Introducing Graham & Hearing Dog Birdie. As Graham’s nickname is “Birdie,” it may just have been in the stars for him to be matched with Hearing Dog and Labrador retriever Birdie! Four years after Graham applied for a Hearing Dog, the two Birdies finally met this past September for two weeks of team training at International Hearing Dog, Inc. (IHDI).
This journey began in July 2019, when Graham first submitted an application to IHDI. At the time, he was studying at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2020, followed by a master’s degree. Graham was born Deaf due to a congenital condition and received bilateral cochlear implants during elementary school. Graham grew up bilingual in English and American Sign Language.
Graham applied for a Hearing Dog to help him navigate the world because “even though I am profoundly deaf with cochlear implants, I don't always get everything. And when I don't have the implants on, I have to rely on sight and feel." Graham knew a Hearing Dog could alert him to an array of sounds, such as a doorbell, phone ring, fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, and timers. He added, “When the implants are off, being alerted of the fire alarm or if an intruder came in would be incredibly helpful. Having a Hearing Dog will surely enhance my life and make me feel safer.”
Birdie, a beautiful and spirited black Lab, came into the world in March 2022. University of Denver graduate social work IHDI intern, and the world’s most patient pup raiser, Olivia, worked tirelessly to manage Birdie’s boundless energy. The IHDI team often wondered whether Birdie would settle down enough, such as in her buoyant greetings and excitement around other dogs, to make it as a Hearing Service Dog.
Fortunately, Birdie was able to spend a period of intensive training with Master Handlers as part of IHDI’s Paws’Abilities Program at the Wyoming Correctional Institute. While at the prison, Birdie was affectionately nicknamed ‘Bird Dog’ and thrived on the systematic, customized training routine provided. She worked on several skills, especially on her polite greetings when meeting new people. Birdie also generalized her sound alerts to a new environment, learned how to pick up her leash in busy hallways, and practiced remaining calm around large groups of people and dogs.
Returning to IHDI, Birdie was on a solid path thanks to the remarkable efforts of her inmate Master Handler. Birdie was ready for her final stages of training, and IHDI’s training team was ready to begin the client matching process. Graham believed he would be the perfect fit for Birdie’s exuberance. As someone who has hiked all the national parks, Graham looked forward to the abundant canine energy that Birdie offers. He leads an active lifestyle and loves hiking, running, camping and tennis. Like Birdie, Graham also loves the water and was excited about the idea of introducing her to a life jacket and sailing in the future. And we found that, as an engineer, Graham was a natural at maintaining the analytic approach to her training so successfully employed by the Master Handlers.
At last, Graham and Birdie were able to begin working as partners. IHDI trainers were impressed with Graham and Birdie’s progress together during team training. Leah, Director of Dog Operations at IHDI, said: “Graham shows natural dog handling ability. He is so good at working with Birdie's energy and helping her channel it appropriately. Graham enjoys challenging Birdie with her sound alerts and obedience cues but also loves to see her chase balls, play, and just be a dog. They make a great team, and both are clearly dedicated to this partnership.”
Thanks to Olivia's nurturance and encouragement as a puppy raiser and the rigorous training by IHDI staff and the Master Handlers in the Wyoming Pawsibilities Prison Program, Birdie did, in fact, make it to the celebratory graduation day this fall. Olivia was in attendance and bonded with Graham and Birdie at Graduation. During a day filled with laughter and happy tears, Olivia remarked: “Through this journey, Birdie has taught me patience, being present, joy, routine, persistence, and unconditional love. I am unbelievably proud of what Birdie has accomplished during her time with me. I will miss her, but knowing that she will be helping someone every day makes me happy for her!"
Back home in South Carolina, Graham and Birdie have settled comfortably into their new life together. Birdie is well-behaved and calm while at work with Graham. And Birdie has even been issued her own Security Badge at work. Graham and Birdie work through sound alert and obedience cue behaviors on a daily basis. And, true to their adventurous natures, Graham and Birdie walk miles together daily and embark on weekend excursions, including most recently a long trek to take in a waterfall!
When asked what the best part of life with Birdie has been thus far, Graham shared, “The best experience with my dog has been successfully introducing her to the many people that I care about in my life.”