This deaf dog made me fail! Smart Devices save the day!

May 6, 2024

About two years ago, I was a failure. I foster-failed Pepe—a spirited two-year-old male mixed breed, and became his forever parent! Pepe was rescued from an abandoned house in Puerto Rico in life-threatening conditions. The entity that rescued him, didn’t really know of his deafness and it wasn’t until a few foster parents had him and my turn came, that I suspected he was deaf.  His first tells were his lack of reaction when called at by any means and his profound sleep which wouldn’t be disturbed unless he was physically caressed. This discovery sparked a journey of innovation and adaptation to ensure Pepe's safety, communication, and happiness in his new forever home.

Pepe's needs were definitely unique and new to me, and as I was starting my smart journey I decided to do some research into how I could help him. Bear in mind, Pepe is deaf, but has a very defined bark that can be heard all around the neighborhood. The main concern was that the condo would not allow him to stay because of his unchecked barks. Of course, physical contact works, but it’s not always an option when training him. 

I didn’t want to control his barks completely, as it’s his nature to bark, but enable an environment where he would know when it’s OK to bark. I already have some smart switches and lights installed around the house so I decided to push their limits. In my case, using Alexa’s routines, I was able to program an automated response to Pepe’s barks. Essentially, the barks would trigger a light show for him that would distract him from barking. And it worked beautifully!

There’s a few considerations to this. First, he’s deaf! It took me a while to get used to this and not speak to him to get his attention (never gets old when someone meets him and instantly forgets). So there’s a few actions I could take to get him to listen. Physical touch is usually the most effective, but not as easy when he’s off to no good and you’re watching a movie, or even away from home. My second option was visual distractions. I’ve learned that for the deaf community, assistive alerts may include flashing lights. Lo and behold! I’ll create my own version of flashing lights for Pepe using smart devices. 

The second consideration was a question of the trigger. Of course, I’d need the smart devices to react to the barks, but didn’t know it was possible to start a routine directly from them. As it turns out, Alexa has routine triggers for specific noises, such as alarms (microwave, fire alarm, etc.), baby cries and barks! That one solved most of my problems and avoided me having to develop a skill or do some sort of voice activated workaround. Phew!

Thirdly, I didn’t want him to create a habit of switching the lights on command, which would be a mistake for me to give him that much power (he’s a genius as well and learns things like this very easily). Therefore there needed to be a certain control. Again, Alexa’s routines to the rescue as they allow for certain time suppressions that certainly help in avoiding this mishap. 

Lastly, I didn’t think a light show in the middle of the day would be very useful, as there’s enough sunlight to void the effect lights could have on this action. Therefore, this routine was limited to the evenings, which meant that it would not work during the day or at bedtime. 

One nice feature I didn’t learn until recently is that you can have a routine enable or disable another routine. This is especially helpful if you’re going to bed early and don’t need the flashing lights to bother you mid-sleep. Usually when it’s bedtime, dogs know it too well and tend to sleep all night long. This is achieved by creating a custom action, such as Disable “Pepe’s barks” routine within your going to bed routine. 

Some things remained unsolved however, such as having the routine discern if the barking dog was Pepe or some other neighboring dog. Sometimes we get random light shows and look at each other like Spiderman’s multi-verse meme. But I think there’s just not enough intelligence to clearly identify a dog’s bark from another. I know, I’m pushing the boundaries, but hey, one can dream!

This month, I’m celebrating two years of failing to foster Pepe and since becoming his parent. I’m very happy to have accepted the challenge of learning how to work with a deaf dog. He’s a loyal and adventurous companion and lives a great life just as any other happy dog. I do consider that smart devices help me when I can’t correct him in time and they have been a crucial tool for this life-changing experience we’ve both had. This simple yet highly-useful application has proven that smart devices can be adapted to many scenarios, such as assistive requirements, which tend to be specific to the user’s needs. I hope this application may help some of you as much as it’s helped Pepe and me. Stay Genius!