"She is not disabled in my eyes. She's just her."
The death of her family’s dog, Scarlet, was still fresh in Erin Baxter’s mind last year when she came across a story about a local animal shelter that had taken in three deaf and blind puppies on Facebook.
Baxter, who lives in Wimauma, Florida, tells Today that she hadn’t intended to bring a new dog into the family so quickly, but she found herself drawn to the puppies. So Baxter, her husband, and two of their daughters went to visit the puppies in their foster home.
The puppies were asleep when they arrived. When Baxter's daughter Avery bent down to get closer, one woke up and climbed into her lap. The little female also happened to be the only of the three wearing a collar, a red one, a reminder of of Scarlet.
"I felt like it was meant to be," Baxter tells Today. "There were so many signs leading me to do this. I couldn't ignore them."
So they took her home and named the skinny brown and white dog Ruby—an homage to their beloved Scarlet. Ruby quickly made herself at home, but Baxter was at a loss when it came to teaching a dog without two of its senses basic commands. She says she feared what might happen to the sweet pup if she got loose. How could they call her? How would they stop her?
"My biggest fear when we brought her home was her getting out without a leash or person and her running into the street," said Baxter. "I found the right person willing to put the time in with her."
The right person happened to be Rick Carde of Tampa Bay K-9 Solutions. When Baxter approached him about training Ruby he was honest about his hesitation—he’d never worked with a dog that was deaf and blind before—but he said he was willing to try.
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Carde and Ruby began working together five or six times a week for nearly three months. They developed a system that worked for her: a touch between her shoulders means "lay down" and a stroke under her chin means "follow." She also wears a vibrating collar that signals her when she needs to stop and sit.
Ruby turned out to be a star pupil, so Baxter approached Carde about training her in therapy work, after all, Ruby's warm, friendly, loving disposition is ideal for the job.
"She comforts just about anybody that has the weight of her body on them," Baxter notes.
So Carde developed a whole new set of tools to help Ruby learn therapy dog skills, like being able to ignore distractions. They envision her bringing comfort to many, including veterans with PTSD and kids who've lost their vision.
Now, Ruby is just about done with her training, and the unique dog will soon embark on a very big journey—one Baxter feels both of them very destined for.
"She is special and perfect and amazing," Baxter says. "She is not disabled in my eyes. She's just her."