Thursday, 9 October 2014

Hearing Dogs Assessment Visit

Firstly, an apology... I have been so busy with work over the past few months that I've not had time to complete a number of posts that have been languishing since I last posted. So much has happened and there's so much to tell... So, several months late, here's the lowdown on my visit to the Hearing Dogs centre for my Assessment back in September.

A few weeks ago I spent, what were probably, the two most positive days out I have had in years at the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People's Princes Risborough site. The two days were for me to learn more about the way that the Hearing Dogs are trained, what it's like living with a Hearing Dog and an opportunity for the Hearing Dogs trainers to learn more about myself, my interests and my lifestyle to help assess the best Dog and training requirements for my needs.

Several weeks on I still find myself cheering up hugely when I remember those two days and this is down to the welcome I received, the assistance and advice given by the excellent team there.

So, less of the 'whoop whoop' and more of the 'what the heck happened?' I suppose.

We travelled up on the Wednesday afternoon from a misty and overcast Cambridge and made good time negotiating the combined evils of the M11, rush hour A1 at Stevenage and the M25 arriving, via the A41, Tring and Wendover, in plenty of time at 10.30am.

On arrival we announced ourselves (sounds like a Downton Abbey thing to do) at reception and were met by my Partnership Adviser Lynn (the lady formerly known as Freda in previous blog articles) and Trainer Sarah.

After a brief chat we were then shown to our room in the Recipients' Stables where we were to stay the night. The Stables, we stayed in Stable 5, are spacious and nicely decorated with an en-suite Shower and 'throne'. Interestingly we spotted a couple of vibrating pads on the bedside tables. After some investigation we confirmed our initial suspicion that they were indeed Fire Alarm alerters.

After settling in we wandered across to the Restaurant to join our Trainer for the two days, Sarah, and a fellow recipient Tony who, either by design or weird co-incidence, comes from a village not too far from where we live in Cambridge.

Our first 'proper' session after lunch was spent in one of the training houses with Trainer Sarah and fellow recipient Tony. We would all spend the next two days together in each session.

This first session was with a lovely red working Cocker Spaniel called Brock and during this session we first learnt about how dogs learn and some of the training that they go through to become a Hearing Dog. While Sarah explained some of the training and thinking behind it Brock entertained himself by mauling a, rather large, teddy bear! It was fun to watch a Dog being relaxed and managing to entertain himself although I suspect, at this point, some readers are having flashbacks to their own dogs and their Conan the Destroyer type antics!

After learning about the training process we were then shown the care regime for each dog. Dog care has changed immensely in the years since I had regular contact with my Grandparents' wonderful Jack Russell and my Uncle and Aunt's fast but quiet greyhound style mongrel. The Dog was asked to sit on, what is called, a Vet Mat. The mat is made so that there are no stray fibres or chance of the dog swallowing any part of the mat or fibres when they, as they inevitably will, chew the edge of the mat.

We were first shown how to give the dog a check over and then we were given a chance to have a go for ourselves. The check involved checking the Dog's coat and skin for any unusual lumps or bumps or thorns etc, to check the teeth and gums and to also check the eyes and ears for clarity and cleanliness etc. In the old days it was just a case of checking the dog was happy and that was it pretty much in good shape (mind you I was much younger so I may not have seen everything that was done or remembered it either!)

We were then shown the grooming process and also had an opportunity to have a go as well. By this time Brock had been checked over three or four times and groomed as much again and yet put up with it admirably!

After short break, we went across to the Farmhouse and Brock was returned to his owner and we met another dog called Robyn who was an absolutely gorgeous chocolate brown Labrador. Robyn is a demonstration Dog and has shown her talents and skills at Crufts in recent years.

During this second session we learnt a little more about the daily routine and learnt about the various leads and collars and harnesses that the dogs use and what each is for. After a brief demo by Sarah we were each given a chance to try putting on the lead, the face harness and the burgundy Hearing Dogs coat on Robyn. This proved to be a challenge as, being reward oriented and, as a Labrador, rather greedy, Robyn tended to lunge for the treat before us beginners had a chance to line the harnesses up. The face harness was a particular challenge as it's that much smaller than, for example, the coat but we all succeeded in the end.

Following this it seemed logical to take Robyn out to see what she was like on and off the lead. For this we went across the back lawn and out to a large walking/play field where Robyn was let off the lead and we then learnt the art of the sit, recall and stay commands. We also had a chance for some fun by throwing a ball for Robyn to fetch which she enjoyed immensely and, I must confess, so did I!

After returning Robyn to her own Trainer we then met Woody, a young and rather boisterous, apricot coloured show Cocker Spaniel. We took Woody out to the walking field as well to see what the differences were between the differently sized dogs. My partner, Michelle, was rather taken by Woody and found him to be her favourite over the two days mainly, I suspect, due to his constant boisterousness :) We also tried, with Woody, the plastic throwing gadget used to propel Tennis balls to even greater distances but with less effort than the conventional throwing style. A more serious application for this gadget is that it allows people who have difficulty picking things off the floor to retrieve the Tennis ball with less effort than otherwise would be required.

During the evening, after all the day's activities, I decided to go for a wander. The evening was pleasant, if a little hazy so I decided to turn the wander into a leisurely walk under the railway bridge and up the road towards Bledlow Ridge.

The walk took me up a rather long and steep hill but I was rewarded at the top with views of a lovely valley and landscape that epitomised the Chilterns.

