A delightful and hugely enjoyable true life story of how an assistance dog changed a life – I loved it!
Sir Anthony Jay, writer of Yes Minister
It’s amazing what you can achieve with persistence, a bit of chopped liver and a second hand teddy bear…
In 2002 Michael, a deafened man from the New Forest, lost his home, his marriage, his business and his father – but he can’t actually remember if it was in that order. However, in the same year someone suggested that getting a dog might be a good idea – not just any dog, but a Hearing Dog from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. And when, in 2004, Michael was presented with a Hearing Dog of his own called Matt, he just knew life would be so much easier. Amazing how wrong you can be, isn’t it!
If It Wasn’t For That Dog is the story of Matt’s first year with Michael, the challenges and accomplishments of climbing the Hearing Dog learning curve, the profound changes he stimulated and the inestimable joy he confers magically on everyone who meets him. But most of all it is the story of the strange power of meaty treats to work miracles in doggie behaviour.
I’ve made no mention so far in this story of interactions between Matt and the feline species. Matt had certainly had many close encounters of the first kind – sightings of cats – and one or two close encounters of the second kind – getting a cat to spit at you and arch its back. However, up until now close encounters of the furred kind –grabbin’ a cat by the scruff of the neck and shakin’ the living daylights out of it – had thus far eluded our gentle hero. Accordingly, he tended to view this glowing-eyed alien species with particular interest (“it’s life Dad, but not as we dogs know it”). Matt is a creature who believes that the sole function of all intelligent life such as himself is to play. It thus does not come easily to him to understand that not all entities in the universe are as naturally besotted with him as I am. Consequently on several occasions when we have been out walking he has approached felines at his usual pace – warp factor 10 – only to find to his amazement that either the Species concerned exits at warp factor 11, or it arches its back, makes its fur stand on end and spits venom at him from 50 paces. In the later case Matt’s warp factor 10 forward has, generally speaking, morphed instantly into warp factor 10 backwards. Resistance, clearly has been futile.
The next weekend had long been booked for a visit to my friends, Chris and Dilys, who live in Kent. (You may recall that it was their cats, Gismo and Kitten, who had written in protest at Matt’s innocently intended comment ( 🙂 ) about the inferiority of cats compared to dogs at that time when he had issued his invitations to my surprise adoption party).
Accordingly, this weekend we were about to enter the very home space of the aliens, with whom he had hoped for so long for First Contact. It was Matt’s presumption that, when on home territory, The Species would surely feel sufficiently confidence to enter into the rough and tumble and leaping and lurching that true intelligent life such as dogs indulge in constantly. Uh huh….
We arrived about lunchtime on the Friday to our usual tumultuous welcome by Chris, Dilys and their lovely twenty-year-old daughter, Hazel. Matt had barely set foot inside the door when he became aware of the smell of The Species, whereupon he began tugging forward on his lead. Though we were in a private home, I had taken the precaution of putting him into full dress uniform, so as to ensure he felt in work mode, in the hope that this would offset the enticing attraction of cats to some degree. Uh huuh
Indeed, it must also be stated that this was a first, not only for Matt, but also for Kitten and Gismo, who had never had a canine interloper in the home space before. This, of course, would undoubtedly be a source of tremendous honour and intrigue to them. Uh huuuuuuuuh.
Now, as every space fleet admiral knows, it is easier to defend territory from above the enemy, thus forcing him into the disadvantage of fighting upwards. From such an advantageous location one can launch one’s most spirited defence with whatever weaponry – be it laser cannon, photon torpedoes or spittle – is available. Upon our arrival, both cats had retreated to the back of the house, where there was some eminently defendable high space and – last line of defence – a worm hole into the alternative universe of the garden (i.e. a cat-flap). Gismo (grey and white, small), less experienced in the arts of feline-canine inter-dimensional warfare, had not waited for an opportunity to assess the strength and weaknesses of the earth-bound enemy but from the moment of our arrival had opted for the fall back position preferred by every alien – the shed roof. Here she proceeded to spend most of the weekend until our departure. Kitten (black and white, bit larger), evidently the more militarily experienced of the two aliens and clearly a seasoned Predator of numerous campaigns, had adopted some of the more defendable territory inside the house – high up on a wall unit behind a cheese plant that acted as an invisibility suit against the enemy.
