Jeb's DogBlog - Ears Akimbo And Tail Aloft

Chapter 24

Denver - June 3, 2013

I'm starting to wonder what my major might be when I go off to Canine Companions "college," aka Professional Training, so I am conducting a series of interviews with CCI working dogs. I decided to start with Maya, a Hearing Dog, who is partnered with Cara.

JEB:  Maya, where did you grow up?  Who are your parents?

MAYA: Hey Jeb! Like you, I was born near Santa Rosa, California, and at eight weeks of age I returned to the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) Northwest Region with my littermates. Our mom, Zenda, and our dad, Hemet, evened things out pretty impressively. Of the eight of us pups, there were four boys and four girls, four of us yellow, and four of us black. I was the third born in the litter, so I was the purple collar puppy!

JEB:  Marianne says her third puppy, Rolly, was a Hemet puppy and of course he was PERFECT, (eye roll)  Cara, what made you decide to apply for a CCI dog?

CARA: I was born with a severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. Although I was fitted with hearing aids while very young, the amplification they provide is minimal, and they offer very little sound clarity. This means that to communicate with other people, I need to be able to see their faces and read their lips while they're speaking. Without my hearing aids on, I am profoundly deaf. While growing up, I had the good fortune to have access to some assistive technologies like hearing aids and teletypewriters (TTYs) in order to get access to spoken information. However, to achieve and maintain awareness of environmental sounds (like phones & doorbells ringing, fire alarms sounding, and people approaching from behind), I had to be visually vigilant and always kept an eye on others' behaviors for clues about what was happening beyond my immediate line of view. I used to worry about how I would keep myself safe while living, working, and traveling as an adult, perhaps on my own, perhaps with a family. As a prospective graduate student some nearly seven years ago, I was preparing to move out of state to attend school for my doctorate in Clinical Psychology, and wanted the security of a CCI Hearing Dog to provide an auditory "safety net" of sorts. (It doesn't hurt that I love dogs, a love I have had all my life).

JEB: (puzzled) You make it sound like there are people who don't love dogs. Weird.  Uh, so anyway, why Canine Companions? There are other organizations out there.

CARA: CCI's training program had an outstanding reputation for professionalism and success, offering me the opportunity to be matched with a well-trained adult dog with great manners at home and in public. I liked CCI's nationally-reaching structure, with its regional centers and requirements for regular and recurring follow-ups by instructors; as someone who travels often, I appreciated that there would be a CCI presence wherever I went! I love the breeds that CCI works with, Labrador and Golden Retrievers (and crosses of the two). And finally, I wanted the peace of mind that would stem from knowing my dog's well-documented health and family history, thanks to the CCI breeding program.

JEB: And did CCI meet your expectations?

CARA: YES. In Maya I found all of these things I had envisioned about CCI, but I also found so much more. I received the gift of a loving, life-changing canine partner; a second family in my circle of CCI friends near and far; a new-found personal and professional passion for the assistance dog movement, and gratitude for the human-animal bond.

JEB: Wow Maya, you must be something else! How did you decide to be a Hearing Dog?

MAYA: Awww, shucks. Well, I decided to apply for a CCI human because the pet dog life is not for me. I like to feel the wind in my ears and the concrete under my feet. I like using my nose, tail, and body to communicate with my person. And I love, I mean, LOVE to work. What's better than the mental gymnastics of tackling a problem and figuring out a solution, ears akimbo and tail aloft? Plus, there's kibble in it for me, and did I mention I love kibble? I love it almost as much as I love to nap, and that's saying a lot. Most importantly, I wanted a person of my very own, and I wanted to make a difference in her life.

JEB: I have heard that a LOT of kibble is involved in training to be a Hearing Dog. I must admit, I like that idea a lot!  How long have you two been matched?

MAYA: Cara rotated with the other humans through the January 2007 Hearing Dog Team Training class at the Northwest Regional Center, which is where I was waiting for her. I had finished my semester of Advanced Training in the Hearing Dog Program at CCI, and was raring and ready to go. Cara has been my human partner and my mate in fun adventures since then! That's nearly seven years of daily alerts, long walks, travels by plane, train, ship, and car, grooming sessions, and lots of snuggle-fests.

JEB: What was Team Training like?  Cara, did you know that Maya was "the one" right away? 

