I met Trisha Malfitano, author of My Dog Kiefer, last year when I was on Better Connecticut doing a segment about Healthy Halloween Treats. The minute she walked in with her beautiful dog Kiefer – a deaf Border Collie whose mission is to educate the world about animals with “different abilities” – I knew I had to share her story. As you can imagine, Trisha has had to face many challenges in raising Kiefer, but she has used her experiences in a beautiful and positive way. If you have children or are an animal lover like me, you must get her books: My Dog Kiefer and Kiefer and Friends.
Brett: What caused you to write your first book, My Dog Kiefer?
Trisha: My Dog Kiefer was inspired by my desire to educate people that Kiefer, despite the fact that he is deaf, is just like every other dog. My goal is to show people that Kiefer can do everything a hearing dog can, and is capable of so much more than what people might believe. Kiefer and I visit schools and tell our story; it gives me a chance to not only tell people about Kiefer, but to also show them.
When I wrote the book, there were a few other things going on in my life that helped me to realize how important the book was. I was working with a student who had Downs Syndrome. On a daily basis, people assumed she couldn’t do things and wondered why the family wanted me to work with her to achieve her full potential. Some people assumed she would not succeed in a regular classroom with other students. Around the same time I was going to puppy classes with Kiefer, and we were met with similar people who didn’t believe in us. There was one person who even believed their dog would catch Kiefer’s deafness. Another man referred to Kiefer as retarded, and was sure I wouldn’t be able to teach him anything.
It became my mission to enlighten people and help them realize that having a medical issue or a “disability” does not translate into being stupid or unable to learn. With the student with Downs Syndrome, I found new and unique ways to help her master the same subjects as other students. It took more time and effort to work with her and help her succeed, but in the end the lesson was learned. It was the same process with Kiefer. I had to find a way to teach him and talk to him without using my voice. I started to pick up sign language and although it was not a quick process, Kiefer learned everything other puppies learned in the class. Funny enough, Kiefer was the first puppy to master “coming” when called.
And, what made you write Kiefer and Friends? My Dog Kiefer allowed me to meet many people; some of whom have dogs that are deaf, and others with dogs that have other disabilities. Listening to their stories, I found they too faced many obstacles when they tried to go to classes and other places with their dogs. I also met people with dogs of particular breeds often judged harshly, purely based on looks. I am still working with children and know how mean they can be to each other, and how they, too, judge based on appearances. I decided Kiefer and Friends would be another way to go into schools and educate kids on how being different is not a bad or scary thing.
You must have gone through a lot of changes when you decided to adopt Kiefer, how did you manage some of them? When I adopted Kiefer, he was the sixth dog in the house. However, he was my first deaf dog. Before Kiefer, we used an electric fence with an audible warning when the dogs were getting too close to the edge. Bringing a deaf dog into the family meant we needed to put up a visible fence to keep him safe. When Kiefer is being fresh, or doing something he probably shouldn’t do, yelling at him doesn’t work. Instead, my family and I have to physically get his attention. I had to be more patient with him in his training, and I need to be sure he watches me at all times when we are working together. Besides those things, Kiefer is just like all my other dogs.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to face in raising Kiefer? Raising Kiefer is like raising any other dog. The biggest challenge is that there are some places that do not want a deaf dog in their training facility; it becomes a constant search to find the right places for us to work. I always have to explain why I wanted and have a deaf dog when we meet new people. And we continue to be met by people who firmly believe deaf dogs should be euthanized at birth. Taking Kiefer outside means he has to be on a leash at all times or in a securely fenced yard. If he was ever to run loose, I do not have the ability to call him back or could not call to him if he was in danger.
What life lessons would you share with people from your experiences with Kiefer? Kiefer has taught me so much about the person I want to be. Because he does not care that he is deaf, he lives life to the fullest, unafraid to try new things. He lets every child know they are important, and has the ability to pick out the child in the crowd that might need a little extra time and love. Watching him interact with children when we visit schools is a sight to see. Kiefer also reminds me to keep working on what is important to me. Whenever life is crazy, just one look from him lets me know that I am exactly where I need to be. It is my hope that others will be able to see that a “different ability”, as we like to call it, does not make someone any less of a person (or animal). We all need to be a little kinder, a little more patient, and more willing to give those who are different than us, a chance.
What piece of advice would you give anyone going through a major change in their life? I have had my own amount of life changes and at the end of all the struggles, I have learned to keep my faith. Every disappointment, ever obstacle and every challenge gives me the opportunity to dig deep inside me and find the strength to move on.
More about Trisha: Trisha Malfitano lives in Watertown, Connecticut with her husband, Mike, and two daughters, Alexandria and Nicolette. They share their home with their six rescue dogs, and three rescue cats. Trisha is a paraprofessional at Saint Mary Magdalen School in Oakville, Connecticut, working with 3rd and 4th graders. She attended school at Anna Marie College in Paxton, MA, and received a degree in Early Childhood Education. She states, “I am very lucky to have my life filled with a wonderful family and my fuzzy friends.”