The “wow” of hearing

Dec 2017 Sierra Star

Try as she might, Noni just couldn’t cut it as a Seeing Eye Dog. It was because of her incessant sniffing when out and about that she failed the “no sniff” test repeatedly. And so, the 2 & 1/2 year old yellow Labrador was sent for training as a Certified Hearing Dog in Oregon. There, she found her true calling, and a forever home here in the Mountain Area with Richard Walter. After six months of intensive training with apprentice trainer Katie Ware with Dogs for the Deaf, a national assistance dog training and placement facility in Central Point, Noni came to live with Walter.

NoniService dog, Noni, has made a huge difference in the life of Bass Lake resident Richard Walter.

“I chose her for Richard because she has a a nice calm gait (Richard has some balance issues),” Ware said. “Noni is very calm, is easy going and is really good in public.”

A retired regional insurance sales manager, Walter is referred to as “late deafened,” meaning he didn’t become hearing impaired until later in life. For him, it was during his mid-teens. “My parents and teachers noticed I was having a hard time in high school,” Walter, now 78, said, “that I just wasn’t hearing what I should have been hearing. So a test was done and I was given a hearing aid.”

It wasn’t until his early 60s that Walter decided to try cochlear implants. “To understand the difference between a hearing aid and a cochlear implant,” he explained, “picture an eight-slice pizza, with each slice representing a hearing range. Hearing aids amplify only what you could hear before the aid. However, with a cochlear implant, you start out hearing three-to-four of those slices, and work up to all eight.” Following the out-patient procedure, Walter called that first year his “wow” year. “I’d be sitting there and hear something and say, what’s that? My brain couldn’t remember ever hearing that sound before. Then I would identify the sound ... leaves blowing through trees, gravel under feet, and I’d say ‘wow.’”

After his divorce in 2006, Walter found himself living alone. He soon came to realise how much he wanted a dog. He heard about Certified Hearing Dogs, completed an application, sent in a doctor’s report, a current hearing test, and following his approval, he waited for just the right dog to enter his home and his life. His first dog, Jonah, a black lab, alerted Walter to sounds by pawing. Sometimes the pawing was so aggressive that he would knock Walter over. When Jonah died last October, Walter felt the need for his second Certified Hearing Dog and, so, the long wait began.

“This is as close to Match.com as you’ll ever come in a dog’s world,” Walter said. “Just to give you an idea, I was first on the list from October to June. It took them that long to find an appropriate match for me. They consider your age, where you live, your lifestyle, and the number and ages of family members in the home. I kept calling every three months, and finally when I called last May, I asked ‘Did you find that black lab for me yet?’ They responded, ‘No, but will a blonde do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am partial to blondes.’” Apparently the organisation did have a potential black lab, but this particular lab (like most) loved water. Given that Walter has a pontoon boat on Bass Lake, it was feared the dog would jump in the lake at every opportunity.

In steps Noni, also a lab, but of a different nature. A water lover, she’s not. While Jonah had been trained to paw, Noni was trained using an entirely different method. “She alerts Richard to the phone, smoke alarm, oven timer, alarm clock, name call and door knock,” Ware said. “She does this by tapping Richard’s leg with her nose and then leading him to the sound that’s going off.”

Noni only responds to these sounds within Walter’s home. Her biggest challenge at the moment is waking Walter to the alarm clock, which seems to be hit-or-miss at this point. “She snuggles up close to me and sleeps right through it,” Walter laughs. “I have to wake her up so she can wake me up.” The most important thing Noni alerts Walter to is when someone is at the door. “My back is to the door when sitting at my desk,” Walter said, “so someone can knock all day and I won’t hear it. My neighbour and friend Diane O’Brien got to the point where she would walk right in and scare the bejeebers out of me.”

Richar & NoniRichard Walter of Bass Lake with his Certified Hearing Dog, Noni, who came to live with him last June after six months of training with Dogs for the Deaf.

For the first year, Walter will make a monthly progress report. A Dogs for the Deaf representative will then come out to make sure Noni is doing what she’s supposed to be doing. To retain her certified status, she will have to work three of her targets satisfactorily. Noni and Walter have, quite naturally, developed a tight bond. While there are those rare occasions when Walter leaves Noni home alone to foster an understanding that he will return, the pair are practically inseparable 24/7. She gives Walter a sense of security he could never feel as a hearing-impaired man living alone.

“Believe me, she’s a little princess,” O’Brien interjected, as Noni sniffed around for hidden yummy treats. “She’s so funny. I have three indoor cats and Noni is afraid of them, so when she comes over to my house and one of the cats walks by, she runs and hides under Richard’s chair. My cats now know that and they prance around right in front of her. One even chased her across the room.”

While chuckling at the retelling of this anecdote, Walter gently rubs Noni’s head, drops down closer, and softly whispers “what a sweet girl ... well worth the wait.”

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