The next day after breakfast we went on a trip out to the local Garden Centre with Amber, a wonderful Chocolate Flat Coat Retriever. The aim of this was to demonstrate how the Dogs behave out and about and also to get us used to managing the dogs in a public place. Amber was generally very well behaved and settled down under the table while we having coffee stirring only a couple of times. We were also told about the wait, sit and down commands and had the chance to practice these along with the important leave it command for when the dog shows interest in something it shouldn't such as discarded take away food or other temptations that they may come across... This is probably vital for anyone with a Labrador!

After returning from our morning out we took a break for lunch which we spent outside in glorious sunshine and had the added bonus of seeing a Red Kite soaring above us.

After lunch we retired to the Farmhouse lounge for some soundwork and the chance to meet some more dogs. Firstly we caught up with Robyn again and then we met Nia an Apricot coloured Show Cocker.

We practised soundwork with both dogs alerting us to the sound of the telephone and then we attempted to work with the doorbell except the batteries ran out at one point... Fun! :)

As ever the dogs were brilliant and very relaxed and friendly almost to the point of being just plain attention seeking tarts! (In the nicest possible way!)

Following the soundwork we then went our separate ways and had our final assessment chat with the trainer, individually, about how we felt about the training, and covering any questions or concerns we had the process.

After a wonderful couple of days, probably the best two days I had had in a very long time we headed off home to await the next stage of the process.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A bit of news.... two in fact!

This has been a busy week for me but more about the really busy parts in a later post. Today I'm concentrating on the news relating to Hearing Dogs and BSL and the progress on both of those fronts.

Hearing Dogs news

Last week I had been wondering when I would hear from the Hearing Dogs people about the next stage in the process following my visit to The Grange at the end of June.

Well, they must've somehow received my thoughts because, on Friday evening (15th Aug) I received the following email (names changed as normal) :
Hello Mike,

I hope you are well and having a good Summer.

We would like to invite you for an on-site assessment at The Grange training centre in Buckinghamshire on Wednesday <snip> & Thursday <snip> September (2 days). This would be an overnight stay and give you a chance to work with some of our demonstration dogs and get a feel for what it’s like to have a hearing dog.

You would need to arrive at 11.00am on the Wednesday and you can depart on the Thursday at approximately 3.00pm.

We would also like to arrange a visit to your home on Monday <snip> October at 10.00am – 1.00pm. Our Partnership Support Officer will visit you in your home first and also look at the area you work from at home. Our Partnership Support Officer will look at the general layout of your home, look to see if your garden is secure and visit a local park/walk i.e. a suitable place for you to exercise your dog each day.

Thank you for sending me the details for your employers, I will contact them before we visit and advise them we will be visiting you at home and also ask if we will need to visit them at the work place.

I am away on annual leave for 2 weeks now and return to work on 1st September, but if you can let me know as soon as possible if the dates above are convenient, I will get them booked in.

With many thanks and kind regards,


So, without hesitation, despite being in Hull (more on that another time) and miles from Home I dashed off a reply saying that I would be only too glad to attend and be available for the home visit.

Once again things are moving forwards... I'm so looking forward to the visit to the Grange again.

BSL News

Following last week's news I received a further piece of news this morning.

Some of you will be aware that I am currently learning BSL to help out at the, increasingly frequent, times when I'm unable to wear my hearing aids due to discomfort or irritated ears.

I have been learning BSL Level 1 since January with a great bunch of people and have thoroughly enjoyed getting out on Monday evenings to join them.

The BSL courses are split into three modules and BSL Level 1 is split into BSL101, BSL102 and BSL103 which is the final module after which you are awarded accredition as a BSL Level 1 signer.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I passed BSL101 in April and today I learnt that I have passed BSL Level 102 which is externally assessed!

Roll on December and taking the BSL103 exam :)

And finally....

Hearing Dogs have their late Summer Show on Sunday 14th Sept at their Princes Risborough site... If you're able to get to Princes Risborough please do go along and support them!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Isolation : There's no need to fly solo!

Victoria Cross Medal
Last weekend (5th/6th July) I was very brave... For the first time in nearly ten years I went to an event on my own where I've never met any of the people involved... 

I've avoided events like this in the past mainly due to problems holding conversations in noisy places (I've not been to the pub in a social sense since 2004/5) and my associated lack of confidence in approaching people I don't know to start a conversation. I'm not too bad when I'm with someone I know but even then I take a considerable time to come out of my shell with new people. Partly this is due to having to 'tune in' to how someone talks but also due to confidence issues.

I'd spent the previous few weeks umming and ahhing about whether to turn up and the other half said that I should. I spent the Friday night in a bit of a state, not quite turmoil, but certainly enough angst to ensure that I only slept for a total iof 3 1/2 hours! I then spent pretty much all the morning plucking up the courage to go. The event started at 10am and was a mere 45 minutes drive away and yet all the dithering meant that I didn't actually arrive until about 2pm.

I had a wander around and watched one of the demos in progress at which point I got into a brief conversation with first one person and then another couple... That, as it turned out, was the limit of my interaction with people... The three I've mentioned were kind enough to open the conversation with me but others didn't sadly. I was further put off approaching people myself as there was a lot of noise, hubbub and commotion from the people attending that made the second conversation particularly difficult to follow; more so when you realise that one of the particpants was from Scandinavia with a pronounced accent. 

