Whenever the doorbell rang, Spike would run up to Beverly, barking, bothering her, until she answered the door. Every morning, after hearing the alarm, Spike would put his paw on his owner, waking her up. At restaurants, he would sit under the table, quiet and polite, never begging for food.
Spike was a good dog, a black lab, friendly and loyal. He was also a service animal trained to help the hard of hearing.
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According to Assistance Dogs International, Hearing Dogs are service animals trained to “make physical contact” and lead or alert their owners to a sound or event. Often they’re mixed breeds, acquired at shelters and then trained with the help of specialized handlers.
Hearing-ear dogs have been around for a while. A New York Times article from 1982 wrote about ~2,000 dogs who were trained to assist the hard of hearing: “The animals communicate through eye contact, body language, and touch. Or they simply run between a person and the source of the sound. Tales of canine heroism abound, but the animals help most simply by enabling their guardians to overcome every day problems.”
Beverly Medenbach first started looking for a hearing-ear dog years ago. At first, she was hesitant, realizing the process included a 6-month-long bonding process with no guarantee of success. But after some searching, she ended up at a local certified dog trainer, a friend of her mother’s. She recommended Beverly see a colleague of hers, a Westminster Dog Show judge, who bred Labrador retrievers.
The breeder had a 6-month-old black Lab she could not breed because of elbow dysplasia, and she asked Beverly if she wanted him. Approaching the enclosure where Jolly Muff Spiker Driver Blue (AKA Spike) rested, Bev immediately felt a connection.
He went home with her soon after.
Beverly brought Spike back to the trainer and signed him up for obedience school, where he progressed through kindergarten, pre-novice, and novice levels. After “graduation,” they enlisted the help of an acquaintance, a certified trainer of service dogs.
The trainer taught Spike specific behaviors, such as notifying Beverley of several sound-specific events, like a doorbell ring, a teapot whistle, the sound of someone coming down the driveway, or the cry of a newborn child. They also trained Spike to get Bev’s attention if she dropped something, or left anything behind.
After his service training, Spike even learned to recognize some sign language. He understood “going to the store,” “play with the kids,” “come,” and “sit.”
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Training a hearing dog is about finding the right fit. “A hearing ear dog and their deaf recipient need to be carefully matched to ensure the partnership will work well,” says Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, a UK-based service.
There is no one way to get a hearing service dog. Some companies and charities offer to do the legwork, or you can go the route Beverly took, who found the dog on her own and hired a certified service animal trainer afterwards.
Life with Spike
Spike was a dominant, but not aggressive, dog. Kids loved him. Everyone he met was excited to get to know him a little bit better.
As a service animal, he had special permissions, and would go everywhere with Bev. He kept her company in restaurants, he visited her in the hospital after the birth of her child, and he hiked along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive — where he would woo the park rangers — with Beverley and her husband.
One time, well into his service years, the Self Help for Hard of Hearing People convention in Arkansas invited Spike to their conference, where he immediately became their unofficial mascot.
Beverly had Spike for 14 years. They shared a life together. His family loved him, and he loved them back. He was good at his job.