by Louise Bellamy
Janet Saunders has spent more than a decade starting each day with her dog waking her up with the touch of a paw when the alarm clock goes off. Janet has no hearing in her left ear and only a little in her right and it is Julia who is Janet's ears to the world.
Julia is a ''hearing dog'' and has been with Janet since April last year. A whippet/Jack Russell cross, she succeeded Janet's previous hearing dog Cody, a German shepherd/collie-cross who had been with her for 13 years.
Saunders, now a grandmother, had a cochlear implant in her left ear five years ago. Because she lost her hearing relatively late - when she was 30 - she can speak reasonably well, unlike some severely hearing-impaired people who have never known sound and rely on sign language and lip-reading to communicate.
But she can't hear the phone ring, or the ping of a text message, or know when someone is knocking at the door. Nor can she hear the oven timer or the kettle whistling or a beeping smoke alarm.
So whenever Julia hears one of these sounds, she alerts Saunders by touching her with a paw and running back and forth from the source of the noise until Saunders is aware of it.
Not surprisingly, Saunders talks about Julia and Cody as if they were people. ''They've worked so loyally for me. It's why I have to give them something back, so Cody, and now Julia, always have down time … time to chase the rabbits, go for walks and sniff around the garden. But they won't go anywhere I am not.''
Hearing dogs can also be crucial for people such as Lynn Polson, now 53, who have young children. In 1989, Polson developed Meniere's disease, a rare condition that can lead to total deafness and can cause the sufferer to collapse for several hours at a time.
A year later, Mac, a whippet-cross from an Adelaide shelter, became Polson's ears. Mac would alert her when her baby was crying so she didn't have to sleep with her hand on her child. Mac, she says ''gave me my life back''.
Mothers like Polson also rely on hearing dogs to let them know when their toddler has taken a tumble or when their children want to talk to them.
While guide dogs for the blind are a common and well-accepted part of the community, most people are largely unaware that there are hundreds of dogs throughout Australia trained to help people with other kinds of disabilities - such as hearing impairments - and give them a significantly better quality of life.
It costs about $1 million a year to train all the dogs, and funding comes almost exclusively from corporate sponsorship. But with limited money for advertising, potential recipients of these dogs are often unaware that help can be just around the corner.
Dogs like Julia and Mac, who are mainly recruited from animal rescue centres when they are from six to 18 months old, undergo a rigorous training program lasting between six and eight months at the Lions Hearing Dog Training Centre in Adelaide. The program has been operating since 1982.
They are trained to touch their owners with a paw when they hear one of the many sounds to which they have been taught to respond. They run back and forth from the sound's source until the owner responds.
Every year, Lions Hearing Dogs Australia places 16 to 17 hearing dogs with people around the country who need them to navigate their silent lives.
The program doesn't come cheap. Each dog costs at least $30,000 to train and feed and to cover its veterinary costs. The dogs are allocated without charge according to the severity of a person's hearing loss and their ability to instruct and care for the dog.
The program has been operating since 1982 and since then Lions clubs around the country have raised $15 million to fund it. Providing Janet Saunders with her hearing dog Julia was the Lions' 500th placement.
Lions Club national chairman Peter Harrison says a quarter of Lions' annual sponsorship for hearing dogs comes from sales of Lions Christmas cakes, and the rest from donations. Private bequests, ''sometimes totalling large sums'', get invested for long-term learning programs at schools for the hearing impaired.
Luiza Ziembicki is the training manager at the Adelaide centre and is responsible for the dogs. They are assessed on the basis of temperament and ability to relate and interact with people, as well as their ability to respond to various sounds in a variety of environments.
Dogs that meet these criteria are quarantined at the centre for two weeks, vaccinated and desexed before undergoing a two-week assessment in public places to ensure they can cope with taking instructions in distracting places.
Once chosen, training begins at the centre's purpose-built home where they learn to respond to nine sounds, most of which are home-related as that's where most of their work is done.
When ready to go out into the world, the hearing dogs can accompany their owners in all public places except the zoo (due to quarantine restrictions) and operating theatres.