At this point I'd spent half an hour in the demo room and decided to give up and slunk back to the car. I spent ages in the car, 50 minutes in total, debating whether to go home or give it another go. I was feeling rather low at this point and wishing I hadn't bothered. The whole experience very much reminded me why I didn't go to events, whether social or not, any more. I couldn't hear anything meaningful over the hubbub and my confidence was through the floor. Finally I decided to give it another go and went inside for a further 10 minutes or so before giving up and then heading home in a bit of a mood and hating everyone. I'd been so looking forward to meeting people and putting names to faces of people that I'd clicked with in the forums and on Skype. The disappointment was a big blow for me.

After getting home I posted on Facebook, in the event's Facebook group and in the Skype channel that a number of the attendees frequented to let people know that I had gone (they had been expecting me) and that I'd returned home. The response was universally supportive and encouraging without exception.

Some of the best comments are quoted below:
"the fact that you summed up the courage to go in there not just once but twice is a victory in itself - proud of you mike"
"I agree with the above, don't let the negative points bring down all the positives that you have achieved today. Put that smile back on your face - you've earned it"

"well done for going in the first place! Not all of us are social bunnies. Like you, I'm fine with people I know, but hate it when I know no-one. No good with the small talk! And your hearing problem must make it even worse for you."

"Well done Mike! You got the courage and went, all by yourself. I think you should give yourself some credit and feel proud. X"

"You went that's a huge positive and you gave it a 2nd go, most never even try"

After a while of getting myself relaxed again (I watched Pointless for heaven's sake!) I thought about having another go; after all it's only 45 minutes away.... So.. Off I went back up the A14 to have another crack at it. I was being particularly bloody-minded as I'd got on so well with everyone in the forums and on Skype and really wanted to meet up properly.

I arrived back at the venue around 8.20pm and mentioned this in Skype... Sadly the mobile reception in the area is particularly dire and the messages were slow in getting through. I spent around 40 minutes hanging around waiting for someone to find me before giving up again and going home. By this time I was very down and my mood worsened with the dreadful diversions in place around Kettering and ASDAs garage being closed despite the signs being lit up. Luckily Tescos was open so I could add some fuel to my depleted tank for the journey back down the A14.

Two of the best replies that I received on the Sunday after the event had finished are below and were from two of the key organisers:
"Hi, really sorry to hear about this, if I had known we could have helped there were quieter rooms that you could have hidden in... but I totally understand that approaching me (as someone you don't know) might have been difficult. Remind me before the event next time and we shall see what we can do to make it easier for you."
The following message made me blub a bit!
"Hey Mike , absolutely mirror <post quoted above> sentiments, I got your messages but hadn't realised the background issues, I wish I had because I would have be thrilled to buy you a drink and sit down for a chat in one of the quieter rooms. I'm trying to get to Fantasticon, if you felt up to it we would ensure you had a better experience. I feel really bad because I couldn't be prouder to be part of what I consider to be the most warm, friendly and accepting community going. Hopefully we will have another chance to meet up. Thanks for making the effort Mike"

So... All this to-ing and fro-ing... Any lessons I hear you ask?

Yes... There are lessons in abundance, here are some that I've learnt during the events of last week and during the writing of this blog post.
  • Firstly, rather than simply hinting at your Deafness/Hearing loss, make it clear that you have problems, and their extent/impact, before you go to the event.
  • Arrange to meet someone beforehand in a quiet room so you're not completely on your own in the main event. Most people would be happy to do this (see the quotes above).
  • If you can, take someone you know with you to be with you until you get into the swing of things. 
  • Wear something distinctive so that you are easily located by people you're trying to meet.
  • Keep going. The more you attend the more confident you'll become and the better you'll get at dealing with these situations.
  • Finally, remember that people really DO want you to be involved and enjoy yourself. This came out to me in abundance in the days that followed from many of my friends on Facebook and from the many people who attended on the day and I had missed.

Before I continue I should mention that I was utterly humbled by the tremendous responses from the event organisers and the attendees in the past week. I already knew them to be a great bunch of people in the forums online and was touched by their concern and their offers to include me more pro-actively next time around. Thanks to their responses there will be a next time as they have given me extra incentive to attend future events and perhaps even some confidence as well. I'd like to publicly thank the members of the Elite : Dangerous community for their kindness and tolerance to me over the past few days!

So what's next?

Well I have committed myself, that may very well be the right word, to attending a similar nerd-fest in August by booking a hotel room for two nights. The event's in Yorkshire so the distance is inconveniently far enough from home to prevent me running away so easily this time around!
Flying Solo? Not next time

Several people have already asked me to remind them that I'll be there and will try to make an effort to catch up with me before the event itself so I'm not flying solo in the big bash.

I shall also need to be brave this coming weekend as we are going to the wedding of some of Michelle's friends. I won't know anyone there apart from Michelle so this could be 'fun' as well! 


Thursday, 3 July 2014

Hearing Dog : More information.... Lots of it!

This Monday (30th June) I had the pleasure to be invited to an Information Day at the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People's Princes Risborough Training Centre as part of the application process.

We were very lucky with the weather given the previous few days weather had been not so great and had a warm and pleasant drive down.

We were also exceptionally lucky with the traffic on the journey down. I'd expected the usual Monday morning mayhem around Stevenage on the A1 but we managed to get through in pretty decent time... Why can't it always be like that!? The net result was that, after negotiating the old London orbital (A405), the A41 and the back roads from Tring through Wendover to Princes Risborough, we arrived 25 minutes earlier than we'd expected and that was after my efforts to slow down by just pottering along the A41 rather than hurtling along there at warp speed as usual!

