05/02/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT
As adorable as the miniature dachshund was, his Missouri breeder held little hope that he'd find the pup a home. The dog was cute, but he'd been born deaf and barked incessantly. In fact the breeder was on the verge of putting him down when a family unexpectedly took him in. But the family lost patience quickly and took him to a shelter. The pup was as tough a case as they had seen. Says Marsha Martin of the Animal Shelter of Texas County: "What in the heck was I going to do with a deaf wiener dog?"
Then she had an idea. The dog was perfectly suited to a program at a state prison where inmates give rescue animals special training meant to make them better pets. Using American Sign Language, inmates taught the dog basic commands-sit, stay, lie down-then wrote to the Missouri School for the Deaf in Fulton, Mo., hoping for a home. "He's an adorable, people-loving, 1-year-old, crystal-blue-eyed miniature dachshund," wrote the inmates. For school superintendent Barbara Garrison, "It was a no-brainer." Students instantly took to the dog, naming him Sparky and begging him to sit on their laps and sleep in their rooms. With a pet back home who answers only to voice commands, Catherine Slinkard, 16, says, "it was pretty cool to have a dog that would listen." Adds Michael Miller, 18: "He's just like us."