CARA: Maya stood out among the group of dogs rotating through our Team Training, but initially not in the way I had imagined! Although I had had substantial experience with my family and friends' pet dogs, I was still very unfamiliar with assistance dogs and their temperaments. Even within the group of exceedingly well-behaved dogs in class with us, Maya was exceptionally laid back and composed. Were she human, "reserved" is the word I might have used to describe her. To my amazement, as we ventured to local malls and stores during Team Training field trips, she hardly batted an eyelash amidst the hustle and bustle. I was, however, fretful because she kept her eyes glued to her trainer, our CCI instructor Amy. During our soundwork practice sessions (in which I was learning to respond to the sequence of behaviors Maya uses to alert), I observed that Maya was much more interested in my offerings of kibble than in my offerings of praise and pats, and if you can believe it, it disappointed me that she wasn't more interested in me!

JEB: Interesting! Maya, did you know Cara was yours?

MAYA: After many months of training with Amy, she of the abundant kibble and happy voice and joyful touches, I had eyes only for her. When Cara and I started working together, Cara had a lot of catching up to do. I had an extensive CCI vocabulary, two years' worth of commands that I could execute to perfection, and tons of energy and excitement when alerting to sounds. I was deeply familiar with Amy's voice and facial expressions, body language, and smell. During Team Training, I learned to work with a whole new person. Cara used her happy voice and joyful touches with me, but I was mostly just interested in the kibble she offered during our soundwork practices. Even after I alerted her and brought her over to the different sound sources like the door and telephone, she would offer me praises and happy pats, and these weren't too exciting for me. It was kibble that I was after! Kibble has always been, still is, and always will be my favorite thing to work for, but I would be remiss if I didn't admit that I've come to love Cara's praising voice and happy pats. Alerting her to sounds makes me so happy, my whole body wags with my tail.

JEB:  Cara, did your estimation of Maya change?

CARA: It was evident to me even then that Maya's is a great and powerful energy; her desire to work and her love of working is unmatched even by the hardest-working dogs and humans I know! I have also come to love and appreciate her laid-back manner, evident in her calm repose during hours and hours of attending graduate classes and training with me. She has skills and gifts that are uniquely canine, such as her deft observation of and response to human emotions - these skills inspire me in my work as a psychologist, and certainly as a person always trying to improve myself. Maya's presence is a ongoing reminder to practice patience, kindness, and gentleness while nourishing my connections with others. Maya is at once both "soft" and "hard," her blonde eyelashes closing as she happily melts into a snuggle with me, and only minutes later determinedly alerting me and dashing into the kitchen towards the whistling tea kettle.

MAYA: Awwww, shucks, again! Hey, you got any kibble?

JEB: (drooling slightly) Kibble.......kibble.....

CARA: Are you OK, Jeb?

JEB: Uh, yes, sorry. I got distracted there for a second. What was the adjustment like once you got home after Team Training? Were there any odd things you hadn't anticipated?

CARA: Deafness is a rather "invisible" disability compared to so many others with more visible indicators such as wheelchairs or white canes. For the deaf person like myself, that often translates to an everyday struggle to gain full access to spoken information (especially in large groups of people where there are multiple voices overlapping). This struggle is intensified in settings in which the deaf person's communication needs are - you guessed it - invisible and therefore overlooked. Among other examples: PA systems in airports and mass transit where information is voiced overhead without written translation; television and radio media without closed captioning, subtitles, or written transcripts; and reception areas and waiting rooms in which services are rendered once people are called up in the queue ("Mrs. So-and-So, the doctor will see you now."). Prior to our graduation, I hadn't fully realized what an impact Maya's presence would have as I moved through each of these systems in my daily life. 

JEB: Gosh, I never really thought about all of that. What other impact has Maya had on your life?

CARA: I sought to make my deafness as "invisible" as possible while I was growing up. Out of embarrassment, I brushed my hair over my hearing aids, tried to cover up my phonic ear microphone at school, and repeatedly asked my family not to sign or gesture with me while we were out and about. Especially as a kid, it just wasn't cool to be deaf, to be different. These days,  Maya makes my deafness known through her presence and her bright blue CCI vest and orange Hearing Dog leash. In a way that I could never have expected, Maya has helped me develop a sense of comfort with my deafness that I never had before. Maya facilitates ease of interactions with other people because they read the Hearing Dog patches on her vest and then speak to me slowly and clearly, in a way that they might otherwise have forgotten. Maya alerts me to friends and other people calling my name to get my attention, and in so doing has helped me more fully participate in communication. On a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute basis, I feel safer with Maya by my side. And finally, as so many people in our society love dogs, many people flash Maya a quick smile as we pass by, and seeing this brightens my day (and, I hope, theirs too).

JEB: I'm sure it does!  How exactly does Maya "alert" you?