The Grange, reception
On arrival we took a few minutes to relax before wandering along to reception to announce our arrival. A few other people arrived shortly afterwards some of whom, it later turned out, were other recipients attending the information day.

We were then collected from reception by 'Freda' the Hearing Dog Applications Advisor who took us along to The Grange itself, a medium sized farmhouse looking like some of it dated to the 17th Century and possibly some of it earlier based on my experience of farmhouses that are in the family. In fact the lounge area reminded me very much of the Drawing Room at Church Farm where my Great Grandfather farmed for many years in Suffolk. The room was painted a subtle mint green with the beams picked out in a dusky grey/green colour which was very restful and yet helped keep the low ceiling light and airy.

We had coffee (or squash) and biscuits along with the other attendees. There were five recipients in all; a young lady who signed, along with her mother, an older lady who had bought her daughter and grand-daughter. The lady had come from Eastbourne and her Daughter and Grand-Daughter had travelled from Portsmouth to Eastbourne and then onto Princes Risborough that morning! That's one very long and very early drive! Another young lady and her mother and finally a retired chef who had come on his own.

Along with the recipients were also three members of the Hearing Dogs' recipients advisory team, a BSL interpreter and a lipspeaker.

After a short while we all made our way to the lecture room in a separate building and settled down for introductions and a brief run through of how the day would be run. I was intrigued by the lipspeaker but found it a rather novel experience trying to follow as usually when I lip-read I hear half, see half and then put the two together and hope to God the result makes some kind of sense. With the lipspeaker there is a slight delay between the presenter's words and the lipspeaker's mouth movements something akin to those times when a DVD or TV programme has the audio out of sync with the video. Luckily there was also a superb induction loop system which meant I could hear the presenter's voice much louder than I could without the loop system; I was very impressed by the quality and clarity and this made life much much easier for me although I did still have to concentrate.

Meanwhile while all this was going on Michelle was watching the BSL interpreter to see if she could recognise any signs or learn new ones while listening (one of the joys of being able to hear is being able to listen to one person while looking elsewhere at another but I digress). She did, over the course of the day, manage to learn the signs for slobber/drool and ringing phone among others.

Following the introductions we were given some information on the various facets of having a Hearing Dog including the need for exercise, both physical and mental, keeping the dog practised with obedience and soundwork skills and some basic information on caring for the dog and the responsibilities that come with looking after a dog.

One of the things we learnt was that not picking up after your dog can result in a fine of £1000 for the owner. The Hearing Dogs people were keen to emphasise, and I agree, that as ambassadors in a way for the charity it would be pretty poor form for a Hearing Dog owner to not pick up after their Dog. I often wonder why some people just do not pick up at all... Yes, it's gross but it's even less fun treading in the leftovers or worse... There's no excuse these days with Dog bins being plentiful and there are plenty of methods to scoop without too much hassle.

Following the first presentation we were then given a demonstration of the dogs in action. Our demonstrators were Katherine (the 'handler') and Bruce who was a lovely 7/8 year old Labrador. We were told about how the training is structured and that the puppies are selected based on personality and reactions to people and sounds while still in the litter. At 8 weeks of age the puppies are paired with a Puppy Socialiser who they spend the next 11 months of their life with getting used to many different environments and experiences. The puppies are continually assessed during their development to ensure their personality and abilities fit in and match with the requirements to be a Hearing Dog.

When the puppy reaches a year they are then bought to one of the two Hearing Dogs training centres where they spend the next 18 weeks learning obedience and soundwork. The dogs spend the week at the centre and at the weekends they spend time with a 'foster' family to give them a break from the centre but also to provide them with further new experiences and surroundings.

The dogs start off their obedience training with their socialisers and learn the sit, lie down and stay commands as well as walking to heel. This training is continued and expanded on when they move to the training centre. Soundwork involves training the dogs to react to different sounds such as an alarm clock which is the first sound they are taught to react to. The dogs find this activity very rewarding as it's often rewarded with a hug which pleases them no end.

Once the dogs have mastered the early shift they are then taught to alert the recipient to telephone, doorbell and cooker timer sounds. The doorbell sounds they are trained to are of the traditional ringing doorbell rather than musical or two-tone doorbells. The cooker timer is probably the most flexible of the sounds they are trained to alert their owner to as it can be used in many situations.

When alerting the recipient the dog, depending on their size, either nudges the recipient or touches them with their paw. The recipient then asks 'where is it' or 'what is it' and puts their hands out showing the BSL sign for 'where'. The dog then takes the recipient to the timer or to the door depending on which alert has rung. Rather than use the timer on the cooker itself the dogs are trained to respond to a portable timer for several reasons. Firstly the issue of safety, the last thing you want is for the Dog to respond to the timer on the cooker and then take you to the cooker and possibly burn themselves. Secondly training them to respond to a portable timer means that the timer can be used for many more alerts without the dog needing to be trained to respond to several different alarms. Typically the cooker timer has been used for timing the cooker, microwave, running the bath and other activities that need to be timed. One recipient used to commute to London on the train and set the timer to go off shortly before his scheduled arrival and take the chance to sleep with the dog waking him when the alarm went off.

The next alert the dog is trained to respond to is the 'call' alert where someone can call the dog and ask the dog to go and 'call' the recipient. This is useful where the recipient is in one room or in the garden and a husband or wife needs to call them. The 'call' alert has been used in life critical situations an example of which was a recipients spouse was on Kidney Dialysis but one day the tube came loose which meant that they were having difficulties. They asked the dog to call the recipient who then raised the alarm.

