Many colleagues who I have met at meetings, conferences, etc, will have met my beautiful hearing dog, Chester.
He is still very much with us – to clear that up straight away – but I no longer have him.
Giving Chester up was the hardest decision I have ever made. It’s difficult to explain but I would like to try. I want to pay tribute to a wonderful dog and companion, and to draw some closure under what was and still is a difficult and painful choice.
I applied for a hearing dog when I’d just finished university, in 2008. I was living alone, low in confidence, and missing everyday sounds like the doorbell. The waiting list was almost five years. When I got Chester in 2013 it was a wonderful surprise; it’d been such a long time. I’d moved house, had a partner (who loved dogs). He slotted in straightaway and became a wonderful companion and help. He was so well-behaved (although cheeky, especially around food!) and got on with everybody he met. I had to take him to Newcastle, including an overnight stay in a hotel, and to London, within weeks of getting him. I’ll never get over how calm he was on the tube, not even blinking when a train pulled in to the station. He caused a lot of raised eyebrows and laughs when I carried him on the escalators!
He also helped me to feel truly okay about my deafness. I’d always been unsure or apologetic. Now that I had him there as a badge, all the time, it felt like a weight had been lifted. If any access problems arose I became very assertive; for example, I had some issues with certain people at my workplace not understanding the legal requirements to give an assistance dog access. I learned to – politely and clearly – state my needs and any relevant obligations. Chester helped me – and I helped him; we went for wonderful walks and runs together. He was a real outdoors dog and loved nothing more than sniffing for badger sets and (very unsuccessfully) chasing rabbits.
Although Chester helped me enormously, as the years wore on, I could never quite shake off the feeling that somebody else could benefit from him more. I’d received a second cochlear implant in 2010 and my hearing was getting better and better (it’s a long way off perfect, but I say that I ‘hear pretty well for a deaf person’). And, paradoxically, as I grew more accepting of my deafness, it felt it was less a part of me. I contacted the charity to explain my doubts and they offered a trial separation. I must add that these are extremely rare in the advanced stages of a partnerships. He went on the 21st September: his 5th birthday. I cried so hard, then felt a sense of calm. I didn’t know what would happen but I knew that I needed to try this.
I must stress here that having an assistance dog is a hugely personal choice, and that this blog post is in no way making a connection between hearing ability and the decision to – or need for – an assistance dog. For my part I am and always will be profoundly deaf.
To cut a long story short, I said that Chester should go to somebody else. He has another 5-6 working years left and he will be a blessing to whoever gets him. I had three wonderful years with Chester and he increased my confidence so much. They were not wasted years in any sense. He came everywhere with me, my little doggy sidekick, and made me feel it was okay to be just me, to be deaf. And dogs are wonderful, aren’t they? I’d never had one before getting Chester. They love unconditionally. They make you go out walking – rain, wind, or sun – and meeting people. You know most other dog owners by the names of their dogs, not the person. Chester was the most amazing alarm clock. He’d jump straight on the bed and paw me awake, knowing that another joyous day was just beginning, starting with a run outside and a large plate of biscuits!
Not having him is still strange. The house felt so quiet and empty for weeks. I do miss the doorbell occasionally. I have to buy special equipment, such as a flashing smoke alarm, and alarm clock (which I miss sometimes as I roll off the pillow it’s set to vibrate under!) Most of all, my identify without Chester feels different. The day after he went I had to go to a conference and I missed a lot of conversation. I realised that it was no longer obvious to people and I would have to start telling them once more. But I have the confidence to do so, whereas before I had Chester I did not. And that’s his wonderful legacy.
I still miss him every day but I am so thankful that I had him, and I’m truly gratified that he is going to be somebody else’s ears and companion.
Thank you, my lovely Chester.