whatever motivates them, it's just a matter of pointing her in the right direction and teaching her the different hand signals to guide her around the course.''
In fact, Seven's biggest challenge has not been her inability to hear. MacRae said she used to be afraid of things like shadows and ceiling fans.
Seven, a deaf All Canadian rescue dog, trains with her owner Adina MacRae at Nova Dog Sport in Halifax on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Seven is one of the only deaf dogs to earn the coveted Agility Trial Champion of Canada title. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese)
She's also very friendly — sometimes too friendly, she said.
"That was another one of our challenges. She would often go visit the judge or visit the ring crew and of course with a deaf dog you can't call them back. You have to wait for them to turn around and make eye contact,'' said MacRae, who owns 11 dogs including a papillon, a borzoi, a chihuahua and a few mixed-breeds.
Now that Seven — so named because she was the seventh dog added to MacRae and her partner's pack — has achieved her championship title, MacRae says she'll likely retire. But she hopes Seven's long and decorated career inspires people to adopt a rescue dog.
"I find that a lot of people can be skeptical about getting a rescue dog to compete with. But give the rescues a chance. They can be great companions as well as great dog sport performance dogs,'' said MacRae, adding that Seven has also worked as a therapy dog.
"If the opportunity comes along, give a deaf dog a chance. They have great personalities and they can be trained just as easily if not more easily than the hearing dogs because there's fewer distractions for them. They can be great family pets."