Editor’s Note: Hearing dogs can serve as invaluable assistants for hard-of-hearing people. The following article, adapted from the NVRC Web site, demonstrates their utility—and the strong bonds that can develop between “master” and dog.

Through the years, many of you have followed (via the NVRC newsletter) the exploits of my beloved hearing dog—a golden retriever named Dana—who retired in November 2002. We bid her goodbye in late January. Dana collapsed on December 3 and I expected to lose her that day. Despite numerous tests with dire results, she steadily gained ground. Over the holidays she was in high spirits while surrounded by a maelstrom of kids, adults, and other dogs. She’s always loved all three, and, more important, they all had lots of food.

To Live is to Eat
Dana’s one great reason for living was to eat. Her life could be divided into just two periods: eating or looking for her next meal. That enormous appetite was what made her easy to train. As long as I had food, she maintained laser focus on figuring how to make me part with it. No one else was allowed to feed her. This did not prevent her from shamelessly begging at any opportunity with her piteous “she never feeds me” look.

Dana was incredibly cunning. She could tell when I was momentarily distracted or not looking in her direction. She’d take advantage of it to scarf down food that had fallen or been tossed aside—or anything that might be potential food. I went to great lengths to keep her healthy by studying canine nutrition. Yet, much to my dismay, she could inhale year-old gum off a sidewalk before I could command her to drop it.

Her favorite food was bananas, and none were ever safe. She tried to hide her addiction by swallowing them peel and all. She was always busted because she wasn’t as tidy about leaving the dried brown top of the peel behind.

Butting Heads and Working
Dana was stubborn. During our first year as a team, we had clear differences of opinion over the meaning of certain commands. Dana believed she was “under” if her tail was beneath a specified table. I insisted that all parts of her body had to be out of sight. We finally reached an agreement that, when certain small tables were involved, she might be allowed some leeway.

Her stubborn nature and keen intellect, coupled with an incredible work ethic, made her a truly outstanding hearing dog. She was adept at communicating with her body language and facial expressions, and she was the consummate professional when working. If the kitchen timer went off while I was typing something, she’d alert me by touching me with a paw then head off to lead me to the kitchen. I often hate to leave a sentence or thought unfinished, so I would sometimes ignore her first alert. But I did so at my peril; if she caught me not following her, she’d whip back and alert me more insistently—this time with her claws out.

Dana got me out of a hotel when I was unaware that fire alarms were going off. Because of this, for the first time, I felt secure enough to sleep when I was away from home. Three times over the years, when I was in Washington, DC after dark, the visage of this loving dog without a mean bone in her body suddenly turned into a slit-eyed face full of snarling teeth, scaring off people who were sneaking up. While she was small for a golden retriever (about 45 pounds), she had the courage of a lion.

Favorite Things
Dana loved to greet new people at NVRC. She viewed the staff and a number of the Board members as her good friends. In my early public presentations, Dana loved to crack up an audience by breaking her “down stay,” rolling onto her back, and tossing her feet toward the ceiling as if playing with an invisible soccer ball. She always chose her moments for maximum comic relief.

The one place that she loved best was our spot of heaven in West Virginia. She bounded over the green fields to leap off the banks into the Cacapon River, her strokes effortless and her long hair floating gracefully around her. One day swimming for a ball was not enough, and she dove straight down, disappearing below the surface of the water. As we watched in shock, ready to jump to her rescue, she resurfaced, grinning, with a rock in her mouth.

Thus began the presentation of the trophy rock each time we went to the river. She would dive several times, bringing up various rocks until she found one she liked. Then we’d make our way back through the fields to our log cabin, with Dana stopping numerous times to drop her rock and roll on it. At the cabin, she made a grand entrance to present the rock to one of us, and to be made much of. She became incredibly strong from carrying the rocks, and took special delight in finding and presenting rocks that looked impossibly large and heavy. This summer, for the first time, she would occasionally allow me to help carry a rock for her.

I am very grateful for the gift of the last 7 weeks since Dana first collapsed. Every day was precious. On the day she died, we drove to the farm in West Virginia, where we buried Dana on the hill overlooking the cabin. As we finished our battle with the frozen earth, I placed a bunch of bananas tied with a gold ribbon atop her grave. In the spring we’ll build a memorial to her there with the trophy rocks that were her pride and joy.

Cheryl Heppner is the executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC) and editor of the NVRC newsletter. She experienced a hearing loss due to spinal meningitis at age six, has used hearing aids and assistive devices for most of her life, and became a cochlear implant user in February 2000. This article was adapted with permission.

A full version of this article and photos of Dana can be viewed at www.nvrc.org/content.aspx?page=5398&section=2.
Correspondence can be addressed to HR or Cheryl Heppner at [email protected].