My Journey with Laila: A Retrospective

Many people understand the idea of service dogs for the blind and physically impaired yet have never considered how important they can be for those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Today, there are many options for obtaining or training a dog to be a “hearing dog.” One can potentially find a training center close to home and work with a trainer to teach your own dog what s/he needs to know to pass the Assistant Dog International (ADI) requirements for certification. I chose a different route and partnered with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, CA, one of several training centers across the country. CCI is a non-profit organization that can provide and train Service Dogs, Skilled Companions, Hearing Dogs, and Facility Dogs. I would like to share my interesting experience during a two-week course at CCI where I was matched with a dog and we trained as a team. I hope my story provides a new perspective about what trained Hearing Dogs can do.

Arrival Day
The campus in Santa Rosa, California is huge, with dormitories like a college campus. Each student had an accessible room and bath. The training building has a large central room, equipped kitchen and laundry room. I met some of my classmates and companions from across the country who had varying degrees of hearing loss, use of hearing aids, or cochlear implants, and abilities to sign and read lips.

Day 1
A beautiful day and a chance to see the grounds. We met our two primary trainers and learned more about the campus. We learned that Charles Schulz (Snoopy et al creator) donated the land and other funds. It was great to see Peanuts character statues standing proudly as we walked the extensive grounds.  CCI is a beautiful campus with breeding and vet facilities in addition to the training centers, walking pathways, and dog playgrounds.
Today, we met the dogs that have been chosen as possible hearing dogs. All of the dogs that are trained at CCI are gorgeous Golden Retrievers, Labrador retrievers or mixed Goldens and Labs.  Most have been bred here and raised by volunteer puppy raisers until about 1.5 years. Dogs are then returned to a CCI campus for specialized training and further evaluation to see if they would make good service dogs. When matched, most are about two years old.
While learning some of the commands, we each had time with each dog to help the staff assess which person and dog seemed compatible. One thing that really struck me is that all dogs seem to have big tails and different personalities! We get pre-matched tomorrow and will work with that dog exclusively throughout the rest of the training period.  We were introduced to the entire staff (a bunch) and many volunteers who prepared our lunch each day.  Everyone is super nice.
In addition to the practical hearing work, we were given a workbook, had lectures (the training room is looped) and have quizzes to complete tonight.

Day 2
A very busy day included two lectures in the morning and practice with the sounds we learned yesterday.  All of the dogs know the drill and anticipate us before we can cue them.  Today we were “pre-matched” with a dog, practiced behavior commands and all took a walk around the campus.  In the afternoon, we learned new commands and therefore more practice with our dogs. 

At the end of the day, the dogs were let into the park to play. We were allowed to join them if we so inclined. CCI has an agility area, like a playground, and a huge fenced green space.  Tomorrow, we learn many more commands and do some work in our rooms. These dogs are trained and smart, but they also are really active two-year-olds.  Later this week, we will start going out in public.  I think the dogs will be fine… the students, who knows?   There will be a lot to practice on sound when I get home to make sure Laila knows the actual sounds in my house. 

Day 3
Worked on more commands – kennel, jump, off, roll, okay (to eat or drink), hurry (potty please), wait and under.  We also had a grooming training, including nail trimming with a clipper and Dremel (not my favorite), brushing teeth, etc.  Some of the students have never had a dog before, so it’s a whole new world for them. My dog loved the brushing and the toothpaste, but the nail clipping with a nervous clipper was not her favorite either.  She is the class clown, very affectionate and when she wags her tail, her whole body goes with it.  We practiced sound alert in our rooms, which worked out well. There is so much more to learn before we get home (me, not the dog). 

Everything is very structured for the dogs, especially any command that will be in public.  When working, they are not to eat food from the floor, break command unless released, and only potty when and where they are told.
We got a bag of grooming items and a toy to take home.  The staff gave us an amazing amount of equipment.  I decided to buy a kennel/crate from them and have it shipped with the food they are providing. 

For our break, four of us women with varying degrees of hearing loss went to an excellent restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa. There we were… in a noisy place with a waiter who had an accent. One woman, just a week prior had her cochlear implant turned on. Another was totally deaf (late deafened) and tried to read lips the whole time. The third was a sign interpreter. And me. We felt sorry for our waiter, but we all had a great time!

Day 4
Today is intended for just my dog and I. This will be the first night with her in my room.  She is active, smart, and cuddly.  Big day today – we worked with more sounds, in and out of our rooms and went through a ton of handouts about dog health, vaccinations, exercise, and routines at home. I also learned more commands such as speak, quiet, bed, hurry, and shake.  The dogs have been trained to potty on command when working.  You lead them where you want and say “hurry.”  What a deal.  Now if they just used the toilet…

Day 5
Last night was fine, except that the girl wanted to go out to pee at 4:00 a.m.  Actually, I think she just wanted out of the kennel.  A friend has been warning me about the Sonoma County weather, and today, a rainy foggy day is our first public outing to Home Depot.  With the dogs in their vests, we perused the aisles. All dogs behaved great! We then visited the garden area for a while.
Next week is very full.  In addition to the lectures and practice, more public work, and one to one discussions with the trainers.  There is a written final and practical.   We have had 1-3 quizzes each day, slide handouts and read additional articles each evening.  The finals are on Thursday and the graduation on Friday.  All the puppy raisers will be notified soon, in case they want to come to graduation (it’s a big deal for the puppy raisers).

