Storytime: My Invisible Challenge

From Partners With Paws: Service Dogs and the Lives They Change.

My Invisible Challenge

My Invisible Challenge 

Name: Pippi

Breed: Labrador/Golden Retriever mix

Origin: Paws With A Cause

Acoustic neuroma is a tiny, benign brain tumor that affects my hearing. For me, normal conversation sounds like a foreign language spoken from the next room. Because my hearing loss started well into adulthood, my speech is unaffected, and my “challenge” is invisible to others. When I am out in public, no one knows that I’m deaf. Sometimes I walk away from someone speaking to me, and more than once I’ve been unable to respond to questions or comments because I didn’t understand. For example, my daughter and I bought a small dessert to share while shopping at a local book store, and after I paid, the employee asked me “Alive?”

Taken aback, I asked him to repeat his question.

“Alive?” he asked again.

Well, I hope I didn’t look as panicked as I felt; what was he talking about? Finally, my daughter stepped in and said, “No, thank you,” before steering me toward our table, where she explained he had been offering me a knife. That is how I hear the world and why I am learning American Sign Language.

After five or six years of a progressive hearing loss, I saw a demonstration involving a Paws With A Cause (PAWS) assistance dog. This bundle of energy did some extraordinary stuff! She could turn the lights on and off and open the door. She picked up a dime and gave it to the trainer. She put gloves on the trainer and took them off again. I was amazed, to say the least. After the demonstration I sat with the trainer and asked numerous questions. One of my concerns was regarding my 11-month-old Boxer, Phoebe. Could she be a candidate for training?

Long story short, after testing proved Phoebe to be a poor “hearing dog” candidate, my family encouraged me to proceed with the application process, even though it meant placing Phoebe with another family. So in September of 2007, I applied for a hearing dog.

Like all things worthwhile, obtaining an assistance dog took time, patience, and paperwork. I filled out forms. My doctor filled out forms. I submitted audiology reports and a statement about how I thought a hearing dog could help me. A PAWS representative came to my home with a video camera to interview my family and record my surroundings. After several weeks I was notified that I would be accepted as a client, and the process to find a hearing dog for me began. I needed to obtain funding, so no one knew how long this process might take. Here’s where the patience comes in. Month after month I waited, until finally, we were able to secure funding.

Next, I waited for a dog to be chosen for me. Matching a client to a dog is done very carefully. A hearing dog has to be outgoing and curious. She has to be eager to investigate sounds in her environment. A shy or skittish puppy would not make the cut.

In July of 2008, I was notified that the trainers at PAWS felt they had the right dog for me. We arranged a “meet and greet,” so I could see what I thought of a hearing dog named Pippi. I know now that the staff at PAWS was also evaluating me and my interaction with this dog. Pippi is a large yellow Lab/Golden Retriever mix with an exuberant and high-spirited personality. I recall being somewhat overwhelmed at that first meeting. She was so eager and enthusiastic that I had to take firm control of her to get her to sit or walk on a lead.

I became thoroughly enchanted by Pippi, and once I had demonstrated my ability to handle her, PAWS agreed that she and I should become a team. There was still some training to finish, which gave me four or five extra weeks before I could bring her home. During that time I worked on placing Phoebe. I was blessed to have several close friends and relatives show an interest in her, so placement went very smoothly.

Right after Labor Day, my daughter and I made the trip to pick up Pippi. I scheduled a week’s vacation to make Pippi’s transition into my home easier and to have uninterrupted bonding time with her. PAWS directed me to stick with bonding for that first week; there was to be no training. However, Dean Gardner, our trainer, did come out to meet us that first week to outline our training program and explain what would be required of us.

Our goal was to become certified, which would take approximately six months. Dean would visit weekly and then bi-weekly until Pippi and I were working together on all the tasks she had learned at PAWS. These tasks are tailored to each individual client. For me, Pippi had to learn to alert me to the doorbell, the oven timer, the smoke detector, the cell phone, an intruder, emergency sirens when I’m driving, and even someone calling my name. We adopted a very intense daily schedule, drilling all the different sounds. With Dean’s help we overcame a few obstacles and fine tuned our practice sessions until Pippi was able to perform each and every drill consistently. We didn’t realize how soon she would put that training to use.

In November my extended family planned to celebrate Thanksgiving at our house, so I took the day before Thanksgiving off work to start preparations. At about two in the afternoon, Pippi began to bark, came to me, pawed my leg, and ran toward the back door. I knew the garage door was closed, so no one could be knocking at the back door, but I followed anyway. Before we got to the door, she turned off into the laundry room and indicated the window. I found the window screen to be bent away…someone had tried to break into our house! I don’t want to think about what could have happened if she hadn’t been there to show me what I couldn’t hear.

Pippi comes to work with me every day. Together we shop and go to family functions, parties, funerals, and doctor’s appointments, all the things I did as a hearing person without a second thought. Now, with my “invisible” challenge, Pippi serves as a “heads-up” to anyone I meet and has made my life immeasurably easier. –Linda Berry