Named after an iconic British sports car, 1½-year-old Aston exudes a wow factor of his own. The 49-pound Canine Partners mixed-breed, who is blind and deaf, recently earned a coveted American Kennel Club Novice Trick Dog title.
Finding a Home
Aston’s owner, Miriam Scheinblum, of Winter Park, Florida, dubs herself his “guardian and teammate.” She says that, when people often see the dog’s harness reading “Blind and Deaf,” they try to be respectful of his space. But when they hear Aston’s story, they are truly impressed and might even give a follow to his Instagram account, where Scheinblum educates people on working with a dog that’s blind and/or deaf.
“Occasionally, some feel bad for Aston and say something like that ‘poor thing,’ and that’s where I chip in to tell them he is a happy dog and full of life,” Scheinblum says. “I have even had people tell me they would consider adopting a deaf/blind dog because of us. I have even received messages saying we have helped change their perspective on disabled pets, showing them that they can lead incredible, full lives.”
Aston has a condition called microphthalmia, meaning his eyes are tiny and undeveloped. He was blind the minute he opened his eyes, but Scheinblum did not know the 11-week-old pup and his littermate, Martin, were deaf until they arrived at her home. En route home from the airport, she noticed he was not reacting to noise, and a day later that continued to be the case.
Aston and Martin were the result of an accidental breeding between two merle dogs. “When two merles of any breed or mix are bred, each puppy has a 25 percent chance of inheriting merle from each parent,” Scheinblum explains. “A dog with two merle alleles [a gene variant] typically has so much merle that pigmentation is deleted to white, causing a high risk of vision and hearing impairment.” This is referred to as double merle.
In early April 2021, Florida Double Merle Network’s Renee Scalisi coordinated the rescue and transport of double merles throughout the Southeast and even as far as Texas and Ohio. She enlisted Scheinblum to foster Aston and Martin.
The original plan had Scheinblum fostering the two puppies for several weeks or months to then find permanent homes for each. The next several months of fostering the two visually- and hearing-impaired puppies proved rewarding for Scheinblum. “I loved both, but Aston craved more physical contact and attention,” she says.
While he was learning to navigate, play, and be active and independent during the day, he found it difficult to recognize when it was night. So while Martin quickly became comfortable falling asleep, she would hold Aston and pet him for a long time each night, sometimes falling asleep aside him on an air mattress. Through the get-acquainted and bonding months, Scheinblum had no intention of keeping the “little teddy bear” who was always smiling and doing silly things to make her laugh.
A couple of months after their arrival, Martin was brought into the home of an out-of-town family. Meanwhile, Scheinblum and Aston began daily socialization adventures. After being stuck in the house during the pandemic, they found the outings to be positive experiences for both of them. “Even though I’m generally a pretty introverted person, I was more confident when I was with Aston and always had something to talk about,” she says. “As we explored different places and learned new things together, I was finding joy in Aston’s new discoveries and growth.”
Development and Dax
Another key player in Aston’s growth and adaption to the world around him has been Dax, Scheinblum’s other mixed-breed dog. Initially, Dax avoided the newcomer—unless he was being bumped into. “I think he was offended because Aston didn’t read his body language and would often run into him,” Scheinblum says. “My guess is Dax thought Aston was just being rude when, in reality, he just couldn’t see or hear him.”To improve their relationship Scheinblum would reward Dax; soon, instead of being offended by a collision, Dax would run over to Scheinblum to receive a treat. His mindset about Aston’s behavior shifted with this positive association.
With time, Aston became very attached to the 5½-year, 58-pound Dax. If he felt uncertain on their daily neighborhood walks, Aston would bump into him. That action would remind him that Dax was still there, helping Aston to regain his confidence.
With maturity, growth, and self-confidence, Aston now prefers to take his sensory walks alone with Scheinblum. But the dogs remain as close as ever. Scheinblum emphasizes, “I am convinced Dax understands Aston can’t see or hear,” Scheinblum says. “He generally doesn’t vocalize during play with his younger housemate, choosing to use more physical touch.”
Getting Involved in Trick Training
In addition to several daily walks, Aston engages in running laps around the backyard and playing fetch with Dax. Recently, Scheinblum and Aston have been focusing on canine conditioning exercises.
While still fostering Aston, Scheinblum began working with him on trick training. “It was a means of keeping his brain engaged and allowed us to strengthen our connection,” she says. “I began posting videos of some of his tricks and training, and before I knew it, someone reached out and mentioned the AKC program, saying we would be able to earn a Novice title based on what we already knew.” Scheinblum recalls thinking this could be “an opportunity to show others how incredible and capable he is.”
Scheinblum uses touch cues and positive reinforcement in training. Aston’s marker is a tap on the head, which indicates to him that the handler likes whatever he just did and that he is about to receive a reward. That helped him create associations between touch cues and behaviors. Now, Aston knows about 30 cues, she says.
Earning the AKC Novice Trick Dog title requires the completion of 10 tricks, such as getting into a box and sitting in it. “Aston is a very intuitive learner, so we were able to use the technique of combining some of his existing cues to teach him to walk forward and get in the box,” she says. Impressively, Aston did not require any accommodations for the tricks, apart from using touch cues instead of hand signals. A virtual evaluation also allowed Aston to be in a familiar environment. As a result, he didn’t have to worry about mapping out a new location or being distracted by strange smells.
Scheinblum plans to pursue an Intermediate title with him soon and might try Scent Work. Aston already knows a “find it” cue, but Scheinblum typically uses it after hiding food for him to sniff out. The next steps will be the introduction of another “find it” cue specifically for Scent Work, then expanding it for non-food items and odors. Aston and Scheinblum are supported and assisted by her parents, Anita and Mark, and her sister, Leah. Owning and working with a blind and deaf dog requires some creativity to complete daily tasks—and go beyond what’s expected. Working with Aston has allowed Scheinblum to cultivate a new circle of friends. “Everyone is so supportive that we would not be where we are today without them,” she says.