‘I called him Lucky because I was lucky to have him’: This deaf collie now musters cattle

‘I called him Lucky because I was lucky to have him’: This deaf collie now musters cattle

On his sprawling cattle property in central Queensland, grazier Frank Finger is mustering cattle with his trusty team of working dogs.

Among his black and tan kelpies, a fluffy white border collie with mismatched eyes stands out.

“I called him Lucky because I was lucky to have him,” Frank says.

“And he was probably lucky to be here because I put up an effort to make something of him.

“I just knew that I’d win him over by friendship.”

From the original 10-puppy litter from season two of Muster Dogs, breeder Mick Hudson soon discovered that Lucky was deaf when he wouldn’t budge as Mick approached his kennel.

“All the pups would wake up and this bloke would stay asleep,” Mick says.

Sheepdog breeder Mick Hudson with his litter of puppies.(Supplied: Melissa Spencer Ambience)

Lucky was considered a pup who would only make it as a family pet, but his herding instincts shone on arrival at Frank’s property near Clermont.

With some tender care, he’s now mustering cattle despite his differences.

“He’s a very friendly dog, a happy dog and I think he wants to please me,” Frank says.

Deafness and hearing loss are common health issues for dogs, according to Susan Sommerlad, a veterinarian who specialises in canine audiology.

Susan says dogs being deaf from birth is common in more than 100 breeds, including border collies, Australian shepherds, bull terriers, cocker spaniels, and labradors, with genetics being an important factor.

She says dogs are more likely to be born deaf if they have blue or multicoloured eyes or if they have mostly white coats.

Lucky stands out with his white coat and different-coloured eyes.(Supplied: Ambience Melissa Spencer)

What was Lucky’s training like?

Frank is an expert dog handler and the season one winner of Muster Dogs.

Before Lucky arrived, he’d never trained a dog that was deaf.

“I thought some of them couldn’t [hear] in the early days, but that was just that they were ignoring me,” Frank says.

Frank says that learning how to catch the collie’s attention and developing a strong bond have both been key in Lucky’s training.

Frank says teaching Lucky how to muster has been similar to training his kelpies because of their natural herding instinct.

But here’s what Frank does differently with Lucky:

  • Kneeling and clapping: In combination, these actions were initially Lucky’s cue to recall (to come when called). Now, when Frank just claps, Lucky will come to him
  • Using vibrations: Frank stamps his feet or throws a rock near Lucky to catch his attention and keep him safe

Lucky had a natural herding instinct from a young age.(Supplied: Melissa Spencer Ambience)

Frank says the biggest challenge is getting Lucky’s attention, as he can’t call him off if Lucky’s chasing cattle he shouldn’t be or if he’s in the wrong place.

“You’ve got to do it without any verbal command — he doesn’t know his name or anything,” Frank says.

“He’s just running off body language, and that’s what dogs do most – we’d be better off if we did that all the time rather than roaring at them.”

Frank says he can also get Lucky to recall by calling to his other dogs.

As they look at Frank, it helps prompt Lucky to look at him too, which Frank then follows with a clap so Lucky will come.

Frank showcases Lucky’s skills with goats at his Hillview property.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

From hand signals to dog bumpers

Bec Collyer is a behaviour and training expert with RSPCA Queensland where she guides animal shelters on how to best train dogs and cats.

Bec says markers are essential for training all dogs as they signal a reward is coming.

For example, a marker is used when a hearing dog is rewarded with a verbal “yes” or “good dog” for the right behaviour and then is given a treat.

“Dogs only have three seconds to associate the behaviour they just performed to the reward they’re getting,” Bec says.

“The marker gives the owner, or the handler, a little bit more time to capture the behaviour they’re seeing and be able to reward it.”

For dogs that are hard of hearing or deaf, like Lucky, Bec finds these tips helpful:

  • Hand signals: Establish a marker like a thumbs-up to reinforce positive behaviour
  • Reliable recall: Get in your dog’s line of sight and use a signal, like patting your leg, to get your dog to come
  • Vibration training: Make a signature rhythm by stamping your feet to train your dog to focus on you
  • Keep them safe: Use a long leash and avoid off-leash walks, as recall can be difficult

Franks says Lucky is a happy dog and is eager to please.(Supplied: Melissa Spencer Ambience)

For dogs that are blind or have low vision, Bec recommends:

  • Physical touch: Give a gentle shoulder tap to get your dog to sit, then reward them with a treat
  • Use their nose: Put food with a strong smell on a stick (known as a target stick) so your dog will follow it. This can help guide them where you want them to go
  • Block off danger zones: Limit access to stairs, driveways and pools to help reduce accidents
  • Dog bumpers: A bumper harness works similarly to a cane and will prevent your dog from hitting its head

This pug wears a bumper harness to protect it from knocking into walls or objects.(Supplied: Hattie’s Halos)

Bec says training can be modified to suit any dog, regardless of its ability.

“There’s so many amazing stories about blind and deaf dogs who have gotten really far in agility and even detection work,” she said.

“Every dog is different … it’s really down to the individual at the end of the day.”

Happy go Lucky

Meanwhile, Lucky is living his best life on Frank’s farm with his new siblings Lucy and Annie from season one of Muster Dogs.

Frank says the kelpies are getting along well with the snowy-haired pup as he happily learns the ropes as a pedigree sheepdog and that he has fitted straight into the pack.

Frank says Lucky has settled in well with Lucy and Annie from season one of the show.(Supplied: Melissa Spencer Ambience)

“They’ve got used to seeing him now. They don’t worry at all,” he says.

“It’s not a problem working collies with kelpies because the herding instinct is exactly the same.”

Stream the brand-new series of Muster Dogs on ABC iview to watch five graziers across Australia compete for the title of Champion Muster Dog.

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