Finally the dog is taught the fire alarm or smoke alarm alert. The dog's response in this instance is different. Rather than taking the recipient TO the source of the alert the dog is taught to alert the recipient and then lie down.

The demonstration introduced us to Bruce and walked us through the various alerts and actions, as described above, that the dogs are trained to respond to. Bruce seemed rather bored and kept lying down to the extent that Katherine had to walk him around so she could demonstrate the fire alarm alert properly.

You can see a demonstration similar to the one we watched in the video shown here. You will see Katherine and Bruce in the video as well. If you need a transcript you can find one here. As always the dog was the centre of attention and was very well behaved and enjoyed the work he was doing.

Following the thoroughly enjoyable demonstration we were then given a tour of the kennels on the site. These are spacious and well equipped with a veterinary area for treatment and raised waist height shower trays for cleaning the dogs off after a wet and muddy walk. The dogs were very varied in their attitude to us. Some chose to curry favour and seek attention while others couldn't be bothered at all and just lounged around being relaxed. We saw the larger dogs in their kennels first (the Labradors and a solitary Golden Retriever) and then visited the smaller dogs (Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Cockerpoos) in their separate kennels. I learnt that that were two distinct Cocker Spaniel breeds being used; the Show Cocker Spaniel and the Working Cocker Spaniel. One of the of the Show Cocker Spaniels, a lovely tan and white mix, was particularly vocal and attention seeking while we visited  while the others tended to mind their own business generally. The lady who took us around the kennels had a fabulous, and very apt, description of the Labrador as being a 'Life support system for a stomach'!

We learnt how the dogs are bought in during the week and how they are walked daily by a large team of volunteer walkers who give the dogs their exercise while not being formally trained.

We then visited one of the training houses where the dogs are trained in their soundwork in a close to life home. Each dog undergoes 40 minutes of soundwork training each day to avoid over-stretching them. The houses each have a lounge, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and dining room as you would expect in any normal house. They typically have a bathroom and bedroom on the ground floor to simulate single-level homes such as bungalows and flats. The walls of the training houses are festooned with pictures of Hearing Dogs and the pictures are of the dogs that were actually trained in the particular house which is a nice touch.

Finally we were shown the overnight accommodation used by recipients when visiting the centre for training or assessment. There are six converted stables in all and all were in use at the time so we didn't get to see inside but they are apparently very pleasant and comfortable.

After a break for a light lunch in the farmhouse we had a final presentation on how the process will develop from this point on.

Once the GP and Audiological response forms have been completed by the GP and Audiology Department the process moves to the next stage. My forms have been returned so this is where I am at in the process.

The next step is for a visit (another visit) to the training centre to spend a couple of days there where the recipient gets the opportunity to work with a variety of dogs in training to experience what it is like to handle and work with a Hearing Dog. The visit also provides the Hearing Dogs team the chance to assess the recipient (it's emphatically not a test) for personality type, walking pace and general lifestyle and other aspects that would have an impact on the choice of dog and matching. At present they anticipate that they would be looking to do this in the next 4 to 6 weeks which is much quicker than I'd imagined and apparently they have managed to speed things up significantly this year which is both amazing and brilliant!

Following the on-site assessment there will be a home assessment where a Hearing Dogs staff member visits the potential recipient in their own home where they will ask about the recipient's lifestyle in greater detail so they can further determine if a Hearing Dog is right for the recipient and, if so, what sort of dog would suit the recipient. They also take the opportunity to take a look at the area the recipient would normally walk the dog to assess its suitability.

A visit to the recipient's place of work is also undertaken to ensure the working environment is suitable for bringing a Hearing Dog into and also to chat with colleagues and managers about the Hearing Dogs scheme and answer any questions that they might have.

When all these stages have been completed the recipient is then informed whether having a Hearing Dog is going to be beneficial for them based on all the lifestyle factors that have been assessed.

The next stage, if the recipient is considered suitable, is the matching process which is done in great detail and is based on the recipient's and dog's personality and fit. When a potential match is made the recipient is invited to the training centre to meet the dog and see whether the recipient and dog get on well and gel. If this meeting is successful then the dog completes its training with any additional requirements that may be required for the recipient.

At present the waiting time from first applying to finally receiving a Hearing Dog is now a maximum of three years and, in some very lucky cases, this can be as little as twelve months in the right circumstances.

Finally, before we left we saw a video of some Hearing Dog recipients explaining the change it has made to their lives.

All in all we found it a thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and above all informative day.

Thank you to all of the Hearing Dogs staff we met that day, you bought some hope and fun into our day.

If you would like to donate and help Hearing Dogs for Deaf people, please do visit their site. It costs £43,000 to train each dog and support it during its 10 year working life and every contribution helps immensely.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Playing the Waiting Game

You may have been thinking, 'it's all very well making us aware of Deafness and its issues but I wanted to know more about the Hearing Dog application process that you're going through'. Well fear not, things have been happening just very very verrryyyyy sloooooooooowly....

Until last week the situation left me playing a very frustrating waiting game. Hearing Dogs sent me a couple of questionnaires in early May that needed to be filled in to assist them in the matching/application process. One form to be sent to my GP (that was the easy part) and another to my Audiologist (this was less clear-cut).

Until 2008 I had remained with the RTNEH in London as an out-patient and had been very happy with their standards of care and professionalism. I changed to Addenbrookes as they had a good reputation and, more practically, were easier to reach now I wasn't working in London so often.
I had attempted previously to get my patient records transferred from RTNEH to Addenbrookes so that Addenbrookes would have a complete record of my history rather than the snapshot that they had. This was more important now I needed a clear and comprehensive answer to the questions in the Hearing Dogs questionnaire for my Audiologist.

