It isn’t that much, in the end. Just some synthetic fabric, some buckles, and a zipper pocket, all fashioned together to make a vest. But to many, it means so much more than that. It means peace of mind – gained through a bond with an animal trained to help them every day. To the dog, it means its time to get to work.
Everybody has seen them out and about, walking with their person down the road, vest on, ready to tackle any challenge that may appear. Despite the first thought in the minds of many, that Dog Guides are just for the blind, that is not the case. The Lions Foundation of Canada trains dogs to assist in a variety of applications - including diabetic alert, seizure response, autism assistance, and hearing loss.
As a company passionate about revolutionizing how people experience life with hearing aids, Unitron is proud to be a sponsor of the Lions Foundation. Over the years, we have sponsored 14 hearing Dog Guides through donations raised by employees.
We want to introduce to you to one of these dogs and her owner. Meet Chanty, a 3-year old black lab who paired with Sandra, in Calgary, Alberta. We chatted with Sandra to help develop a better understanding of what hearing Dog Guides do; the effect Chanty has on her life and the relationship between dog guide and human.
Sandra is an audiologist for the Calgary Board of Education who helps students get the technology and support they need to be their best. She looks after over 300 schools, some with one or two students in need, and others with dedicated programs for hearing loss. A large part of her job is helping students become advocates for their own hearing health needs, as well as educating educators to use the technology they have in a way that best supports the students. This means teaching them not only how to use the tools and resources, but also why. Sandra understands the need for this, as she first discovered she had a hearing loss when she was in preschool.
“I was born with normal hearing, but my hearing loss soon started to develop. My mom noticed, I did not have an awareness that I wasn’t hearing normally, it was just my life. We went to get my hearing tested, and I ended up getting my first pair of hearing aids.”
Sandra recalls discovering the sounds of the world in the early days of getting her hearing aids. “According to my mom, the first thing I commented on was my shoelaces; I didn’t know they made a noise!” Sandra’s hearing loss progressed quickly after starting with just a mild loss. By the time Sandra graduated high school, she had a severe to profound hearing loss. This meant that she was not able to converse on the phone, hear the radio, and even children’s voices.
“Obviously, the longer you wait to get hearing aids, the harder it is to adjust to amplification, so I am lucky that I got treated at such a young age. I always tell people, the longer you wait, the harder it is. And you start to withdraw socially, as you find you can’t hear the world.”
Around three years ago, Sandra decided to apply for a Dog Guide, as she would be living alone for the first time in her life. “I had all the technology for people with hearing loss, light indicators, vibrating alarm clock but the technology doesn’t cover every situation, for instance, if there’s a power outage I would not be aware.” It was almost two-year wait from when she applied to when she was selected to receive a guide dog. Her reaction? “I got VERY excited! I was SO ready when that two years came up.”
The process after getting paired with a Dog Guide is very rigorous, and it requires training the owner to handle and work with their new Dog Guide properly. All those paired with Dog Guides take a trip to Oakville, Ontario, to the Lions Foundation of Canada office, and spend two to three weeks at the Lions Foundation, sleeping in dorms, and training with their new companions. “It is a very serious process, and the trainers do a great job of ensuring that you and the dog are working together.”
As for Sandra and Chanty, it didn’t take long to forge a bond between the two of them. “I just fell in love with her when I met her. She is a gorgeous dog and has strikingly beautiful eyes; they are so expressive. More than that, though, after training with her, I realized I could trust her, once I realized that - I got weepy. She was always going to alert me to sounds. It was emotional for me.”
They made their way back to Calgary to start their life together. It only took one day after graduation to put their new relationship to the test, and for Chanty to demonstrate her dedication. An unexpected flight cancellation on their Toronto to Calgary trip was delayed and turned into a 12-hour travel day. “Chanty had no food; we weren’t prepared for this huge delay. She was magnificent. She did absolutely everything I asked, she sat, lay down in tight spaces, followed my commands, everything without issue. That is when I knew Chanty was a trooper. I was taking her away from everything she had known up until that point, but she never faltered. She is a really amazing dog.”
Once back home, they soon settled into a routine of everyday life. Chanty wakes Sandra up with her alarm every day. “She is 100% reliable with waking me up. It is a great way to wake up! After that, we take a walk before work.” Dogs guides for hearing loss are known for being high energy, as they are required to respond to sounds quickly. Luckily, Chanty fits the bill as high energy. “People always are surprised when they learn she is already three years old; she is very puppy-like in some ways.”
Serious work means some serious play!
