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Deaf Shelter Dog Finally Finds Forever Home After Learning Sign Language


A dog who has spent the majority of her short life living in shelters across Florida has finally found a forever home.

Cocoa, a 3-year-old Dalmatian-pointer mix, has waved goodbye to Abandoned Pet Rescue (APR), the only no-kill animal shelter in Fort Lauderdale, after almost two years there. The fact remains that, were it not for the help and intervention of staff at the shelter, Cocoa might not be embarking on the new life she so richly deserves.

Kara Starzyk, shelter manager of Abandoned Pet Rescue, told Newsweek: “Cocoa came to Abandoned Pet Rescue in June 2022 when a good Samaritan pulled her from another shelter.”

From the minute she arrived, staff could tell Cocoa was different. All of the spots on her coat appeared faded, save for one dark black, heart-shaped one. But it was more than just her appearance that made Cocoa unique. “When she arrived, it was discovered that Cocoa was deaf,” Starzyk said.

Cocoa the pointer dalmatian mix is deaf.
Cocoa, a 3-year old Dalmatian-pointer mix, rests. Her second chance at life is down to the hard work of staff at the shelter and her foster carers.

While little is known about Cocoa’s experience in her first shelter, being deaf and surrounded by other animals in an unknown environment like APR proved very stressful for the young pup, who struggled with anxiety at first.

That made finding her a new forever family difficult. A 2014 study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science found that shelter visitors interact with just one dog per visit, with these interactions averaging just eight minutes.

That’s hardly any time for a dog like Cocoa to make a real impression. Fortunately, she had come to the right place to help with that. “APR is the only no-kill shelter in Fort Lauderdale, so, for a dog with special needs like Cocoa, having more time to find a committed loving home is critical,” Starzyk said.

Determined to get her the loving home she deserves, APR’s on-staff pet trainer worked tirelessly, along with Cocoa’s medical fosters, to teach her sign language. They also helped her adapt to living a normal life like any other healthy dog, and it worked.

In time, Cocoa emerged out of her shell as a dog who, according to Starzyk, “loves to give kisses.”

“She enjoys going for walks and playing with stuffed toys,” Starzyk said. “She is very smart and learned sign language quickly as she knows commands for ‘sit, paw, stay, and good girl.'”

The efforts of the shelter’s staff and her foster carers soon resulted in Cocoa attracting interest from potential adopters. “Cocoa had been in a temporary home for a month with APR’s volunteers Sandy and Richard Ellis, who have been working on training her to walk better on a leash and teaching her more sign commands,” Starzyk said.

“When adopters Jamie and Randy Starr read Cocoa’s story, they were drawn to her sweet eyes and knew they could give her a wonderful home. They met Cocoa and learned that she had been at the shelter for almost two years, which pulled at their heartstrings.”

Cocoa the deaf dalmatian pointer mix.
Cocoa the 3-year old Dalmatian-pointer mix stands with a helper. The rescue pup is heading off to a new life helping out at a church.

Abandoned Pet Rescue

The Starrs already have big plans in mind for Coca. “Cocoa will be going to work with her new dad at a local church where she can show off all her sign-language skills,” Starzyk said.

It’s a happy ending that has sparked delight for all of those who helped Cocoa turn the corner and rediscover her joy for life. However, while Starzyk is delighted to see Cocoa moving on, she’s keen to stress there are other dogs just like her in need of help and love.

“We hope Cocoa’s story inspires others to adopt a pet and consider pets with special needs as they are often overlooked in shelters, but have just as much love to give,” Starzyk said. “So many wonderful volunteers provided Cocoa enrichment during her time at APR, plus helped network her on social media and at adoption events. If you can’t adopt, consider becoming a volunteer at a local shelter as it takes a village to find even one pet a forever home!”

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