I contacted RTNEH to find out who I needed to contact to get my records transferred and was quickly pointed in the direction of the Records department. After several emails without a reply I started to get a little frustrated.

Addenbrookes Hospital
I visited the Hospital (Addenbrookes) a couple of weeks ago to get the misbehaving Hearing Aid fixed after the previous drama. While I was there I discovered that the records team at whatever Hospital you want to transfer your records from are next to powerless when it comes to this kind of thing... Apparently rather than contacting them, which is what I did in order to get my records transferred, I needed to address my request to the Medico-Legal team.

So after repeated emails and not a single reply from the Records Team at RTNEH I know now who to contact... Shame they couldn't have had the decency to point me in the right direction...

Having found this out, and suspecting that the process would take a while, I sent the questionnaire to the Addenbrookes Audiology team, in the end, with a covering letter suggesting they could contact me if they needed further information.

Fast forward to the week before last I received an Email from my Hearing Dogs Advisor 'Freda' asking if I would be able to attend an Information Day at the Princes Risborough Training Centre? Would I? Silly question, of course I would! Needless to say I asked if they'd received the filled in questionnaires from the GP and Audiology to which they replied that they had... Phew!

Anyway, tomorrow I shall be trekking down to the Chilterns for an Information Day and introductions. More on that next time.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Deaf Awareness Week : Pt 1 : A Bad Ear Day

This week is Deaf Awareness week. My original post to kick off the week was intended to focus on a different aspect of Deaf Awareness however events today led me to a rethink.

People often talk about having a Bad Hair Day when events and conditions conspire to make your hair look like the most unkempt and mis-shapen mess ever to grace a scalp and put even Neaderthal man ahead of you in the hotness stakes. Well for me, today was a classic Bad Ear Day.... Read on and find out why.

The day didn't get off to the best of starts with me waking up at 5am (an hour before I needed to) and spurning more sleep for fear of oversleeping and being late leaving for Bexhill. Things got worse, and grosser, when I sat at my desk and brushed my hair behind my ear with my hand and feeling something dry there and finding a dead fly.... ugh... Not sure if it had been in my ear or just in the hair but it rather put me off putting my right hearing aid in for a large chunk of the day.... ugh (again)

Later in the morning, having arrived onsite, I found I was having trouble hearing the customer across the desk from me and I remarked that there seemed to be a lot of background noise like chatter coming from down the corridor. The reply I got bothered me slightly as it transpired that all was quiet in yonder corridor... Hmm... I carried on for a little while but after a while found the 'noise' rather distracting so I went to the loo for a minute or two to see what was what. I turned my hearing aid off which resulted in genuine silence which meant that it wasn't a particularly bad round of Tinnitus to blame. This laid the blame directly at the Hearing Aid's feet. This led me to get a little teary... It really is very important to be able to hear especially when you're representing your company on a customer's site. Luckily the customer was very understanding and sympathetic which helped.

Anyway, after the realisation that the Hearing Aid was possibly faulty I posted on Facebook the news that I was teary due to 'my Hearing Aid creating lots of background noise that isn't there'. This yielded a fantastic, and unsought, response from my friends who were all very encouraging, one even said that it bought a tear to her eye.

Many people think that Hearing Aids restore hearing for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to near perfect levels. Sadly the truth despite, and possibly because of, technology being so 'advanced' these days does not match these perceptions. 

The reality is that athough technology has moved a long way from the simple amplification of sounds to noise reduction and sound shaping and programmable hearing aids the hardware is ever more delicate due to miniaturisation and complexity. For example, ears sweat... a lot... Wearing Hearing Aids entails wearing plugs of pliable plastic resin which seal the ear. This means that sweat doesn't escape the ear via the normal way and instead rises along the tube towards the Hearing Aid itself. Even though they are dried out and aired nightly inevitably some moisture will make its way into the fragile electronics. As we all know water and electronics are not the best of friends and when they do meet typically they make a new friend called rust. I have had one Hearing Aid die for certain via this method as I saw it opened up in this state. 

Additionally Hearing Aids now have multiple microphones (you can see two of these in the image above near the top of the Hearing Aid and there is anoother in the base). These are usually covered with a very fine gauge gauze mesh that needs to be replaced from time-to-time. Further, there is now a small sponge type material placed in the elbow of the tube (the part of the tubing that is directly connected to the Hearing Aid itself) this also needs to be replaced from time-to-time as well. Besides these items there are countless other things that can, and do, go wrong. 

All of these things can have an affect on the quality of sound being received by the hearing aid and also (in the case of the elbow sponge) output by the Hearing Aid. Sounds can be muffled, deadened or affected in other ways or totally blocked in some instances. It can be simulated to some degree by hearing people when ears are clogged with water after swimming. The lucky thing is that in that case you can be sure that it is only a temporary effect and so not at all distressing.

Anyway, while following the events from afar (I'm working onsite this week) my partner decided to try and help by finding out where I could get something done about the misbehaving piece of technology. Here's her account as posted on Facebook:

Mike's hearing aid is broken and he is away from home. I called 111 to see if they could tell me where he could go. It went something like this...
Me: My partner's hearing aid is broken he can't hear anything without it. Can you tell me where he can go?
111: Not really, we need to be able to ask him some questions.
Me: Can you tell me what the questions are so I can get you the answers?
111: No they have to come from him. Can't he call us?
Me: No he won't be able to hear you.
111: If you call him will he be able to hear you?
Me: No.

