Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Going to the dogs

It has been three years since Hogan, our somewhat eccentric half-Lab, half-pitbull, departed this life. Only recently have I mustered the courage to get another dog. Losing Hogan had unmanned me, and I just didn’t want to go through that heartache again.

But you can't take the dog out of dog people. Other folks’ pooches have always been a delight, and often I’ve wished I could take one home. In January I decided it was finally time, but thought perhaps that in the 75th year of my life a new dog ought to be useful as well as companionable. I am deaf, and maybe a dog trained to alert me to environmental sound—the doorbell, the landline phone, my cell phone, the smoke and CO detectors, the oven timer, the calling of my name, and so on—would be a sensible idea. 

Hearing dogs alert their people by bumping their hands (or, if they are small dogs, jumping up on them) and leading them to the source of the sound.

Such a dog would become a companion closer than any other dog we’ve had. It would sleep on the bed and lie at my feet all day long, and because it is a certified service dog would go everywhere with me—the library, restaurants, aboard trains and planes, to the movies and even swimming pools (although it would have to stay out of the water). We would be joined at the hip.

Debby could leave me alone to my devices without having to worry that advancing age was adding to my isolation. Service dogs with brightly colored working vests always attract friendly attention and help break down unseen barriers between the the able-bodied and people with disabilities.

And so I started the search, applying to several providers of hearing service dogs. One highly regarded outfit sounded very good, but it trains only Labs and golden retrievers that it has bred for the purpose. We have been Lab lovers, but in our mid-seventies big dogs are less practical, especially since we have moved from house to condo. Another source was also promising, but I heard of several failures among dogs it had trained. Finally I settled on an Oregon-based group forthrightly called Dogs for the Deaf. (Their web site is www.dogsforthedeaf.org.)

Dogs for the Deaf seeks out and rescues smart, lively and highly trainable young dogs, usually terrier sized, at animal shelters and works with them on obedience and service tasks for approximately six months before the ones who make the cut are ready to be placed with their new people. (The ones who don’t are put up for local adoption; they never go back to the shelters.) 

Meanwhile, Dogs for the Deaf also does due diligence with prospective clients, reviewing complete medical records as well as sending volunteers to interview applicants, judge their personalities and capacities, and scope out their living arrangements. The idea is to train a dog to match a particular client’s needs as closely as possible.

Just a few days ago Dogs for the Deaf informed me that at last I had been accepted into the program, and as soon as they receive my good-faith check, the official waiting period would begin. That can take up to a year before a trainer finally appears at my door, dog in tow. The trainer would stay in town for up to five days making sure dog and new client bonded, and that I myself was taught not only to provide for the dog but also keep its skills sharp.

This will be an adventure.