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December 30, 2002

Man's best friend lends an ear

From: Bridgeton News, NJ - 30 Dec 2002

Staff Writer

VINELAND -- A shaggy dog jumps on your bed, licking your face until you wake up.

He jumps on your lap, paws at your shoulder while you're driving down the road, or generally dances around making a ruckus until you pay him attention.

What would you do?

While most people would reprimand the dog, this is definitely not the case with dogs such as Stormy, or Shags, professionally trained canine hearing companions who have been adopted and/or trained by Debra Schaser-Graef at her Golden Grove kennels on Forest Grove Road.

A certified breeder of golden retrievers, Schaser-Graef began training dogs for the hearing impaired 10 years ago, when someone came to her asking for a dog to be trained as a hearing dog.

The dogs, raised similarly to those for the visually impaired, spend their first year being socialized with foster families, and then undergo training from three to six months to alert their masters to sounds such as doorbells, alarms, sirens, baby cries, telephones and even whistling tea kettles.

Dr. Jerry Martin of Fairfield Township is the owner of Shags, a shaggy, beige mixed breed deserving of his name.

Martin, 30, born profoundly deaf, is a child psychologist who provides services for children and families in the area, giving them various types of training at no cost.

He raised shags from puppyhood, then brought him to Schaser-Graef for training as a hearing companion.

"He woke me at 12:30 a.m. because someone was at my door," Martin signed through an interpreter.

Later that day, he and the dog were traveling in Martin's car when the dog placed his paw on Martin's shoulder.

Martin at first chastised the dog, thinking he was misbehaving, but just then a police car went past his car, sirens sounding and lights flashing.

Now, he hopes his chastisement didn't affect the dog negatively, he said.

It's doubtful that will be the case, however, as the dog later demonstrated its ability to alert Martin to a doorbell, alarm clock, telephone and whistling teakettle.

Like Shags, another dog, Stormy, a stray found beaten and abused and later adopted by Quack's Corner director Carol Kirshenbaum, was found to be a "natural" as a canine hearing companion, alerting Kirshenbaum every time the phone rang.

She turned the dog over to Schaser-Graef, who quickly trained the dog, who was turned over to a hearing-impaired elderly woman who recently had to give the dog up.

Now back in Schaser-Graef's care, Stormy will soon be turned over to a hearing impaired young boy, she said.

Schaser-Graef is also training dogs to aid those with other medical problems, such as epilepsy and diabetes.

"One woman wanted a dog trained to detect her husband's angina attacks," she said.

Describing how the dog's training worked, Schaser-Graef said the animal would sit up and stare directly into the man's face if she sensed that he were about to have an attack.

"The first time she did that, he felt the tell-tale heart fluttering a few minutes later and was able to take his nitro inhaler," she said.

Now the man knows to observe the dog's reactions and take the medication before the attack begins, she said.

"There's a large number of deaf people in this area, people who are doctors and professionals, who drive cars and go to work like anyone who can hear," Schaser-Graef said.

These are the people whose lives can be made even more efficient with dogs such as Stormy and Shags.

A non-profit organization, one that receives some of its funding from the Lions Club and United Way, Canine Hearing Companions Inc. is dependent on charitable contributions to continue its work, and hopefully soon, to expand its facilities, Schaser-Graef said.

"We also need towels and blankets, and old sleeping bags are great," she said.

Many of the dogs being trained are found as local strays, or have been adopted from the SPCA, she said.

To make a contribution, send checks to Canine Hearing Companions Inc., 247 E. Forest Grove Road, Vineland, N.J. 08360, or call 856-696-0969 for more information.

Copyright 2003 Bridgeton News.