04/25/2011 at 05:00 PM EDT
He was turned away twice, first by a Missouri breeder who was about to put down the miniature dachshund who couldn't hear. Then, he was surrendered by the young family that first gave the dog a chance, but his constant barking and seeming inability to respond to commands was too much for them.
"He was just a holy terror," says Marsha Martin, manager of the Animal Shelter of Texas County
in Houston, Mo., that then took the dog. "I think he was scared of being alone because he couldn't hear anything. I was racking my brain, trying to figure out, 'What in heck was I going to do with a deaf wiener dog?'"
In desperation, Martin turned to a Missouri prison program, the privately financed Puppies for Parole
, that pairs inmates with abandoned or abused rescue animals. The inmates train the animals in the hopes of making them adoptable, but this was the first time the inmates had worked with a deaf animal. No big deal. Through American Sign Language, the dog learned basic commands – sit, stay, lay down – and charmed convicts who set about to find it a proper home.
"He's an adorable, people-loving, 1-year-old crystal-blue-eyed-dachshund," wrote inmate/trainers Joseph Denti and Davod Manwarren, who both are serving time for murder. "At the very least we believe he would bring untold joy to a group of children or child through the unending love of an animal that shares a common bond." Together with group of 40 inmates, they even offered to pay the $75 shelter adoption fee.
When the letter reached Barbara Garrison, superintendent of the Missouri School for the Deaf
, the decision to adopt was "a no-brainer," she says. She intended only to expand her brood of four other hearing dachshunds at her campus residence. But after sharing her new pet's saved-from-death story with students, who named him Sparky, the students' jaws dropped, and a teaching moment took hold.
"Deaf kids can feel like they've been tossed aside, too," says Stephanie Logan, of The L.E.A.D. Institute, a statewide deaf advocacy organization in Missouri. Bethany Peterson, the school's director of student life, says through an interpreter: "Sparky is like a reflection of them. He inspires our kids to think of what they can do, not what they can't do."
Now, with that unique bond intact, the 88 students at the K-12 school clamor after class for Sparky to sit in their laps and beg for permission to let him stay in their rooms. He's even challenging the Eagle – the school's symbol since 1851 – and may soon take over as unofficial mascot.
"He understands us," says Cheyenne Dickerson, 12, through an interpreter. Michael Miller, 18, says Sparky's more than an inspiration – he's also a new friend. "Because he can't hear and I can't hear," Miller says, smiling, "he's just like us."Read more about Sparky in this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.