By Susan Byers -
Out of the shadows and into the light. That’s how Natalie describes the impact of a Hearing Assist Dog on her life.
Natalie was born with severe to profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, but it wasn’t diagnosed until she was 2 years old. She began wearing hearing aids at age 3. Her mother helped her catch up with language development and American Sign Language (ASL) classes, and at school, she had an ASL interpreter. But Natalie resisted using ASL and struggled to fit into the hearing world.
By young adulthood, her hearing had declined, and she was becoming more withdrawn. She agreed to get a cochlear implant in her left ear and a hearing aid in the right. Nevertheless, she felt isolated.
“Before a Hearing Assist Dog, a typical day was a cycle of fear, anxiety, planning, isolation, and exhaustion,” Natalie explains. She relied on family and friends to coordinate a few activities they could do together so she wouldn’t be alone. But she still wasn’t living a full life or pursuing things she most enjoyed, such as outdoor activities.
Her mother suggested that a service dog might give her greater freedom and applied to Can Do Canines on Natalie’s behalf. In 2015, a Hearing Assist Dog named Nadia came into Natalie’s life. “It was life-changing. Nadia gave me the confidence to live and thrive,” she says.
For seven years, she and Nadia worked together, bringing Natalie newfound confidence and independence. And then, heartache. In 2022, Nadia contracted a life-threatening illness and passed away.
With the loss of Nadia came the loss of confidence and independence. Natalie began to experience the same cycle of fear and isolation she had in the past. She didn’t feel safe at home, going to the store, or taking a walk – even with friends – because she couldn’t decipher sounds. “I stopped doing the things that brought me joy,” she says.
Can Do Canines arranged for another Hearing Assist Dog. Natalie knew it was essential to her quality of life, yet she was still grieving. “When I first received the news about my new Hearing Assist Dog, Jacqui, I was scared to meet her. I was afraid of moving on,” she explained.
But when the two met, it was an instant connection. Natalie describes the black Lab, Golden Retriever mix as a loving, sassy, and sophisticated lady with expressive brown eyes and a tail that wags like a propeller going in all directions. But for all that exuberance, Jacqui is also gentle and quiet. When she’s alone with Natalie, she doesn’t make a sound. Rather, she gets right to work, helping Natalie in countless ways: She alerts her to sounds, such as the timer, smoke alarm, door knock, and alarm clock, as well as helps to retrieve items on the floor. As they continue to work together to master new tasks, Jacqui persists until she gets it right. “In the morning, Jacqui jumps onto my bed to nudge me awake, and then she sticks around to snuggle,” Natalie said. “It’s the best way to start the day!”
Natalie has noticed a significant change in her mood since Jacqui came into her life. She is waking up with a sense of purpose again, taking walks and playing in the snow. She is also starting to venture out again and is eager to resume her favorite activities, such as hiking, rollerblading, gardening, reading, and taking road trips – all with Jacqui at her side.
Natalie is full of gratitude for the Can Do Canines staff and volunteers who raise and train assistance dogs like Jacqui. “Having a service dog [has] taught me the blessing of my disability: that I am just as capable as anyone else, I don’t have to hide in the shadows or live in fear, and I can shine. Thanks to Nadia and now to Jacqui, I’m not just surviving, I’m living my life and learning to thrive.”
Thank you to all those who made this partnership possible:
Whelping Home — Dana & Pete Kittok
Great Start Home — Suzy Ahrens
Puppy Raiser — Jackson Correctional Institution
Special Thanks — Suzy Ahrens, Mary Anne Larson, University of Minnesota FETCH Program