Dog acts as ears for hard-of-hearing owner

Lucy always gets up when she hears an alarm clock or a knock at the door. Much as she likes to curl up in the living room, she never fails to go tell Michelle Threndyle when the kettle is whistling or when someone calls her name.

Already a good roommate, Lucy is well on her way to becoming Threndyle’s first hearing guide dog.

“It’s actually changed my life,” says Threndyle, who has about 10 per cent hearing in one ear, and half in the other. Her mother caught the rubella virus when she was pregnant with Michelle.

“Being deaf or hard of hearing is a very isolating experience,” she said. “I’d stopped going out because of it.”

But with Lucy to guide her, Threndyle is back walking the Beach parks, shopping on Queen, and dropping in on friends.

“I rely on her to be my sixth sense,” she said.

Adriana Colavecchia, who lives with Threndyle, said she reminds her of Sue Thomas, a deaf woman whose elite lip-reading skills landed her a surveillance job with the FBI. Thomas’ story inspired a TV series in the early 2000s called Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye.

“She’s so good, you forget,” Colavecchia said.

Michelle Threndyle takes a pause with Lucy, her 11 month-old hearing guide dog. Threndyle is selling seasonal cards to help pay for Lucy’s training.  PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Michelle Threndyle takes a pause with Lucy, her 11 month-old hearing guide dog. Threndyle is selling seasonal cards to help pay for Lucy’s training.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Like Thomas, Threndyle is an excellent lip-reader, she explained, and she speaks as clearly as a person with full hearing.

“It took a long, long time,” said Threndyle, smiling.

Growing up on a family farm in Elmwood, Ontario, Threndyle went to regular public schools. She did well, she said, but had to work extra hard.

One math teacher faced the chalkboard every class. In high school and later at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Threndyle had to take speech therapy lessons on the side.

“I had a hard time with this one word, ‘architects,’” she said. “I went weeks before I learned ‘architectural.’”

At OCAD, where she studied commercial art, Threndyle had a good friend who majored in English.

“She just couldn’t stand that I couldn’t speak well,” she said, laughing. “She said, ‘You’re going to learn.’”

Even now, after all that practice, Threndyle has to focus hard to enunciate certain words (‘enunciate’ is one of them). Good as her lip-reading is, it is tiring to do, and difficult when speaking with more than one person.

“It’s exhausting, and that’s what she’s doing all the time,” said Colavecchia, who compared the experience to being in a foreign country where you only pick up some of what’s being said.

After OCAD, Threndyle worked in commercial arts for a while, but got burned out. She switched to a job in a law office where she mostly worked alone.

Even then, the company refused to give her a phone with volume control. She had to memorize her colleagues’ extension numbers and accents to try and decipher their phone calls.

“That’s why they loved me, because I would come and see them,” Threndyle said. “They didn’t realize it was my way of getting around the fact I can’t hear you on the phone.”

Missing her art, Threndyle left the office to start a mural business with a friend that lasted 10 years. She then returned to her farming roots by becoming a private gardener and, more recently, by running a market garden.

“I dabble in everything – anything to avoid people,” she said, smiling.

Since March, Threndyle has extended her dabbling by training Lucy as a certified hearing service dog. She got the idea from Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye, where Thomas has her own hearing dog.

While seeing-eye dogs may be better known, hearing dogs are in demand. There is a huge waiting list to own one.

To avoid the wait and some of the high cost of a pre-trained dog, Threndyle took the unusual step of adopting a puppy and training it largely by herself, with guidance from Elizabeth Baker, chief trainer at Thames Centre Service Dogs outside London, Ontario.

Besides savings from her gardening business, Threndyle is selling seasonal cards with prints of her paintings to help cover the training fees.

Michelle Threndyle is selling cards with seasonal artwork.
Michelle Threndyle is selling cards with seasonal artwork.

She found Lucy, a mix of black Lab, German shepherd and border collie, at a shelter in Owen Sound.

“I looked at her, and I looked at the breed, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a chance on this one,” Threndyle said.

“My trainer said she’s an exceptional dog.”

Starting with lessons for home, Lucy graduated to public places such as streets and shops, where she helps Threndyle identify what’s going on beside and behind her.

Lucy just finished three weeks of training for restaurants and cafés, where Colavecchia said it’s important for her to lie under their table so she won’t trip anyone.

“The best compliment that can be made is that she lies under the table for two or three hours, we get up to leave and people say, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t notice the dog was there,’” Colavecchia said. “We get that all the time.”

Lucy is weeks away from her full certification exam in January, and she seems on track to pass.

“As soon as she puts that service vest on, she’s a different dog,” said Colavecchia. Birds, squirrels, even Kippendavie rabbits don’t seem to faze her, although flies still steal her attention on occasion.

Most shops owners are receptive to Lucy, though a few have questioned why Threndyle needs the dog when they can see her lip reading.

Colavecchia said it’s a matter of explaining all a hearing dog can do – picking up unheard sounds, alerting Threndyle to danger, helping her relax in a crowd.

“I think people need to be aware there are different kinds of service dogs,” Threndyle said.

Hanging on Threndyle’s living room wall is a painting she did a while ago, when she feeling frustrated and unfocused. It shows the Tree of Life, and a Celtic symbol for mind, body and spirit.

But the canvas also shows seams where Threndyle once ripped it apart. A friend challenged her to put it back together, and make the seams part of the piece.

“It’s the idea that we are all very fractured people,” she said. “We can come part, but we can also heal.”

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