Welcomes, cups of tea and other preliminaries having been duly completed, Dylis decided it was time that the aliens were introduced to their new visitor. She retrieved a somewhat reluctant Kitten from behind the cheese plant and brought her through into the lounge. Whilst she was gone, though he was shut inside the lounge and some twenty paces away, Matt was acutely aware of what was happening. He sat in front of the closed lounge door, wining desperately for an opportunity to achieve First Contact. When Dilys was ready (I can’t speak for whether Kitten was ready or not) slowly, the lounge door opened, and step by careful step, emerged Dilys, in Mother Ship mode, with Kitten perched high up on her shoulder, present only for the purposes of assessing the strength of the enemy’s battalions and fire power. From the safety of her high and highly manoeuvrable control module (i.e. Dil), she peered down at the invading earth creature, invoking that innate attitude of superiority that cats always have over dogs when they know they have them out-foxed, out-reached or – as in this case – out ray-gunned.
Matt, for his part, sat bolt upright, rigid and quivering in excitement, barely daring to move his tail, wholly possessed with the prospect that he might actually have here the potential of making First Contact with the much admired and deified species that for so long had remained frustratingly beyond his reach. After a couple of minutes it was clear that Kitten had finished her reconnoitre, and she scrambled to get away and back to the safety of the cheese plant. From here, much to Matt’s frustration she spent most of the weekend peering down at him from the ray-gun slits of the plant’s leaves, periodically stretching enticingly but oh so frustratingly, so that the invading earth-bound dog could see what he definitely was not going to be permitted to touch.
Come Sunday lunch, and clearly somehow aware that we were shortly to depart, curiosity got the better of Kitten. As we sat, finishing off lunch and lazy conversation, she gingerly stepped over the cheese plant, and jumped down onto a part of the wall unit that was just feasibly within doggy reach. Matt, immediately aware of her change of strategy, again sat frozen in the light of her Tractor Beam at the prospect of genuine First Contact. I watched him carefully, ready to yell “No!” should he make a light speed move in Kitten’s direction. But the Bark Side of the Force was clearly not strong with him that day. He sat perfectly still, muscles quivering, tail flicking almost imperceptibly, yet seemingly totally unable to move. Confident that she now had not only the upper hand, but also complete control over the invading force, Kitten boldly went where few cats had gone before and jumped onto the seat of an empty chair, where she proceeded to annex the space on behalf of the Feline Empire, by washing her front paws nonchalantly, monitoring the disdained enemy from the corner of her eye. Matt, completely bemused as to what on earth to do now that First Contact was now a real possibility, simply sat, awaiting further initiatives from what he now recognised to be indisputably a Higher Intelligence. The Higher Intelligence, however, was having none of it. She had now demonstrated her innate superiority to her own satisfaction and it was beyond dispute by the assembled party. She therefore returned to safety behind the cheese plant where she remained, much to doggy disappointment until we left. Was it her Drone that buzzed us as we reached the M2 on the way home? I’m not sure – but at the time of writing First Contact remains enticingly just out of reach. Anyway, what can you expect? After all, Matt is from Mars and Cats are from Venus. 🙂
“I’m reviewing the situation…”
After that visit to The Grange earlier in February and with the decision to postpone Matt’s final assessment, we had elevated sound work to the very top of the agenda. I worked Matt daily on doorbell, telephone, alarm signals and so on and watched him gain noticeable ground each day. The week after the Close Encounter we had arranged for Sarah, Matt’s Placement Officer to visit once again. With the progress that he was making I must admit that my main concern was whether she would think I’d been making a fuss about nothing. But there again, Nikki, Matt’s trainer at The Grange, had concurred in the decision to postpone the assessment.
Bright and early on the Thursday morning, there was a ring on the doorbell – at least I assumed there was, since Matt squealed in excitement, dashed for the door then rushed back to alert me. By now he knew he would get nowhere unless he did the job correctly. He dropped his bottom elegantly to the floor (CAN a dog drop his bottom elegantly?), and put his front paws around my knees in a perfectly executed alert signal. I spread my hands enquiringly and asked him in the time-honoured response “What is it?” whereupon he rushed for the door, checking behind him to ensure I was following. Sure enough it was Sarah. I instructed Matt into his corner where he proceeded to wait patiently until I had invited Sarah in and said hello. As soon as I released him though, he wanted to be all over her. As he jumped at her, Sarah raised her face upwards to break eye contact and stood with her arms folded, completely ignoring Matt until he returned properly to the approved position of all four feet on the floor. It was a good start to the day.
We filled the rest of the morning with tests on his sound work to which he responded well, but sufficiently short of perfection to demonstrate the need for further improvement. The afternoon was spent walking him in the forest, with me holding tight onto my whistle lest he decide to demonstrate his jumping problem by terrorising some unsuspecting passer-by with an unscheduled leap at them. But though he roughed and tumbled with every four-footed creature that came within playing distance, his behaviour around people remained impeccable.
At the end of the afternoon we sat down to review where we were. “Well, he’s not perfect,” said Sarah, “But I reckon he’s ready for assessment.”
I’d heard this before, several months previously. “Are you sure he’ll pass?” I asked with some reticence.
“No, you can’t be sure how he’ll behave on the day,” she answered, “but he needs to average 75% across all assessed areas of performance, and if I’d been assessing him today I would have passed him.”
“OK,” I said slowly, “can we arrange for the assessment sooner rather than later then please, because I’m due to go on holiday with Naomi at the end of March, and if we delay ‘til after that there’s a good chance he’ll deteriorate again while I’m away.”
Sarah phoned The Grange immediately. Matt’s assessment was arrange some three weeks hence on 10th March. Clearly, We still had some work to do to ensure his performance continued to improve right up until the target date.
Bar & Barred
I’ve written earlier of some of the encounters Matt and I had had with various establishments that were less than wholly happy to admit him. But in October of 2004 a major change took place in the law that affected the position fundamentally – the Disabilities Discrimination Act came fully into force. One of the aims of the Act is to ensure that disabled people receive no lesser a service from suppliers of all types than fully able consumers. And in the case of assistance dog users such as me, it is clear in requiring virtually all establishments to permit the entry of assistance dogs. On the Saturday following Sarah’s visit, little did I know that we would be testing the Act to its limit.
Periodically, my brother Richard and his son David come down from London to visit my mother who lives in Lymington, and we all go off to have lunch together. The pattern was well established that I would meet Richard and David from the station, from where we would go to collect Mum and then head out to lunch in some local restaurant. On this particular occasion I’d overbook my diary. (I’m sure there’s a little gremlin inside it that adds extra entries when I’m asleep at night – I’m absolutely certain it’s not me that puts every appointment in it that I find there each morning). As a result I had a relatively small window for lunch. To save time I collected Mum first, then made for Brockenhurst Station to meet Richard and David. With hugs and kisses duly dispensed all round, I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but my time is really tight today. Is it ok if we make for the nearest hotel or restaurant for lunch?” Everyone was in agreement and within five minutes we were turning into the driveway of a hotel near Brockenhurst.
We all piled out of the car with much zipping of coats and donning of hats and gloves against the ravages of the February wind. As is often the case, due to the time it takes to get Matt out of the car and into uniform, I found myself bringing up the rear of the party as we entered the restaurant. Consequently, Matt was not visible as the maitre d’ led our little party towards a table. Arriving at the table, he turned around and I watched his face fall as he saw Matt and me bringing up the rear of the group. He said something to my brother that was inaudible to me, shaking his head and glancing at Matt and me uncertainly. Now, if there’s something I hate it’s being talked about when I’m present as if I were absent – especially if it’s talk of the ‘Does he take sugar?’ variety that many disabled people suffer. I called out to the gentleman concerned “If you’re talking about me would you please come here and address your remarks directly to me. I am hearing disabled, not intellectually challenged.”
Quickly he approached and led me away from the restaurant area lest I create any further disruption (disruption? Wot moi?). He said something inaudible to me.
I looked at him, beginning to feel a little irritated that someone who now knew quite clearly that I had a hearing impairment would not take the trouble to adjust his speech for me, particularly given what he was trying to achieve – i.e. my departure! I looked straight at him and interrupted his mumbling. “Stop, please!” I said. He looked at me uncertainly. “If you want me to understand what you’re saying,” I continued, “you need to slow down and speak directly towards me so that I can read your lips. It’s the only way I’ll understand you.”
To give him his due, he responded appropriately immediately. Slowing his speech down and facing me directly, he said, “I’m sorry sir, but I am instructed that I may not allow dogs into the restaurant.”
I looked at him a moment, gathering my resources as my heart rate rose – I hate confrontation of any kind and will go to enormous lengths to avoid it. But if there’s one situation for which I make an exception, it’s this one. When I’m out and about with Matt I feel like an ambassador for everyone else who’s apt to receive inferior treatment by reason of their disability, and I simply will not back down any longer. And yes, we are talking red rags and bulls here. “Are you aware,” I answered in slow, measured tones, “that the Disability Discrimination Act came into full force in October last year, and that if you turn me away because of my hearing dog you will be breaking the law?”
He hesitated a moment, caught between his orders and an uneasiness that this awkward customer might just be telling the truth about the law. Then his training and obedience regained the upper hand. “I’m sorry sir,” he replied, “there’s nothing I can do. These are my instructions.”
“Then please understand, “ I responded carefully, “that before I leave I will require details of the ownership of this establishment and that I will report it for contravention of the Act and as a result you may be prosecuted.” He didn’t respond, clearly feeling uncertain of how to proceed. I pressed home the point. “Would you turn away a blind person with a guide dog?” I continued.
He hesitated before answering. “No he said, but we do have special provision for them.” He motioned towards the seating in the bar area. “As you are now telling me your dog is a guide dog,” he continued, “I can offer you seating here.”
I looked where he gestured. I was feeling embarrassed, rejected, marginalized and more than a little upset. He had already ensured I was not going to enjoy lunch. But time was tight, I didn’t have long enough to try anywhere else, and I was now impinging on the goodwill of my family a little further than I felt was reasonable. I wasn’t going to walk out, but I needed to push the point further to be absolutely clear about what was going on. I continued, “So if it’s possible for us to sit here, why are we being denied access to the restaurant?”
But in asking the question, I had given the maitre d’ the escape route he needed. “Why, because someone might trip over the dog in the restaurant,” came his swift reply.
I looked down at my little dog who stands about eighteen inches at the shoulder and who spends every available moment curled up unobtrusively at my feet. Obstruction is not the first word that comes to mind when you look at him lying motionless behind my chair in a public place. I looked into the bar area I was being offered which was too dark for comfortable lip reading and where the tables were closer together than they were in the restaurant anyway. “Then you surely must agree that there is more chance of his being tripped over here in the bar than there is in the restaurant,” I answered. So what’s the real reason you won’t let me in?”
I wasn’t expecting an honest answer, but something had clearly clicked for the maitre d’. After a few moments he replied in a softer tone, “Because someone might object to a dog in the restaurant.”
I looked directly into his eyes. Even I could hear the raucous noise of the only occupied table in the restaurant a few yards behind me where several excessively lubricated diners were making more of a nuisance of themselves than Matt would ever be capable of doing on his very worst possible day. But my time had run out. “Then I have to tell you that although I am accepting your offer of a table in the bar, I believe I am still being discriminated against by reason of my disability and I still intend to report this establishment for a breach of the Act.” At that moment I had no idea how to report a breech of the Act, or for that matter, to whom it should be reported. But I fully intended to find out first thing Monday morning!
Nevertheless, the maitre d’ had won – or at least his problem had gone away. He said nothing more, opening his hand in a gesture towards the awaiting table. We sat, and Matt proceeded to fall asleep in the corner behind my chair in his wholly inconspicuous and non-intrusive regular fashion. Not much chance of his being tripped over there. To add to the pain of the event we were then offered the bar menu instead of the restaurant menu, presumably in an attempt to get rid of us as quickly as possible! I objected once more, feeling as though I was going to have to fight every inch of the way for decent treatment. We were then given the restaurant menu.
In truth, I really didn’t know at that moment whether the restaurant was in breach of the Act or not. They had accepted my dog, albeit requiring me to accept an alternative and arguably inferior location in the bar. But the maitre d’ did have at least a presentable argument – less chance of the dog being tripped over – even if I considered it spurious. My intention was to let whichever authority was responsible resolve the issue. But during the meal an unexpected development took place. Just as we had finished ordering dessert, into the bar walked a gentleman in black tie, looking more than a little fazed. He glanced around nervously. Sensing this was about Matt, I caught his eye and looked enquiringly at him. He began addressing me inaudibly from the far side of the table, adding to the sense of frustration I was already feeling. OK, I accept I can’t expect people to know what my needs are as a hearing disabled person until I tell them, but when you’ve been abused by reason of your disability it tends to ruffle the feathers a little, leaving you less inclined to be sweetness and light than you might normally be. I swallowed hard and controlled the urge to turn into an uncannily accurate imitation of The Hulk having a very bad day.
“Could you come over here and talk directly towards me please,” I asked, trying to sound polite, “so that I can lip read you and hear you more clearly?” He complied with the request immediately.
“I’m sorry sir, there seems to have been a misunderstanding.” I looked at him enquiringly. “I gather you were refused entry to the restaurant because of your assistance dog. That was a mistake on the part of the restaurant manager. He’s been told that dogs are not permitted, but that instruction was never intended to include assistance dogs.”
Well, at least we were now getting somewhere. “So if I come here with my dog again,” I asked, “I will be permitted to sit in the restaurant?”
“Yes sir,” came the swift and unequivocal reply.
I thought for a moment. I had retrieved just about everything from this frustrating and painful occasion that I could, and there would be little to be gained from pressing the matter with the authorities (or so, in my ignorance, I thought). “Then there is no further complaint, “ I found myself answering, surprising myself with my reasonableness. He nodded, thanked me and slipped away in that unobtrusive manner that is the sole prerogative of excellently trained service staff at the quality end of the hospitality industry.
As we rose to leave, the maitre d’ said to me apologetically, “Well, I learned something today.”
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Unfortunately your learning has cost me a rare, otherwise enjoyable family meal and a waste of £80.00.’ How come I never say these things, even when I think of them in time?