I do wonder sometimes how the Human race is going to succeed and prosper in the future when there's increasing evidence, such as the above conversation, of wrong headed (utterly daft perhaps?) thinking going on in this world... 

Maybe today's events are perfect example of how awareness can be improved, by making people realise that there is a very real effect on the ability of a person with Hearing Loss or Deafness to engage with the world and make use of basic services, such as the NHS 111 phone line, and also that just because they wear Hearing Aids it doesn't mean that the Hearing Loss or Deafness is any less of an issue.

Postscript : I forgot to mention... The battery in the misbehaving Hearing Aid also decided to die today as well!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Fear and Trepidation...

OK, so I may be overstating it somewhat, but I do tend to get slightly nervy when staying in Hotels or away from home, especially when I am on my ownsome.

I always, half-jokingly, said that the first sign I'd get that there was a fire in the house when I was asleep was my big toe getting slightly warm! There is more than a grain of truth in this and it does, sometimes, leave me sleeping restlessly when I'm on my own. This often ends up with me waking up on a regular basis and then taking a while to get back to sleep. 

A similar situation occurs, as it did last week, if I have to leave early (like Oh My God is this what it's like before breakfast early) to be onsite. I often end up with the double-whammy of first of all not being able to get to sleep in good time and then waking up on an almost hourly basis to avoid oversleeping! 

Alarm clock? Tried that; doesn't work as i have an excellent internal body clock that means I usually wake before the alarm but this process goes to pot on days when I have to be up on time and I end up getting paranoid about sleeping in. Last Tuesday was a typical example with me waking up at 3.30, 4.45, 5.40 and 6.40 before giving up the ghost and just staying awake anyway for fear of actually oversleeping after all.

So what do I do to make sure I get alerted in the event of fire when staying in a Hotel? Absolutely nothing is the answer to that one... I tend to duck out of mentioning my Deafness to reception staff for God knows what reason but probably because of that inner feeling of not wanting to either put people out or feel I'm deserving of special consideration. I hate being different and yet clearly I have to acknowledge that I should make some concessions on my own behalf and accept that there are some things I really should do no matter how demeaning it may seem or that it marks me out as different. I guess that last statement is the key to all this; I really do prefer to stay in the background and to not be noticed.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Hearing Dogs Spring Open Day

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People had their Spring open day yesterday and I thought I'd wander along to see, in person, some of what they do. I had heard about the open day a month or so ago from the News page on their website and, despite all my research and viewing of videos on t'web, I thought it would be useful to see in person some of the work that they, and the puppies, socialisers and Hearing Dogs do.
Bruce, the Hearing Dogs Mascot

It's a decent drive from where I live to get to Princes Risborough in deepest Buckinghamshire nestling in the Chiltern Hills. Luckily I enjoy driving and I know the area really well from when I used to live in the Rickmansworth area some years ago which made the journey much easier and something of a nostalgia trip as well. The area, if you haven't been before, is part of the gorgeous Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a phrase that came to mind while I was driving through was that it's the Southern Lake District but without the lakes!

Anyway, the weather was being characteristically April-like in that it was changeable with the odd light shower here and there on the trip down but with some glorious sunny intervals as well. As time went on things became more and more promising and what started out as a dull morning turned into something much more resembling a Spring day.

When I arrived, just after Midday, I was really pleased to see how full the car parks were and that many others had decided to come along as well. I took a moment to view the surroundings and the centre is in a lovely valley floor location with nary a house, building or even a phone mast in sight!

I was also very pleased to see that Pet Dogs were welcome. Why I was (mildly) suprised by this I have no idea, I suppose it's because Dogs are usually not welcome in most places. Nevertheless, there were lots of Dogs in attendance, many of whom were either Hearing Dogs or Hearing Dog puppies with their burgundy coats or burgundy leash tags.

One of the Socialisation Demo Puppies
After a brief wander around I went to one of the large (shed?) buildings where the live demonstrations were taking place. Every half-hour there was a Puppy Socialising demo where we saw the puppies go through their paces with some obedience demonstrations such as sit, stay, recall and walking to heel. The puppies were fabulous and seemed to enjoy it immensely although sometimes the crowds and surroundings did prove to be a slight distraction at some points. After the puppy demonstration we were then treated to a Soundwork Demonstration by the adult dogs. The soundwork demo included all the key ingredients that go into making a Hearing Dog such an effective partner. 

You can see examples of Soundwork Demonstrations on the Hearing Dogs YouTube channel which can be found here.

After watching the demonstrations I had a wander around in more depth and looked at the Kennels and the Training Houses where the Dogs go through their soundwork training.

The Kennels, which are about to be updated, are spacious with plenty of space for each dog to sleep and play. There is a central area for staff to keep an eye out and a health care section at the end for minor treatment to be carried out. At the entrance there is a waist high shower tray and shower where the Dogs are washed (and groomed?) after the traditional roll in the mud and jump in the river! I was impressed by the kennels and I have taken a couple of ideas away with me to carry out at home if/when the need arises.

The Training Houses (there were at least two and maybe three of these) are fully furnished 'houses' with a Hallway, Lounge, Kitchen/Diner, stairs and probably bedroom where the dogs undergo their Soundwork training. The walls downstairs are festooned with photos of Dogs that have previously been trained and placed with recipients which is a lovely touch.

