FORT WAYNE – Visitors to Kathy Taylor’s house are greeted with a gleeful tail wagging.
But then Janet, Taylor’s 8-year-old golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, disappears from the front door of their Warsaw home.
She runs to find her owner and nudges her with her nose, grabbing Taylor’s attention and leading her to the front door.
Good girl, Taylor says, pausing to thank the dog for her work.
Janet is more than a furry greeter for guests – Taylor is deaf and Janet is her hearing dog.
She just makes my life so much easier. I’m not constantly trying to figure out what I am supposed to do or where I am going, Taylor said. She’s always there for me.
At age 5, Taylor was diagnosed with measles.
I remember going to bed and waking up the next morning after a high fever and I could see my mom’s lips moving, but I couldn’t hear anything, she said.
Doctors told her the virus likely caused her hearing loss.
As a child Taylor attended a public school, but had a private speech teacher who helped her with speech and lip reading.
Still, there were many things she had to adjust to – like how to strategically position herself at the doctor’s office so she could lip-read her name from the nurse.
If somebody says they are going to come to your house, I’d have to keep post at the front door or the window because I wouldn’t be able to hear them knock, she said. And if someone says they will call, I couldn’t go anywhere else in the house or I wouldn’t hear the phone ring.
Taylor, who works for CenturyLink, which provides communications and data services, also faced challenges knowing when someone at work needed her attention or was inviting her to join the group.
One day while driving in Columbus, Ohio, on a business trip, Taylor was searching for a customer’s address and pulled out into traffic directly in front of a fire truck that was responding to a call – lights flashing and sirens blaring.
I couldn’t hear it, Taylor said. By the grace of God they missed me because I had no idea that truck was coming.
It was then that Taylor decided to apply for a service dog.
‘Got that down pat’
After applying for a dog at several companies, Taylor submitted her application at Canine Companions for Independence – what she and others call the Cadillac of service dog providers.
To her surprise, she was selected almost immediately to participate in the two-week training and receive a service dog at no cost.
It was probably about a 4-month process for me, which is totally unheard of, Taylor said, explaining that some people are put on a waiting list for many months or even years. The stars must have lined up because they had someone cancel for the class in June and I took their spot.
Taylor went to California for Canine Companions training where she was paired with then-2-year-old Janet.
Canine Companions breeds and trains Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers to become service or assistance dogs.
We have our own breeding program and the puppies are born into Canine Companions and stay with us and we follow up with them along the way, said Ashley Koehler, development associate for the North Central Region of Canine Companions.
Everyone receives their hearing dog for free, she said. There are lots of organizations that charge thousands of dollars, but we provide them for free.
The organization estimates that over the lifespan of the dog, Canine Companions spends $50,000 a dog – a cost that is covered by donations, grants and fundraisers and is never passed on to the client, Koehler said.
Canine Companions has 1,021 active volunteer puppy raisers across the country and places about 250 assistance dogs each year, Koehler said.
The volunteers train four types of assistance dogs: service dogs, skilled companion dogs, facility dogs and hearing dogs, like Janet.
Throughout the training, all dogs learn commands to help their owners hear sounds they might encounter every day – like sirens and doorbells.
But they can also be trained to respond to noises specific to their owner, Koehler explained.
Before I had Janet, my business (cell) phone would ring and by the time I would think is that a phone ringing?’ the call would already be in my voicemail, Taylor said.
But after just a few training sessions, Janet was alerting Taylor to her phone each time it rang or received a text message and was rewarded with dog treats that Taylor carries in her pocket at all times.
She only alerts me to the sounds that I want to know about, Taylor said. And she’s so smart that generally after about two times of telling her when you hear that, let me know’ and she’s got that down pat.
‘My best buddy’
One of Taylor’s biggest concerns when she brought Janet home was how others would perceive her.
Taylor had nearly perfected her speech and lip-reading abilities over the years to the point where she could sit and have a conversation without anyone feeling uncomfortable.
I work for CenturyLink and here I am handling these major accounts for hospitals, schools, casinos, that sort of thing. So I wondered, how am I going to be perceived as a system designer going into the IT department not only as a woman, but a blonde, and now I have a dog? I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, she said.
But as it turned out, Janet also played another important role.
She’s an icebreaker, Taylor said, explaining how others feel more comfortable meeting her because they can first talk about her dog. Janet comes in and she’s so professional and she does her tasks.
Taylor has also had opportunities to connect with other hearing-dog owners – such as Fort Wayne resident Bryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman had spinal meningitis when he was 2 years old, resulting in hearing loss. He relies on lip-reading and sign language to communicate.
He said he can also relate to Taylor’s experiences with his new pal, Geralene, a 3-year-old hearing dog from Canine Companions.
Geralene works with Zimmerman at his job as vocational rehabilitation area supervisor and a recreational therapist for Ferraro Behavior Services.
Throughout the day, she’s at Zimmerman’s side, waiting to alert him.
She will poke me if someone knocks on the door, calls my name. She shows me where the sound comes from, Zimmerman said.
He, too, knows how much easier it is to meet others with his icebreaker at his side.
People are more relaxed when Geralene is around. They come in and see her if they are having a bad day, Zimmerman said.
Everyone is supportive of her.
But at the end of the day, puppies will be puppies, he added.
Once Geralene is safely inside his Fort Wayne home and her work vest – a blue bandanna-like jacket she wears around her neck – is removed, she’s a kooky, fun-loving dog, Zimmerman said.
She works hard, so this is play, he said, ripping the Velcro jacket from her neck and grinning as she ran in circles, sniffing and bouncing around. She’s my best buddy.