Dogs for the deaf

 ... a mystery trip

by Natalie Thomson - Photos by Louise Fennell

Lunch at the colonial Sterling Inn, Sterling, Mass., followed by self-made sundaes at Hebert's, a candy shop in Shrewsbury. They were part of the discoveries made on a recent Mystery Bus Trip for members of the 200 Club in Melrose. The count-less calories didn't count, however, because it was preceded by its main purpose which was a very pleasant educational experience.

We had traveled west for about an hour through suburban main streets, shaded by tall elms and maples. Each communitiy started with planted fields and led to downtowns which were graced with homesteads built from 1865 to 1906 to 2003.

Then, at the end of a short wooded lane on the left, we came upon our mystery destination ... NEADS' located in Princeton, Mass. New England Assistance Dog Services specializes in a hearing ear dog program.

The building was new, decorated attractively and had a wall in the reception room with collages of hundreds of animal snapshots portraying it's former clientele.

We were welcomed by a most personable Kristin Law and her dog, Laddie, a flat-coated collie. They led us to different parts of this new building. We noticed that Laddie was patient and/or cooperative -- whichever was required at a given moment.

The breed of a successful hearing ear dog is not specific but personality is important. Kristin told about a litter of only two puppies. One puppy's adaptation was fine but the other was a failure at working this program with a human being.

We stood in a circle and, in the center, Kristin dropped small articles on the floor. Her Laddie retrieved them. We were amazed when, after a couple of tries, he recovered a thin, tiny dime! Even a dog biscuit inserted in his mouth between teeth and lip was not moved or touched by him when told to "Leave it."  This is a very important command when a dog picks up harmful things in the home or the street.

In Kristin's case, it was important to be able to use her dog as a prop to get up from the floor after falling. Her weight could not be more than two times the chosen dog's weight. Also, during their "together" years, an important rule was that other members of her family didn't indulge in interacting with Laddie. The dog cannot become attached to other family members.

Through windowed walls, we were introduced to Kennel Manager, Dan Ouellette  and  Zoe (pronounced Zoh-wee) who was a mix of labrador and retriever and four-star-student. We learned that the age group of the "students" was six years and older. They had been trained to evaluate situations and make decisions. We saw that a ringing phone meant "Wake up your sleeping owner no matter how long it takes."  

We learned that Pedigree Company, Inc. donates a new food supply at a phone call. Community police officers have become fully acquainted with the shelter. When they are on patrol they are alert for unlicensed dogs that qualify for training.

Needy cats are also in residence at this college for canines. Both cats and dogs must learn not to become involved with each other. Some cats live a life of enforced, but welcome, leisure as they wander through pleasant well-lit modern lesson rooms, complete with former canine enemies who have also learned self-control. If the cats are not adopted, they are allowed to live out their lives there. So far they have placed 1500 cats. For the first time in my 75 years, I got to pat a two-week-old kitten who looked straight into my eyes as though he knew me!

When Dan was training the dog on the second floor, he sat in a wheelchair and the smooth collie turned on the light switch when told. Among many other helpful acts, it pulled open a heavy door with his mouth, using a rope attached to the doorhandle. Finn, a golden retriever in training, answered the phone then watched and learned alongside us.

There is a two-year wait for dogs that graduate. It takes between one and two weeks to train the new owners. There are approximately 85 people currently on a waiting list.

We were told that there is only a 25 percent failure rate. Seventy-five percent of these educated animals are ready for adoption for a fee. The recipient cost is $500. It is over a million dollars annually for the NEADS' operating expenses. They have a $603,000 endowment fund which in no way matches the independance of the grateful recipients.

By mid-afternoon, those of us who could, sat at marble-topped tables in Shrewsbury, spooning ice cream, sauce and whipped cream into our smiling mouths. We'd learned a lot about a new-to-us asset available in our modern, caring world. We all agreed that the Mystery Ride had produced a revelation.

August 6, 2004

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