I left after a few hours and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Dogs (trained and untrained) in action and thoroughly recommend visiting the next open day when it comes along. To further boost the day the weather stayed sunny and warm until a few minutes after I left whereupon a typical April shower decided to do its worst.

I took some video of my day out which you can see here. (Note that the video does not contain sound so do not panic if you can't hear anything... there's nothing to hear!)

Thursday, 24 April 2014

You're Deaf enough, well done! Eh? What?

I had a rather novel experience a short while ago, maybe even a life first....! 

I don't think I've ever been congratulated ('Well done' is what was actually said) for being deaf enough....! The reason? The following email landed in my inbox a short while ago... Edging closer 
'Thank you very much for sending a copy of your audio report. I have checked this with my line manager this morning and your report confirms you do meet the criteria for a hearing dog. This report is sufficient for us to proceed. 
I will send out the Doctor’s form and Responsibilities & Expectations form to you today, and I will send a further email with some more questions.'

I shall now be watching the letter box for the next few days as if it's my Birthday!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Audiograms? Hearing Tests? What's that all about?

As part of the application process for a Hearing Dog I had to send an up-to-date Audiogram to the Hearing Dogs person who is my Application Advisor, we'll stick with calling her Freda for the time being. 

This is a copy of my Audiogram from 3 years ago, my hearing hasn't changed a great deal over the years but I fully expect it to deteriorate at some point due to age related hearing loss (more on that another time). 

For those who have not had a hearing test the Audiogram is the results of the test, that the patient (in this case me) has undergone, in graph form.

The Hearing Test (we'll call it that for simplicity!) is undertaken in a soundproofed room free from outside noise. Often the rooms are windowless and the walls are lined with soundproofing materials in older rooms. More modern rooms are more conventionally decorated with wallpaper etc.but may be soundproofed underneath.

The room will either be in two parts with a soundproofed partition with a double/triple glazed window separating the audiologist and the patient or will be a single room in which both the patient and audiologist sit together.

The test is conducted without Hearing Aids and the patient wears a set of headphones connected to a console in front of the audiologist that is used to generate sounds at different frequencies (tones e.g. Bass through to Treble, and beyond, if you like) and volumes (dB or decibels in technical parlance).

The test is carried out annually for younger patients or patients who have recently been diagnosed as having a hearing loss. In my case I visited the Royal Throat Nose and Ear Hospital in London on an annual basis from the age of three (more about the time prior to this in a future post) until around the age of 20 (mostly in Spring) after which I went bi-annually and now less frequently.

In the old days (blimey, makes me sound old!) when the audiologist generated a sound via the console the patient (me) would be required to tap the edge of the desk/table with a drumstick (this I found very childish and slightly embarassing when I got old enough to feel above all that kind of thing)! When technology moved on a bit, or more likely it needed replacing and could be afforded, the drumstick was replaced with a hand-held button to press when you heard the noise generated.

The test goes on for what seems like an eternity, but is usually around half an hour I think. and for various reasons requires a considerable amount of concentration as will become apparent later. The Audiologist will play a series of tones (noise frequencies, Bass > Treble etc remember) that are randomly louder or quieter (it seems random to me but there is apparently a protocol or structure behind all this). Each time the patient hears a noise that is distinct they press the button. The problems for me arise at this point.

Since the brain is a smart thing, it gets easily bored. Due to this boredom it sometimes makes up noises of its own; this is what is called Tinnitus. Tinnitus isn't necessarily a 'ringing of the ears' as it's often described; the noises can take many forms and can happen at varying times. In my case, within the hearing test environment, I often get, what I think are, echoes of the sounds that are being made by the Audiologist which adds an extra level of complexity and doubt into the equation. This also means that I really have to concentrate, especially on the quieter sounds that I can detect to be sure that I am responding to a genuine sound rather than a self-generated sound (if that makes sense). There are further aspects to Tinnitus that affect me outside of the Hearing Test and I'll cover these another time.
Anyway, back to the test. Each set of tones is played out at varying volumes (db/Decibel levels) and the Audiologist notes the positive responses the patient makes before moving onto the next set of tones. Louder noises are easier to respond to and quieter noises require a lot more concentration and consideration. The best responses, i.e. the quietest sound the patient can hear (lowest number of Decibels for each tone range) are marked on the Audiogram with a blue X for the left ear and a Red O for the right ear.

The range these values fall into enable different levels of Hearing Loss to be categorised, from this we can see which broad category the patient falls into (I am on the boundary between two).

If you'd like some idea of what the sounds 'played' are like take a visit to this site and select the 1KHz sound (make sure your speakers aren't too loud and that you choose the 5 second file rather than the 30 second file otherwise you'll never forgive me!) which is the sound in the mid-point of the X-Axis on the Audiogram. Feel free to try the other sounds as well although, apart from the 250Hz sound, these do not appear on the graph.

I hope this helps give some understanding of what the hearing test is like and how the results are generated and interpreted.

(Below is an extract from the Action On Hearing Loss website explaining the different hearing loss levels)
There are four different levels of hearing loss, defined by the quietest sound that people are able to hear, measured in decibels (dB).
Mild hearing loss:
Quietest sound: 25 - 39 dB.
Can sometimes make following speech difficult, particularly in noisy situations.
Moderate hearing loss:
Quietest sound: 40 - 69 dB.
May have difficulty following speech without hearing aids.
Severe hearing loss:
Quietest sound: 70 - 94 dB.
Usually need to lipread or use sign language, even with hearing aids.
Profound deafness:
Quietest sound: 95 dB+
Usually need to lipread or use sign language