Final match confirmed…. Ta da!  Her name is Laila. She is 54 pounds with blond hair, dark eyes, and a long sweeping tail. Her mother is a Golden Retriever and her father, a Black Labrador.

We had options to kennel the dogs for all or part of the weekend.  I kept her, as I did not plan to go off campus for more than 4 hours at a time. On Saturday, a group of us, students and families, went to lunch at a deli in Santa Rosa, and then to the Schulz Museum and looked at Peanuts strips, old and new, for about an hour.  It was fun and informative.  They have an exhibit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and some of the take-offs of that story that Schulz wove into Peanuts (e.g., Snoopy as the Cheshire cat).

Sunday, Laila and I hung out and took walks.

Week 2 Day 1
The pace is picking up.  We had two lectures today and two practice sessions, with timers, doorbells and someone knocking on the door. I have learned so much about dogs and their communication.  And yes, I must be firmer (One of the trainers told me that Laila already had my number – true), so am working on not letting her get away with slow responses.  Tomorrow is a big day.  We get our pictures taken for our IDs, go to lunch with dogs to a French restaurant (makes sense, the French love their dogs), and then to Kohls to practice on escalators.  We also will have IDs made for the dog’s collars.

Week 2, Day 2
Coming down the home stretch.  We had photos taken today for Team ID tags and a student group photo.  Had a lecture on Advanced Learning Theory, then worked on alerting to the cell phone ring.  Laila was quick to pick it up, but lots more practice is needed for consistency.  We then went to lunch with the dogs – fun to carry a drink and lead a dog through a crowded restaurant! After lunch, we practiced the Assistant Dog International (ADI) requirement for certification.  These are minimum standards that assistance dog teams have to pass to show that the dog is trained, and that the handler can control the dog, but they are truly minimum.  CCI standards are much higher.  We did all this at Kohls, and then went in and out of an elevator and up and down escalators.  What fun!  Back at CCI, we practiced “here” back and forth down a hall and I had my first staff/student conference.  The trainers jokingly asked me if I was happy with my dog.  The staff calls her Princess Laila, and she is a favorite because she loves to cuddle and play. 

Week 2, Day 3
Tomorrow is essentially it.  We take a final exam in the morning and them proceed to Kohl’s in the afternoon for the final practical in public behavior and control.  There is no “test” about the sound training as much of that must be completed at home.  We got more equipment today, Heartgard for heartworm and Frontline for fleas and ticks.  We also had a lecture on introducing our dogs to cats and dogs at home and one on how to set up specific types of sound training.  It is going to take a lot of work, and I am starting to get nervous about integrating her into my life, and how I need to change my life to make this work.  The class went out for a while after class to throw balls and generally let the dogs run around in a fenced area here.  I found out that Laila’s puppy trainer is coming on Friday, which is great.

For the trip home, I was told not to feed her breakfast, in case she gets plane sick.  After my crazy driving around Santa Rosa in the rental car, I doubt it, but will take their advice. 

Week 2, Day 4
Took my written test.  No biggie. I am free until lunch and trying to wait until it warms up a bit to walk.  One more outing and testing this afternoon, then tomorrow is it.  The puppy raisers get to play with them until the luncheon and then graduation.  Leaving this nice safe environment will be tough.  Lots of sound training needed when I get home, and I need to rearrange the house.  Damn scary.

Graduation Day
The staff took the dogs to bathe them for graduation.  (No one cares what we look like.) I met Laila’s puppy trainers.  Laila was their first puppy, and they have two other dogs (not CCI).  Also met Laila’s dog mom and breeder handler and lots of siblings and half-siblings.

I packed for our trip home. Laila has more “stuff” than I do.

Trip home
We arrived home late in the evening. The Southwest Airlines crew gave us the entire front row. Laila seemed a little confused at take-off and landing, but otherwise either laid down or sat with her head on my knee.  In three days, we are flying again to San Diego for more work. Hope she likes hotels.

By Judy Thomas
Contributor, Laila!

Now retired, Judy was a reimbursement lobbyist for the American Occupational Therapy Association for over 20 years. Her hearing loss occurred without warning or diagnosis over 30 years ago. “I wear two hearing aids, with widely different settings, as I have a moderate hearing loss in one ear and a severe loss in the other”, she states. As an ALOHA Board member for the past four years, Judy is an advocate for using looping and other technology (e.g. captioning, microphones) for the best situational hearing solution.

If anyone else would like to share your journey about how you and your hearing dog became companions, send an email to [email protected]. We would love to post your story!

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