My Hearing Therapy Dog Offers Me Independence

By Matthew Johnson of Waggz & Whiskerz

Over the last 6 months I have had the privilege of working with a very special team. Since starting my vestibular therapy program I have had a lot of opportunity to meet others who share similar disabilities. Most of the time people cant seem to understand the profound effect that hearing loss can have on an individual, most people take hearing for granted and don’t imagine what a world of silence would be like. I have met people who have lost most of their hearing and through the use of visual aids most of these people including myself have been able to become educated and have found a way to start learning about hearing loss, assistive products, lip reading and hearing dogs.

Last month I mentioned I would be fitted for some hearing aids and that they would be assisting me with my hearing loss, well it turns out things are not always as simple as they seem. So I have decided to share my experience with everyone with the hopes that people will be able to learn from this experience and grow as individuals.

Most people go through an emotional rollercoaster when they are confronted with having their sense taken from them. I have lost vision, hearing, taste and smell, leaving me with pretty much nothing sense wise except the ability to feel, touch etc. Emotionally I have not lost anything if anything I’m even stronger than I was before, I’m not one to sulk or get down and I’m cool with how everything is and haven’t really given it much thought in terms of losing something. I have gained way more than I have lost anyways.

During my evaluation I was given the option on what I would need the most in terms of senses and what my therapy dog program would be focused on, I chose hearing, seeing was second (I have one eye that works at about 60 %) The reason I chose hearing is because it is directly associated with my balance and dizziness and I want to overcome that issue the most.

This month’s first segment is meant to introduce you to how my therapy dog Benji will be assisting me with hearing loss and this segment will also educate people on the effects of hearing loss and how I have learned to cope with this disability thru the use of a therapy dog.

A Hearing Dog is a dedicated assistant to people with mild to severe hearing loss.

He will alert his master to important sounds, such as the sounds of a baby’s cry, the telephone ringing, a knock at the door, an alarm clock, a kettle whistle, in addition to such danger signals as the sound of a smoke alarm, burglar alarm, or even the rustling of a prowler.

Hearing dogs provide a sense of security, independence, and of course companionship to their human partners. They proudly wear their working vests and enjoy the same public access rights as Guide Dogs for the blind.

My hearing loss is considered to be moderate to severe. The problem with nerve damage associated with hearing loss is that it can fluctuate from severe to profound hearing level loss. Hearing loss is classified in categories such as mild, moderate, severe, profound and deaf.

[photosmash id=9]The reason my hearing loss is classified as moderate to severe is because its hard to measure in decibels the certain tones you’ll hear on a day to day basis. With me for an instant I can hear very well, maybe 80% and at other times I will not hear anything at all, so my decibel hearing of that is zero. Consequently they grade my level of hearing loss further on the severe side. When I hear things the level of tones become muffled or flat. These are important because they are the tones we usually communicate in; hence I became eligible for a hearing therapy dog.

Now there are two options when you are given the news that you qualify for a hearing therapy dog. Option 1 is to acquire a fully trained service dog that is already up to par with training (most elderly people or severely disabled people choose this option and they should!) Option 2 is to acquire a puppy that will work with you from the start of its career and you both bond together as a team and each of you learn to cope with hearing loss and the tasks at hand. As you all know I chose option 2 (I tend to take the harder options in life).

Before you acquire your puppy you must learn to communicate, for me I learned to read lips, I can do it almost perfectly and most people would never even know that I could barley make out a sound. I have actually been reading lips for the last 5 years or so in an amateur type style, but my self-taught manner was in need of a desperate overhaul. For me, most people can’t tell that I have always had hearing problems because I rarely express my concerns or would just try to make up what people were saying to me and fill in the blanks. Obviously my hearing problem is now a million times worse and far more serious. A little fun fact by the way Lip-reading is now called speech reading. It used to be lip-reading in the 20th century but now Speech reading is a little different than the old style, this is the cool part that I have recently learned, these days therapist tend to force you to expand on that … reading lips is just the start, I also read peoples eyes which tell a lot … their body language … shoulder movement, posture, nodding, etc, so that all helps.

So here’s a little medical info for you, once your hearing is damaged … the little hairs inside the cochlea …  never repair. They’ll never grow back (This is the typical way people have hearing loss) For me it’s a little different and more complicated  … once the nerves in the middle ear (called the vestibular nerves, which also controls balance and vision) were damaged the signal that goes from the nerve to the brain also became damaged and the nerves have died they will never grow back or regenerate and it is considered to be in a sense brain damage, but the brain can re learn how to do certain tasks just in a different way…so to sum it up I’ll only hear bits and pieces, I have also got two titanium venting tubes that are installed in my Eustation tube (these are used as filters basically to pass air in and out of the ear canal) During the surgery I had to install these more damage was caused and from that I also hear constant buzzing and ringing on the left side, its part of life and I would rather have less pressure in my head and have the noises than no noise and massive amounts of painful pressure that felt like my head was exploding. Think of it as being on a constant airplane take off routine times a million!