CARA: Hearing Dogs trained by Canine Companions for Independence generally assist their deaf and hard of hearing partners through a three-part alerting sequence. First, the CCI Hearing Dog attends to and identifies an ambient sound, such as a knock at the front door. The Hearing Dog may localize, or identify the sound source - in the previous example, by heading to the front door to confirm the origin of the sound. Second, the CCI Hearing Dog alerts his or her partner to the sound by making physical contact with a nudge of the nose, repeating this gesture as needed to get the person's attention. (Hearing Dogs may even rouse their partners from sleep in response to emergency sounds such as sirens). Third, the Hearing Dog indicates the origin of the sound, in some cases looking to and in most cases leading the partner directly to the sound source. Using the previous example, a Hearing Dog may lead his or her partner to the front door, where a friend or delivery person has just knocked moments earlier. Some fun-loving Hearing Dogs may get creative with this sequence!

JEB: Maya, what kinds of sounds do you alert Cara to? What's a typical day like for you two?

MAYA: On a daily basis, I tell Cara about a wide variety of sounds including the doorbell, door knock, fire alarm & smoke detector, sirens of emergency vehicles at home and out and about, and the sounds of the teakettle whistling, microwave beeping, alarm clock ringing, and even someone calling her name to get her attention. I alert her if she drops items such as her car or house keys or wallet, since she can't hear these items hit the ground. I've also alerted her to the high-pitched feedback of her hearing aids when they're switched off incorrectly, and to the ding of the correct elevator doors opening in a six-elevator lobby. When we're out driving, I'll alert her from the backseat if I hear the siren of a police car or ambulance close by. I've also figured out that it's important to alert her to certain other sounds, even new sounds that I haven't heard before.

JEB: Wow, that's astonishing!

CARA: That's right! Maya is great at "generalizing," figuring out when to alert me to sounds, even new sounds, in different situations and settings. She has alerted me before when friends and family were trying to get my attention with a short "Hey!" from across the room, when a member of my dinner table accidentally dropped their fork, or when a delivery truck beeped while backing up in the parking lot close behind me. 

JEB: I understand that a certain amount of training has to happen when you get home - why is that? 

CARA: During Professional Training, CCI’s Hearing Dogs are taught the basic foundations of sound alerting. During Team Training, the human partners are taught how to build upon the dogs’ existing skills. Upon returning home with their handlers, the dogs’ alerting skills increase exponentially as the handlers expand their dogs' sound repertoire because sounds are different at home (for example, my microwave doesn't sound like the one at Professional Training) As our trainer advised us, “The more sounds you teach your dog, the easier it will be for your dog to generalize to new sounds.” 

MAYA: Cara and I have so much fun working together and training every day. Sometimes we play games to practice. For example, Cara will set up a little timer that makes a really high-pitched beeping noise. She can't hear it, but I can. While I stay in one room, she'll go hide the timer somewhere in another place where I can't see it (like under a chair or behind the couch or inside a drawer), and when it goes off, I jump up and alert her and then take her to find it! The thing is, I'm not always sure when we're practicing and when a sound is for "real," so I just do my best every time. It makes me so happy when I take Cara to the right place where the sound comes from - and even happier when I get a treat sometimes, like KIBBLE!!

JEB: Has Maya alerted to anything unexpected? Anything that amazed you or made you laugh?

CARA: A couple of years ago, Maya and I attended a CCI Graduate workshop and certification test at the local mall. I had arrived early and was just finishing my lunch when three of the CCI instructors walked in. When we spotted each other, we smiled and waved. I stood up with my lunch tray in one hand, the other holding Maya's leash, ready to go greet the instructors. However, as I took a step toward them, Maya suddenly alerted me and looked down to the floor: it turned out that a potato chip had fallen off my lunch tray! My very conscientious hearing dog, who has been trained to alert me to dropped items that I cannot hear, had informed me of its fall and landing on the floor. We all got a great laugh out of that one.

JEB: And she didn't even try to eat it? Wow! (Shaking head in amazement) I have a lot to learn. Maya, I think that Hearing Dog is a great career choice. How should I prepare?

MAYA: Jeb, let your heart lead you to your career path! If you absolutely love to work, as I do (and especially if you are as motivated as I am by the drool-worthy sight and smell of KIBBLE!), then work your hardest and have fun while you're doing it! As a Hearing Dog, I get to do what I am best at and what I love most to do, which is to use my noggin to problem-solve and communicate important things to my human. Sometimes when I hear an important sound, like a siren, I need to alert Cara even if we were both asleep, even if it's in the middle of the night, even if I have to alert Cara lots of times to make sure she wakes up and follows me to the door. There is something about my job that always gets my tail wagging and my adrenaline going. Maybe it's the delicious smell and crunch of kibble, or maybe it's just that deep, great joy of feeling my human's happiness.

JEB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Cara and Maya. I have a whole new appreciation for the work that Hearing Dogs do!

Chow for now!

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