After their walk, Sandra and Chanty head to work, where they visit between 5 and 6 schools a day. “The children are very excited to see her since most kids love dogs. However, they all know that Chanty is here to work, and they shouldn’t pet her. But they enjoy seeing her all the same.” Despite the attention and distractions, Chanty is very professional and focuses on her work of helping Sandra and alerting her to any sounds she encounters in a day. “I remember I was walking down the street, and I had my phone in my backpack, and it started to ring. Chanty starts jumping up, alerting me to the sound in my bag. We were walking across the street, and here is Chanty jumping up trying to alert me. She is just always listening and responding.”
Once the workday is complete, Chanty gets her chance to let loose. “I always make sure she has a chance to play after work, either at the dog park or somewhere else. I also make sure that one walk a day is just for her. She gets to have her freedom; if she wants to smell a tree for five minutes, we smell that tree. Most of the day is on my schedule, so I try to make time every day that is just for Chanty.”
Once a dog and human get paired together, the training doesn’t stop. Since Dog Guides are trained to alert to a variety of sounds, those that aren’t heard often need practice to stay sharp. A trainer from the Lions Foundation came and checked in on Chanty and Sandra after two months of them being together in Calgary. “The trainer came, made sure we were interacting together correctly, and we went over all the sounds that Chanty knows. One important thing that the trainer reiterated was that those with Dog Guides need to keep practicing and making sure that when they perform their task, they get a reward. And not only that, but that they get different rewards, to keep things interesting for dogs.”
One of the skills that is required to stay up to date and that isn’t often used is one that many people with hearing loss fear the most: smoke alarms. Sandra and Chanty train on the smoke alarm once or twice a week. When an alarm goes off, Chanty touches her and spins in a circle counter-clockwise five times to let Sandra know the smoke alarm is going off. In training, they save the biggest rewards for smoke alarms, to emphasize the importance of them to the Dog Guides. “Chanty’s favourite toys are anything squeaky, so when we practice, I always make sure she gets a special squeaky toy as a reward. That toy is used only for a smoke alarm. Any time a smoke alarm goes off, she gets VERY excited. Just a few weeks ago, I was at my mom’s house, and the smoke alarm went off, and she alerted me right away. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a squeaky toy with me, so her reward was just a lot of love.”
When discussing her relationship with Chanty, Sandra gets very emotional. Sandra has owned dogs before, but Chanty is her first Dog Guide, and the bond between them is profound. “Obviously, she has a responsibility to me, but I have a responsibility to her, too. I must take care of her health, make sure she has fun, has a good life... I feel such a responsibility to make sure she is taken care of. I feel more in tune with her behaviour than I have ever with any other dog.”
Sandra speaks about the sense of responsibility she has for Chanty regarding her duty, but also as Chanty’s role as a representation of the Lions Foundation. “When it comes down to it, she is a professional, I need to make sure she is a good representative of the Lions Foundation, but on the flip side, she is VERY playful, and I have to make sure those needs are met, too.”
A bond that can't be broken.
“I honestly can’t imagine my life without her. She brings so much joy…and quality to my life. My life has improved so much with Chanty. Even more so than I had hoped. I had all this technology to address specific needs, but what if something unexpected happened? Like an intruder in my home? I wouldn’t have heard that. There’s always a feeling of being on edge about the things I wouldn’t hear. Just a little insecurity in my everyday life, and to know that I can trust her, and that Chanty has my back, it means everything. She will tell me if something is going on. I never realized how much that would matter because I didn’t even realize how much stress I had been carrying until some of it started to be released. I was still in training, living in the dorm, we were doing alarms to start the day, it only took a day or two, and I KNEW, I can trust her. “
A Dog Guide can change the lives of those who need help with their hearing on a day to day basis. From helping people with hearing loss wake at their alarm, answer the door, alerting on timers, or even on the sound of the smoke alarm, the dogs are trained to help in every aspect of the owner's life. Even Sandra, who was quite social before Chanty, noticed an increase in her social and life activity after receiving a Dog Guide.
“The mission of the Lions Foundation is to provide highly trained dogs, like Chanty to those who need help at no cost. This mission couldn’t happen without sponsorship, and I am thankful to the sponsors like Unitron. I am thankful to the trainers, who put all this time, energy and love into training these dogs. They let the dogs which they’ve formed bonds with go, all to help people. Not to mention the foster families, who put the time in, go places, do things, all to help train these dogs and it changes people’s lives. It is very important work, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart because it changed my life.”
For more information about the Lions Foundation of Canada, please visit their website: https://www.dogguides.com/