How many dogs have ever gone to Folsom State Prison? My Hearing Dog, Mack, a friendly, 10-pound black Poodle, has, on numerous occasions.
I work in mental health, and one of our folks who opted for street drugs instead of psych drugs ended up in Folsom under the “three strikes” law. After undergoing a stringent investigative process, Mack and I are now listed as “approved visitors.” We go through the metal detector and show our picture IDs at various security points before being allowed inside. Once we’re there, Mack’s a big hit with all the personnel, and especially with the inmates. Each time we’ve been to Folsom, an inmate will come up and ask to pet him. Some tell me that it’s been 25 years since they’ve seen a dog.
With every disability, if one looks hard enough, something positive can be found. In my case, my hearing loss qualified me for a Hearing Dog from the San Francisco SPCA Hearing Dog Program (sadly, a program that has been discontinued). In this and similar programs, such as with Dogs for Better Lives, “career change” dogs are trained to help people with significant hearing loss. Mack (full name, Mackey) is trained to lick my face when the alarm goes off in the morning, and leads me to the phone or doorbell when they sound. (Unfortunately, the trainers forgot Mack’s snooze-alarm cue; when the buzzer goes off, that’s it. Lick, lick and lick —rise and shine, dear guardian!)
My life changed dramatically when Mack came into it. I went from being a rather isolated stay-at-home to someone for whom there aren’t enough hours in the day. Having him with me not only gives me a great sense of safety, it also alerts people to my hearing loss. This, in turn, encourages those around me to make certain allowances as I try to make out what’s being said.
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It’s absolutely amazing how a friendly dog can totally change the atmosphere. When we walk into a doctor’s office, for instance, people may be sitting quietly, caught up in their own problems. Mack, wearing his orange Hearing Dog jacket, enters and the whole scene changes. People begin to smile, ask questions about how Mack assists me and coax him to them. He happily visits each and every person in the waiting room, soliciting attention and appreciation. Suddenly, everyone is smiling and sharing stories of dogs they used to have. It’s truly remarkable. My primary-care doctor said she took me as a new patient because of Mack—she was kidding (I hope).
I am a very busy person, so Mack is a very busy dog, and during our 14 years together, we’ve sometimes gotten ourselves into some awkward situations. For example, a gentleman friend and I were having dinner in a dimly lit, dark-carpeted restaurant (remember, Mack is black). After ordering, I excused myself to wash my hands, and before leaving the table, poked my head underneath and told Mack, “I’ll be right back.”
A family sitting to our right saw me and overheard what I said. They gave me some very peculiar looks, but when I turned to them and said, “There’s a dog under the table,” they got up and moved to another booth. I suspected they didn’t want to sit near someone who was clearly delusional, but I couldn’t contain my laughter. My friend, however, was both incensed and embarrassed. That was the end of that relationship.
On a more positive note, during a flight to Bakersfield, Calif., Mack sat on the captain’s lap for 30 minutes. It was a small commuter plane, and, since it was a very hot day, the captain had the cockpit door ajar. Mack and I were sitting nearby, and when the captain noticed him, he invited Mack into the cockpit. There Mack sat, taking in the 180-degree view and very pleased with his promotion, only occasionally looking back to make sure I was still there.
In a crowded elevator, a lady standing in front of me abruptly turned around and asked if there was something wrong. I said, “No, why do you ask?” She said she thought her leg had been licked. I was aghast, but then realized what had happened. Scarcely able to speak, I motioned towards the dark carpeting, and, of course, to Mack. Everyone except the woman involved chuckled, and all were smiling when they walked out of the elevator.
Yet another time, I neglected to tell the waitress that there was a dog under the table. As she came down the aisle with a large tray of food on her shoulder, Mack peeked out. The waitress exclaimed, “Oh, my god—a dog!!” Without going into the messy details, you can probably imagine where the plates of food ended up. (Since this episode, I’ve made sure the wait staff are alerted to Mack’s presence.)
Mack has been my hero, too. On one wintry night, he awakened me at 3:30 am, and I got up to search my apartment for signs of an intruder. As I flicked on the light in the kitchen, I saw a man’s foot come through the window I’d left open above the sink. I won’t tell you exactly what I said, but he left, and, of course, I called the police.
I wonder how long I will be able to have Mack with me. He’s at least 17, perhaps even older, and has lost most of his own hearing, and his eyesight is greatly diminished. We spend quality time together, and accept one another’s frailties. I hope I will be able to focus on the wonderful times we’ve shared and the pleasure we’ve both received from this awesome relationship.
It’s a tumultuous world, but there are many good people and wonderful programs that help make lives more meaningful and enjoyable. I am delighted that increasingly, dogs are not only assisting those with vision and hearing loss but also, those who suffer from loneliness and other difficult situations. For me and Mack, it’s been a real gift and a mutually good deal, and I thank the programs that made it possible.