Amber Horner spends a lot of time in her bedroom. Two TVs, bookshelves filled to maximum capacity, video game consoles, a cage for her pet rats, posters plastering each wall and a box for her hamsters all indicate as much. She recently had to make room for a small bed and two doggy dishes, too.
Amber is deaf and so is her new dog, Greta.
Amber, 30, was adopted by her biological grandparents and raised in a family of eight kids, all nonfluent in sign language. It made for some lonely times, many of which were spent in her bedroom.
Greta, a 2-year-old Weimaraner-mix, was up for adoption at the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for two months. It made for some lonely times, many of which were spent in her kennel.
"The first time we met, our eyes made contact and I thought it was so beautiful," says Amber, through Scott Sasaki, a student intern sign language interpreter from College of Southern Nevada. "I had to bring her home."
Amber was born with Waardenburg syndrome, a hereditary condition responsible for her deafness, as well as her one blue eye and one brown eye. She suspects Greta was born with pigment-associated deafness, which would explain her white coat and eyes with blue irises.
The two have a bond that extends beyond just dog and dog lover. They're both well-acquainted with the feeling of isolation and alienation. And, they've had to adapt to an environment that caters to a sense they don't have.
That's why Amber is certain that Greta knows Greta is deaf. She's also certain that Greta knows Amber is deaf.
When Greta came home with Amber three months ago, she already knew the signs for "come" and "sit." She realizes she can't communicate with her master unless she's looking right at her. And, she gets anxious when her new owner, the one who sees the world through eyes very similar to her own, leaves the apartment.
When Amber heads to work, Greta behaves like an impatient parent whose kid missed curfew hours ago. She paces the carpet in the living room. She stares out the kitchen window for any trace of Amber. She whines to anyone willing to listen.
Amber's adopted mom and dad, Toni and Howard Horner, are the ones willing to listen.
"(The relationship) makes us very happy," Toni says. "Amber's happier now. She seems to be more grown-up, more outgoing."
The Las Vegas native has lived with her parents most her life. Toni and Howard learned basic sign language when Amber enrolled in grade school, but never became fluent. They have a communication system based on hand gestures, facial expressions and manually written notes.
Their daughter grew up attending mainstream schools with small deaf programs where the hearing kids largely outnumbered the deaf kids. Everyone knows how kind kids can be. A disability doesn't make them any kinder.
She went to schools predominantly populated with students who didn't even attempt to understand her and then she came home to a family that did its best to understand her. But sometimes that just wasn't enough. So, she used her imagination to escape the otherwise inescapable.
Her bookshelves today hold binders upon binders of her drawings and creative writing projects. Amber has a fascination with ancient Egyptian times, which she heavily incorporates into her art and stories. She devotes even more ink, though, to a rat named Ben.
Ben was her first pet. At age 15, she trained the rodent to sit. She could call him from the kitchen and he'd scurry out to get a cracker. When she talks about him today, it still brings Amber to tears. According to Toni, Ben "was like her first child."
Or maybe even her first companion.
Since Ben, she's owned 22 rats, mice and hamsters. Greta is her first dog. And, she came along at just the right time.
After Amber graduated from Valley High School, she found work as a casino porter in Northern Nevada. When the fog of thick cigarette smoke in that work environment became too much to bear, she quit and returned home. As the years of unemployment passed, she fell into a depression, wondering if a deaf woman would ever find gainful employment.
When she came across a job at NSPCA, caring for rodents, it seemed too good to be true. When her parents hit a royal on video poker, it also seemed too good to be true.
These days, Amber has no problem coming out of the shell also known as her bedroom. She takes Greta out and about with the help of an extra-long leash that allows her dog freedom, but still gives Amber the kind of control a deaf dog needs. She also enjoys connecting with the deaf community on YouTube and has more than 100 videos posted, many of them starring a certain white Weimaraner-mix.
"Greta is like a good friend," Amber says. "I'm happy now."
She got the NSPCA job. She gets there with the scooter her parents' big win bought her. And, when she comes home, a dog named Greta watches through the window and wags her tail.
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