Teal the Cocker Spaniel who works as an assistance dog
- Credit: Emily Rothery
Since she started work as an assistance dog, Teal the Cocker Spaniel has given a Kendal pensioner a new lease of life..
Joyce Nicholson, now 73, has been deaf since she was in her late 30s and remembers a time when she felt isolated and low but that was before Teal, a lively little Cocker Spaniel, bounced into her life and became her hearing dog and best friend.
‘I have a condition called otosclerosis in both ears where the ear bones fuse together, causing deafness and vertigo,’ Joyce says. ‘I have persevered with being deaf for most of my life, until 2016 when I decided to have my first operation. I was at a low point, on my own and depressed and I had just lost my two dachshunds. I’d also had to give up one of my jobs as house sitter as I couldn’t hear the alarms.
‘My GP referred me to a consultant at Freeman Hospital who advised me that potentially there were serious risks as the operation can leave you facially disfigured or with total hearing loss, but I put my trust in him and went ahead. I had the second operation later and although both were successful to a certain extent, I knew my hearing would deteriorate again over the years.’
It was the consultant who suggested she should apply for an assistance dog and in August 2016 Joyce was selected and invited to stay to overnight to have a try with a dog at the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People training centre in York. She heard nothing more until April 2018 when the charity called to say they had found a match.
Joyce who had stated a preference for a small dog was introduced to Teal and it was love at first sight. The training then began in earnest and Joyce says it is not for the feint hearted. While staying in free accommodation at the centre in Buckinghamshire Joyce threw herself into the work, starting at 5am each morning. Hearing dogs respond to verbal commands and hand signals and are trained to alert adults and children to important household sounds such as fire, smoke and burglar alarms, doorbells, kitchen timers and baby alarms. A gentle paw or nudge will alert the recipient who will then be led to the source of the sound. If the alarm signals danger, the highly-trained dog will lie down.
Joyce has nothing but praise for her trainer Paul Tommey and staff she has met through the charity. ‘The work they do is phenomenal,’ Joyce adds. ‘I’ve never met such a happy, dedicated group of people working so hard to help others. They are all connected by their love of dogs and all training is done through kindness and positive reward.’
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Eventually Teal was brought to Joyce’s home in Kendal to stay overnight before moving in for good. Joyce then received back up from the North West team who made regular visits. ‘I had to learn Teal’s language because she already knew it. I have to admit that the first six months with Teal were hard and I did wonder if I was doing the right thing. There was so much to learn,’ admits Joyce. Now, of course, Joyce and Teal are inseparable. When off duty four-year-old Teal is lively and friendly – a small dog with a big personality – always ready to investigate new visitors to the house and bring them a favourite toy with her tail wagging happily but once her working harness is on, she instantly becomes calm and focused.
‘She still amazes me with what she can do,’ Joyce adds. ‘She really looks after me and I’m in much better health because of her companionship and because of the exercise I get from walking her. She’s a lifeline and keeps me safe because I can’t hear traffic when I’m out, but Teal will alert me at the kerb and let me know when it is safe to step out.’
The clever little canine can also read traffic lights and if Joyce starts to sway because of vertigo then Teal will intuitively push her to a safer place.
‘Life is much easier because she makes others aware of my hidden disability. She gets me out and about and I meet a lot of people although I’ve stopped taking her to the supermarket as it takes too long and I forget what I’ve gone for when so many people come up to us. She loves the attention, but I politely remind people not to fuss her as she is a working dog. We’re well known now and are accepted around Kendal. Teal will calmly sit in a café with me, but she does like to hoover the floor,’ laughs Joyce.
‘She will happily travel on buses and trains and is hoping to take her first flight to Jersey soon. She’s actually a show cocker blue, small for her age, bright and cheeky but gentle and my grandchildren love her. My granddaughter loves to brush her soft coat and clean her teeth while my grandson at 10, knows the hand signals better than I do.’
In December 2019 Joyce was invited to meet HRH Princess Anne who was opening a new breeding centre for the charity in Buckinghamshire. She was also delighted to meet Ben Fogle and his father Bruce, one of the founders of the charity.
‘Having Teal has been life changing for me and I have had such great support and met such wonderful people. A trainer now visits me once a year and there is always someone available to give advice if needed.’
WALKIES FOR ALL
Since 1982 Hearing Dogs for Deaf People has matched thousands of dogs with deaf people. Lifestyle factors are considered to ensure the right match is made and each dog is trained to the specific needs of the individual they have been matched with.
Currently there are almost 1,000 working hearing dog partnerships across the UK. It costs around £40,000 to fully care for, train and support a hearing dog for the duration of its life. The charity has no Government funding but gets invaluable help from fundraisers and volunteer breeders and puppy socialisers who teach basic obedience.
Throughout 2020 dog lovers are invited by the charity to take part in fun-filled walks with their canine companions to raise funds to help deaf people reconnect with life. The Great British Dog Walk takes place in different venues around the country, including Haigh Woodland Park, Wigan on April 4th. For more information, go to hearingdogs.co.uk.