When the dog is placed, the new owner is given lessons by the trainer on how to teach the dog to respond to single-word cues in the home and broader environment, especially the local shops. The Lions Club reviews their progress every three months.
Ziembicki says while hearing dogs often attract attention and people want to pat them and talk to their owner, deafness is an ''invisible'' impairment and people can be dismissive of the dogs' role.
Saunders says she has experienced occasions when restaurants have been reluctant to serve her when she is accompanied by her dog. She has even been the butt of jokes about her dog as it wears a jacket explaining that it is a hearing dog.
''My dog can hear, too,'' is a common wisecrack.
Ziembicki says part of the problem with the public's ignorance about hearing dogs is that because the blind association exclusively uses Labradors and golden retrievers, ''there's a misconception that these breeds are the only service dog breeds''. The blind association also has a higher profile. It is older, established in 1951, and has offices in every state.
''We can get good dogs from a shelter, so why not utilise that resource?'' Ziembicki says. ''It's free and gives amazing dogs on death row a great, rewarding life. No dog is perfect but there are perfect partners and combinations.''
Unlike hearing dogs, the 130 assistance dogs placed around Australia for people with disabilities - predominantly quadriplegics - are purpose bred for the job.
Assistance Dogs Australia, which has been operating in Sydney since 1996, places 30 dogs a year at a cost of $27,000 per dog. It relies on corporate and public sponsorship, including Petstock and Mitsubishi Motors, to meet its financial needs of about $800,000 a year.
Dee Moore, a trainer with Assistance Dog Australia, says the legacy of decades of breeding Labradors in America and golden retrievers in Britain as gun dogs is that they're easily trained and have soft mouths, integral for their main job of picking up items for owners who have little or no hand control.
Assistance dogs are first placed with ''puppy raisers'' when they are eight weeks old for 15 to 18 months. During this time the volunteer puppy raisers attend regular training sessions to learn how to get the dogs accustomed to a range of environments including shopping centres, lifts and playgrounds and are at ease when living and working as part of a family.
Since 2002, the association has also sent puppies to be raised at the Kirkconnell Correctional Centre near Bathurst and the Frank Baxter Juvenile Justice Centre near Gosford, NSW, to help inmates develop training skills. The program also helps offenders with their rehabilitation.
The dogs then undergo intensive training at the association's centre where they learn a total of 42 cues. These include barking only in an emergency, picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors (which are fitted with special pulleys within the home so dogs use their mouths) retrieving the phone, loading and unloading front-loader washing machines, paying cashiers and pushing buttons in lifts.
Tanya Clarke, 38, has been in a wheelchair for half her life following a car accident that left her with several problems including extremely limited use of her arms and hands.
Before the accident she was studying to become a primary school teacher but the accident and months spent in hospital and rehabilitation dashed her plans.
When she was 27 she was given a golden retriever called Harry, who was sponsored by the Transport Accident Commission as part of a pilot program.
The director of the Australian Quadriplegics Association for the past 10 years, Clarke says that even with her parents' support - she lives in a self-contained apartment separated from the family home - until she was given Harry she was restricted, and uncertain about going out in public.
''Being in a wheelchair, without an assistance dog, meant people couldn't see me and I was restricted to the ground floor of my home, unless with my parents or a friend - which made me feel even more dependent than I already was.''
Harry died two years ago after assisting Clarke for 12 years. Since then she has had Junior, a golden Labrador. When they are in the supermarket and Clarke wants a particular item, she will knock it to the floor and Junior will pick it up and place it in a basket attached to her wheelchair.
At the checkout Junior will also pay the bill. He uses his mouth to take Clarke's purse from her bag and then places it on the counter. He returns the purse to the bag after he's been given any change.
Last July, Clarke and Junior completed five kilometres of the Melbourne Fun Run, made possible by improvements to her wheelchair - and, of course, by Harry. This year they are planning to do 10 kilometres.
''I loved Harry so much I didn't want another dog. But when Junior walked through the door, I thought, 'What a handsome fellow'.'' Clarke says.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald