Posted 2 months ago ago
(Image: Lee Walker)
By Leila Marshall
Juno the hearing dog has changed Lee Walker’s life for the better as the cockapoo has given him the confidence and independence to go about his daily life.
Lee, who now lives in the Midlands, lost his hearing at just 10 years old due to an attack of meningitis.
He said: “It was a very confusing period of upheaval. Prior to the virus I had an incident that left me, unknown at the time, with hairline fractures in my skull. My anger, not only with having to deal with full hearing loss but also towards the person who caused the incident was immense.”
He was placed at a school for deaf people in County Durham, which wasn’t in his home town. The level of education he was given was, he felt, far below the par of his previous mainstream school and there was a lot of pressure on him to learn sign language, which he refused.
He said: “This would have meant my friends would also have to learn to sign which I felt was unfair to them. There was nothing wrong with my speech and I did not want to lose my voice, so I learned to lip-read and had elocution lessons. As far as communication was concerned it was down to me and me alone.” Lee felt alienated and grew increasingly frustrated until his family lobbied to get him back into mainstream education. This was eventually granted and there he flourished.
Later, when he started work, Lee found employers who appeared not to take their disability awareness training seriously enough. They were not flexible with regards to making adaptations in his workplace, to the point where Lee no longer felt safe. He said: “There were no flashing light alerters for the fire and bomb alarms and I was totally reliant on my colleagues advising me, which is pointless were I to be the first person arriving in the morning. I had to take the matter into my own hands so I applied for a hearing dog.
“It takes a while to be matched with a suitable hearing dog and during this period I left my former place of employment and moved out of London. This in turn made it easier to be matched with a dog – it takes an extra confident dog to cope with working London.”
One of Lee’s requests with Hearing Dogs was that he was after a dog that was still a “dog” He said: “I wanted a dog that liked to have fun and was not staid because it was on duty 24 hours a day.” This was no problem as having fun is an essential part of being a hearing dog – their work feels like play and they get treats.
Part of the partnership process is that Hearing Dogs will introduce you to dogs that they feel are suitable for your specific needs and also match as near as possible the applicant’s personal requests about the type of dog they’d like. Lee said: “Before I met Juno, I was introduced to another cockapoo who stayed with me overnight at home. Although it was a lovely dog, unfortunately I just didn’t feel it was the right dog for me. After waiting a while longer I was introduced to Juno.
“Juno is very lively, very outgoing and very loyal. We bonded more or less straight away. We both knew that the connection was there. As a companion she’s what I would call my daemon – for those who have read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ – as she is almost constantly by my side.”
Lee with Juno at the Tower Bridge in London (Image: Lee Walker)
Having Juno has given Lee more freedom at home. Before, if he knew there were going to be visitors or a delivery, he would have to sit near a window all day from where he could see people approaching. He said: “This was, as you can imagine, not the best time management but what else could I do?!
“Today Juno alerts me to the doorbell and fire alarm, along with my bedside alarm clock and the kitchen timer – although I am doing more sound work practice with the alarm clock due to changing it recently, and the alarm makes a different sound that Juno is unsure of. All of this means I can get on with things that need to be done without having to worry. She’s very alert to her surroundings.”
Lee explained that when Juno is working, it can be difficult at times as she doesn’t look like a stereotypical assistance dog – Labradors are set into people’s psyches because they’re familiar with seeing them out working with blind people. Lee has consequently had occasional difficulties in public areas where staff are unaware of the different types of assistance dogs but, after brief conversations and a little on the spot education each time, the situation has been resolved. Lee added: “When out and about, nine times out of ten it’s fine, people will curiously glance over, note the ‘Hearing Dogs’ on her jacket and go about their own days without any further ado.
Juno, the four-year-old light tan mix cockapoo, has lived with Lee for two years. She was trained from being a puppy by the assistance dog charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Hearing Dogs works to very precisely match their dogs to recipients and this in turn takes time.
Lee said: “After Juno was with me for the 24-hour get-together at home, and after I decided that she was the right dog for me (almost instantly!), then we travelled to Hearing Dogs in Buckinghamshire to stay for the ‘handover’ week. There I was taught how to work with Juno, commands, alarms, sound work, grooming, bonding, everything was covered. Juno was with me constantly through this stay.
“Then we came home, where sound work continues. We’re living through an unprecedented time right now and sometimes her doorbell alerts slip due to having so few people call around. But this is soon rectified with high value rewards and a bit of practice.
“The fire alarm alert is tested fortnightly as it requires a different action for the dog where she lies down after nudging my leg to alert me – this gives me a clear signal that it’s a danger sound and is why it’s important that she doesn’t lie down for other sound alerts.
“Today I work alongside Alison who is my Hearing Dogs Partnership Instructor. I consider both Alison and Tamsin, Juno’s trainer, my golden triangle of support – they are worth their weight in gold.”
Juno was more or less settled at home with Lee within only an hour or so of getting there, making her “nest” in the corner of the sofa.
Juno gets a lot of attention, which can break her concentration (Image: Lee Walker)
“Juno is a beautiful dog, and she pulls on some people’s heartstrings. Despite social distancing, They come straight into our personal space to give her a stroke without asking permission first – - and this breaks her concentration. She then becomes lively, and I have to politely ask the person to stop and calm Juno back down.
“I always explain that she is a working assistance dog and most of the time people then understand.”
Lee has had conversations with many people who have seen Juno and have approached him to talk about how she works with him and in some cases how they too can apply for a hearing dog. So hopefully Juno is changing other people’s lives as well.
Lee’s life has become a lot more laid-back, thanks to Juno, and especially with not having to work in an office anymore. He explained that had he still worked in an office with a daily London commute the hearing dog that would have been trained for him would have been a completely different character to Juno, who is a country girl and hates being in busy places.
He is now able to be anywhere in the house and not have to worry about missing doorbells, additionally when out and about her burgundy coat alerts people to Lee being deaf so if they are approaching, they are forewarned.
He said: “Life in the seemingly endless lockdowns has been interesting to say the least. Exercising Juno at the parks has been rather fraught. We’ve turned up at the park in the car only to see the number of people there and turned straight back around to go back home.
“We are thankfully blessed with a garden, which has been grown from scratch. and I’ve planted bush-type shrubs for her to explore in the borders and she is more than happy playing fetch with a tennis ball which has given her the exercise that she needs and that took a weight from my shoulders.
“I love the ability to just get on with things without having to worry about missing doorbells. It’s weird isn’t it, something many people take for granted that can be such a hindrance.
Juno alerting Lee to a fire alarm at their local supermarket (Image: Lee Walker)
“Once Covid has gone we will be heading out properly again. Trips are planned for the north and the Lakes. She adores the Lake District, exploring the winding fell and woodland paths, swimming in the lakes. Up north, I want to take her around my old stomping grounds. My family has always had dogs and there is a bit of nostalgia to take back in with some of the old walking routes.”
It costs Hearing Dogs around £40,000 to train and support a single assistance dog throughout their lifetime. By the public supporting or sponsoring a hearing dog puppy, it goes a really long way to helping more deaf people break through their boundaries. More information about donations as well as applying for a hearing dog can be found here.
If you would like to follow Juno’s adventures she can be found on Instagram: @Junothehearingdog.