Chris Hannah had no idea he was meeting a superhero that day in April 2017 — just a white pit bull puppy with dangly ears and huge paws that no one wanted.
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The South Jersey Regional Animal Shelter website said the little stray, born deaf, was “special needs”. That made the public school music teacher want to meet the puppy even more. Then when the shelter staff brought the dog in, he jumped straight in Hannah’s arms and looked him right in his eyes. That pretty much sealed the deal. Hannah named his new pal Cole.
Then things began happening that Hannah never would have imagined – including big-time acclaim. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
From the start, Cole was one smart pup. He picked up hand signals quick enough. But soon, dog and owner were mastering a whole new way to communicate: American Sign Language. With the help of Hannah’s nephew Kevin Guinan, also born deaf, Cole nailed that, too.
Meanwhile at Dr. William Mennies Elementary in Vineland, the kids’ curiosity about their music teacher’s new puppy quickly turned into conversations about big questions like: What does it mean to be “special needs”? To be disabled? What does it mean to be accepting?
And because pit bulls like Cole are often prejudged because of their breed, he became a way for kids to talk about tough topics like bias and discrimination.
Just how special Cole was came out when he started meeting the Vineland students. He had a way with kids, especially the ones with differences of their own. His gentleness drew them out of themselves.
It was like the saying that kids at one Swedesboro school had printed on their T-shirts the day he came to visit them: “Cole the Deaf Dog hears with his heart.”
Cole and Hannah started getting requests to do assemblies at lots of other schools. Decked out in a cape and superdog gear, Cole was on a mission to spread the message: “A disability isn’t an inability. It’s a superpower.”
Before long, Cole, who became a certified therapy dog, also started volunteering with veterans and hospice patients.
And now Cole is about to become even more well-known.
Cole the Deaf Dog has been named 2023 ASPCA Dog of the Year. He and the recipients of the ASPCA’s other Humane Awards will be honored at an awards luncheon in New York City on Oct. 12.
“Following a nationwide search for animal heroes, the ASPCA was moved by Cole the Deaf Dog’s inspiring story, encouraging thousands of people from all walks of life to view their disability as a superpower,” said a statement by the ASPCA. “The Dog of the Year has been a longstanding award for the ASPCA, and Cole perfectly represents the values of service and heroism used to make a large impact on everyone he meets.”
Cole’s owner is thrilled about his dog’s big accolade.
“Winning the ASPCA Dog of the Year is an absolute dream come true,” said Hannah, 45, who is still a full-time music teacher in Vineland. “Being recognized for our work with disability awareness and breed discrimination is a humbling solidification of the mission we strive to accomplish.”
This isn’t the first time Cole has gotten national recognition. Last year, he was the top therapy dog in the American Humane Hero Dog competition. He’s also the first canine to receive the Phillies’ All-Star Teacher Award in 2019.
Cole comforts hospice patients. Cole and Hannah appear at school assemblies throughout New Jersey and in Delaware, New York, and Maryland. And he is the official mascot of the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland, after the residents there petitioned the state. He even has his own military K9 dog tag.
Cole has learned about 32 commands in sign language, and he and Hannah work together just about every day to increase the dog’s knowledge. Cole has mastered special signed commands, like “visit.” When Hannah signs that, Cole knows to hop up and put his front paws on the side of a hospital bed. That way, the person can reach him and pet him. Some patients want him to get into their bed so they can snuggle with Cole. He is happy to do that, too.
Another command in Cole’s vocabulary is “drive.” When Hannah signs that, Cole races to the door, ready to hop into the car and go to work.
That’s because Cole loves his job.
“A lot of therapy dogs, they’re being trained to be loved on by a couple of people at a time, or one individual at a hospital at a time. Cole is literally loved on by hundreds of students every single day,” Hannah said.
That is something a lot of dogs would find overwhelming. Not Cole.
“All I can say is when he’s not working, he’s looking to work,” Hannah added.
Cole, for one, hated the pandemic; it kept him away from people.
“He went through a bit of a depression,” Hannah said.
Zoom made it a little better until he could make in-person visits. “He would jump up next to me in his chair.”
Hannah has started a not-for-profit Cole the Deaf Dog & Friends Foundation to bring their Team Cole Project’s mission of kindness and acceptance to more people. That includes granting scholarships for enrichment programs to special needs children.
In their Millville home, Hannah, his wife, Nicole, and Cole have added to their family with two more rescue dogs, CeCe and Alice, who is also deaf, has one eye, and a cleft palate. They are following Cole’s superhero lead; they are also therapy dogs.