I’m going describe how my hearing issues work now. When thinking of my hearing loss think of it as a broken mirror but the mirror hasn’t fallen apart yet. The tones I can hear are the lines that are formed from the shattered glass and these lines are amplified while the broken larger pieces and muted, the amplified sounds are what helps me because at least it takes a lot of the work out of hearing and I can say, “Oh. At least I could hear that tone fine. Now what else is there?”

So now we have established I can hear certain tones and as I expand on that most people tend to ask … Do you hear the doorbell? How do you talk on the phone? Do you hear the telephone ring? Do you hear the smoke alarm? Now you see what’s happening? Those are straight tones. Those are the gaps. So, consequently that’s where Benji comes in. Those are the tones I have trouble except talking on the phone, when sound waves travel through the phone they bounce off the ear drum and cause vibration, because when we use the phone the device is directly put to the ear the vibrations are approximately 200 times more rapid than when talking in person and have less space to travel, for this reason talking on the phone is actually way easier than talking in person and because the tones are basically manufactured and not real time its even easier to distinguish the sounds and with that and enter Benji.

What Benji is learning is the telephone, which is important at home. For instance my cell phone rings … then the house phones rings … how will I know? I just hear or may not hear. Now Benji hears. So, we got that program going. Smoke alarm … extremely important. That’s when I’m sleeping. I don’t have my hearing aids in. When a hearing impaired person is sleeping, we become very vulnerable and that’s a dangerous situation.

How Benji alerts me: Today’s therapy dogs are very different from the old style of service dogs. This generation of therapy dog is taught to do a form of jumps on me … small jumps … and he takes me to the sound. He takes me to the phone or to my cell phone … it’s interesting … the closest phone. If it’s downstairs, I don’t have to go to the phone he’s trained on in the kitchen. He will take me to the closest phone. I don’t know if he’s lazy or smart, but whatever. It works well. He’ll do 3 phones in the house plus my cell phone, which has a bark for a ring, so he can determine that one with little effort; the whole set up is a good layout. Plus he is cute when he does it.

Benji will also do door knock, doorbell. He does the term “Who is it”  … odd term, isn’t it? But it’s a wonderful thing, if you know of anybody that is hard of hearing or deaf in the family and you’re trying to get his or her attention. They’re downstairs. You’re upstairs. I really don’t want to go downstairs, so what do we do? Human nature is to yell. Well that didn’t help anything. You yelled and the neighbors heard, but whoever was downstairs didn’t.

But in my house, anybody could just go, “Benji.” And get his attention … that’s very important. Get the dog’s attention first.  Then when he looks. He stares and I say the phrase “who is it” then for training purposes I answer for him for example  “Matthew” and then he’s down, no matter what I’m doing … alerts, and takes off. I have to follow him. For whatever sound, I’m not sure. Is it a boiling kettle? A pot boiling over? Is it a coffee maker? A doorbell … whatever sound it is, doesn’t matter I just follow him.

Now, if I don’t decide to follow Benji and I say just a minute. He’s gone. He’s up the stairs. I say, “Oh well, he’ll be back.” Oh! He’s back, alright! Even if I’m trying to relax and something goes Boom. Boom. Boom. (Benji will jump on Me) and I have to go. He’s just a pest. That’s how he’s trained. Pester. Pester. Pester. He’s thinking … This is important. It’s my job. So, you go down the stairs … there’s somebody waiting. Dinner’s ready. The number one rule that I have to follow is don’t question your dog and that’s hard to overcome. He is a mobile ear.

In the old days, somebody would yell, or call to me and I would have to come down the stairs. Supper’s ready. Supper is on the table. Everybody is waiting. Anybody hard of hearing really appreciates that. It’s a small thing for the hearing person, things like that I miss. Basically you are trapped in your own mind and the only thing allowing you not to be trapped is Benji. (Woofie was not trained this specifically but she still is a giant relief, she protects me, while Benji hears for me).

Being trapped was my initial feeling, however now having Benji and watching him evolve into a therapy dog is rather remarkable and his education and mine will benefit an unlimited amount of people in the future. I take a hands on approach to his training and work with him everyday, we have a schedule to follow from 7 am – 10 pm and will have to follow this for the next 2 years until he is trained perfectly and we do it consistently, he is always on time and ready to work as am I, Woofie even joins in to put Benji in his place when he is a being to much of a pest, It’s a family unit that changes as I change with my health. Benji knows to basically only listen to me and that I am his life line and vise versa when it comes to hearing, That’s what is so amazing about the training; it is always being paid forward or in this case, pawed forward.

I will continue to update everyone on this development and don’t forget to watch The Pet Networks Pet Central The Week of March 7th Mon Wend and Sun where I will be featured with Woofie on a segment about the benefits of having a therapy dog.