Blue is a 1-year-old, 95-pound Catahoula Leopard Dog with ice blue eyes. He loves people. The Catahoula breed – the Louisiana state dog – makes him a working dog, so he likes having a job. Blue is constantly looking to his owner for direction on what he should do next.
Blue also happens to be deaf. His would-be owners, who wanted him for hunting, decided not to take him when they heard the news. Nicole Shiffrar, Executive Assistant and Worker’s Compensation Coordinator in Lead-Deadwood, was looking for a companion for her older dog when she heard Blue needed a home. “Once we saw him, we knew we had to have him,” she said. “We went that day and picked him up.”
From that day on, Blue’s done a lot more than just keep his fellow canine friend company. For starters, Nicole’s 15-year-old son has been training him with sign language to become a hunting dog. But Blue has another, perhaps more important gig – bringing joy to deaf individuals (and anyone else he meets along the way) in the Black Hills. He’s visited deaf education classes at Lead-Deadwood Middle School as well as Wolf Creek School in Pine Ridge. The kids have especially enjoyed that Blue will give hugs on demand.
“I think they understand one another,” Nicole said. “[The kids] don’t want him to leave. It’s a win-win. This dog needs a job, and I knew he could bring people joy.” Blue had already gone through extensive training before Nicole took him home, so he is highly socialized and has a great disposition. Nicole makes her visits educational, providing information on deaf animal awareness, Blue’s breed and other questions. One student wrote a report after their visit.
Kerry Ruth, Outreach Consultant for the South Dakota School for the Deaf, said the experience has a lasting impact on the children involved. “Our students who use sign language sometimes have limited communication partners,” Kerry said. “For most, this is their first chance meeting a deaf dog, and Nicole’s vision and generosity made it possible.”
Mark Schmidt, President of Lead-Deadwood and Custer Markets, said it’s just like Nicole to connect the dots and figure out a way to serve both Blue and the community. “Talk about someone who really has a passion and a heart of gold for community service,” he said. “She’s always looking for opportunities like this and has her hand in a lot of different projects.”
Blue’s schedule is already pretty full, but Nicole has even bigger plans for him. She’s wants to get him certified as a search and rescue dog. Nicole worked for the Belle Fourche Police Department before starting with Monument Health 10 years ago and has spent a lot of time volunteering with missing persons cases. Catahoula dogs’ intelligence and ability to scent track through the air as well as on the ground make Blue a great candidate for that work.
“There aren’t very many people who have the ability to do this with a deaf dog,” Nicole said. “Most deaf dogs are put down at birth, so for him to be here is a miracle in itself.” She recognizes the unique opportunity to do more than make life great for Blue, but to benefit others, too. Thanks to Nicole and all our caregivers who go above and beyond to serve other people (and our furry friends).