- the story so far
Just five months ago two small and scruffy, little dogs were among over 240 animals rescued by the RSPCA from a house in Cumbria, and so began a new life for Shih Tzus Amber and her friend, Ernie – now called Kenny.
Karyn Brown, dog assessor from the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, went to look at some of the rescued dogs and was immediately taken with Amber and Kenny’s personalities.
Karyn brought them down to the Hearing Dogs’ training centre in Buckinghamshire and while Amber started on her way as a media star with her first radio interview, Ernie also gained celebrity status by being chosen to be sponsored by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, and was renamed Kenny in their honour!
Kenny and Amber were chosen because of their friendly, outgoing natures - which were clear to see by everyone - as well as the fact that they were clearly very people-orientated little dogs, which is what is looked for when assessing potential hearing dogs. A month ago, Kenny began his soundwork training and we followed a bit of his training to see how he was doing as he learns to alert his trainer, Ben Sargeant, to sounds. Ben lets us in on a few secrets too!
Kenny has only been training for a very short time and so has not learned all the sounds yet. The very first thing Kenny had to learn was how to get Ben’s attention – ‘the alert’ as Hearing Dogs call it – so that later on when he hears a sound he knows how to tell Ben. All hearing dogs are trained using motivational methods, so they associate what they are learning with positive rewards. In Kenny’s case, this was a little difficult as he did not seem very keen on food or toys! However, after a few days he began to take an interest in treats and so he started to learn to alert Ben.
Since Kenny is a small dog his particular type of ‘alert’ is what is called a ‘scrabble’. When he hears a sound he will run to Ben and scrabble at him to get his attention. A medium-sized dog would sit and touch with two paws, while a large Labrador-sized dog would touch with one paw.
Once Kenny had mastered the "alert", Ben moved him on to the first sound which is the alarm clock. Ben takes up the story. "Kenny loves the alarm clock sound and picked it up very quickly. He took to this so easily because he gets to jump on the bed and have a cuddle – and gets to lie down for a while! Mind you, for him to get onto the bed is quite a jump as he only has very short legs."
Kenny has now moved onto the second sound that he has to learn which is the doorbell. Again, this is a sound that he enjoys because it means he gets to meet lots of different people who are required to ring the doorbell during training. When someone rings the bell, Kenny races to the door as fast as his little legs will carry him. However, Ben tells us that sometimes, if they ring the doorbell too many times, Kenny pretends he is too tired and lies down on the way to the door!
Considering he has only been training for three weeks, Kenny is doing very well. Once he has mastered the doorbell without stopping for a rest, he will move on to the next sound.
Depending on what his future deaf owner needs, it may well be the telephone or the "call help". As you will see from the photograph, he is already showing an interest in the telephone – although he finds it a little difficult to reach if it is on a high table!
Kenny may be very small in stature, but he has an enormous character. Although Kenny is just one of four dogs that Ben is training at the moment, there is no doubt that this lovable rogue has won Ben over. We asked Ben what he thought of his newest trainee. "Kenny is an incredibly fun dog to train – he makes me laugh," he says. "After he has jumped on the bed to tell me about the alarm clock, he then throws himself off the bed like a lemming. In fact, he tends to throw himself around quite a lot. When he is running down the stairs, he misses out the last two and hurls himself off the third step!"
What about Kenny’s social skills? "Kenny loves other dogs and mixes well with them," Ben says proudly. "He shares a kennel with a little crossbreed, Laurie, and he has recently been reunited with his old housemate, Amber, and was very pleased to see her."
So how does Ben think Kenny is going to do in his training? Ben is diplomatic. "He is amazing to train, but I think he is going to be a challenge!"
Kenny was predicted to ‘wow’ the audiences at Crufts as he was scheduled to be a major part of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People’s demonstration in the Special Events Ring. Ben was hoping he would not disgrace himself! "I have a feeling that Kenny will steal the show," he confided, "and so he should. However, if he takes part in the races I suspect he will be the one that cheats!"
Little Kenny has a few months to go yet before he heads home with his deaf owner to embark on a fully qualified hearing dog’s life, but there is no doubt that his huge personality means that his recipient will be a very lucky person and have a lot of fun with their tiny assistance dog.
It is lovely to know that just as Kenny’s own life changed when he was rescued and Hearing Dogs selected him for training, so he will change a deaf person’s life by bringing them security, companionship, confidence and independence.
Hearing Dogs for Deaf People want to thank the Kennel Club Charitable Trust for paying for Kenny’s sponsorship which will cover his entire working life from his selection from the RSPCA through to when he retires from his ‘job’ as a hearing dog. Without sponsors for all our hearing dogs, the Charity would not be able to continue to train and place over 130 dogs with deaf people every year.