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Itzl performs tasks and holds a calm maturity that exceeds that of most humans. We've been partnered for 8 years now.

This diary isn't about my disability so much as it is about my service partner.

KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday and Wednesday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.

I have a hearing impairment. It occurred rather suddenly 17 years ago. For the first 2 years, I was hopeful my hearing would recover completely and was in denial about the loss.  I was a musician, playing the lovely Kiowa flute, the mountain dulcimer, the pennywhistle, the recorder, the harpsichord, and the Pan pipes.

After 2 years, I became resigned to the loss.  I no longer own any of those instruments because I can't hear when I flub them other than the winces of anyone listening. I still have my collection of LPs and CDs because I - still have them, but I haven't bought any new music in over a decade except from musicians I know in order to support them and to gift the music to those I know.

For the next 8 years, I "got by" as best I could.  Hearing aids had no effect except to hurt my ears and caused a permanent tinnitus in addition to the hearing loss. Louder doesn't help me hear better.  If it's out of my range, it simply doesn't exist audibly to me. Most people can hear up to 20 kHZ, I can hear up 5 kHZ.  Human voice range is between 2 and 4 kHZ, although a baby's cry or young child's shrill voice may exceed 5 kHZ, which means I don't hear them. I met one adult whose voice was also above 5 kHZ when she got excited.

Back up beeps, alarms, doorbells, timers, ringtones, sirens - these are all above 5 kHZ.  I don't hear them at all. With the added tinnitus from attempting to use hearing aids, I also can't hear in noisy situations. My hearing is no longer discretionary enough to distinguish sounds, so masking is always an issue. I am very grateful for closed captioning.  Sometimes, I wish people wore little screens around their necks that scrolled the words they said - portable closed captioning!

But they don't, so for 9 years, people perceived me as aloof, or snobbish, or rude when I didn't respond to them or hear them. When I walked in front of large trucks or SUVs that were backing up, I couldn't hear either the warning beeps or the people shouting at me.

During all of this, I knew about service dogs.  I'd helped train a few, been a foster to potential service dog puppies. I knew the range of services a dog could provide, from sight and hearing to seizure alerts to mobility assistance.  I knew about Delta certified therapy dogs.

None of the dogs and I were permanent fits. We got along great in the short term, but they weren't my dogs.  People ask if it was hard to let them go, and honestly, it wasn't.  They weren't my dogs.  They belonged to someone else, I was merely caring for them until the right person came along. It's like when you babysit - sure you like the kids you're caring for (you do, right?), but they aren't your children, so it's not an issue to give them to their parents. It was the same way with all those dogs - I cared for them, but they weren't mine.  It was never an issue to give them up to their forever homes.

Until Itzl.

Puppy Itzl in Bed by Soda

He was 3 weeks old, a rescue.  We were going to train him as a Delta Therapy dog -that's what you do with small, cute, fluffy dogs.

And he was cute:

Puppy Itzl Close-Up

And so tiny - he weighed a whopping 6 ounces when we rescued him and his projected adult weight was going to be 4 - 6 pounds. That meant he would be ideal as a therapy dog.

Temperament can be shaped in a dog, especially if it's that young. So we rescued him from being euthanized as an unwanted puppy and I began his training immediately. The 1st 6 months, it's mostly socialization and basic manners.  Itzl took to that so well, we were sure he'd be a therapy dog in no time.

Except Itzl had other plans.

Yes, I am blaming it all on Itzl.  His walnut-sized brain plotted it all out while dozing on my desk in his little hamster bed.

Sleeping Desk Puppy

And here he is, making his first move, his first alert as a hearing dog at a tender 4 weeks old:

Puppy Itzl at Play

And here he is in his awkward "teen" phase, alerting reliably on sounds - shortly after this is when we realized he would never be a therapy dog.  He had already decided he would be a signal dog and would alert on sounds for me.

Itzl Greeting Arrivals

Here he is, a year later, still growing in his hair, and now a trained and functioning signal dog:

Itzl Monitoring the Hall

Since he came into my life, he's saved my life at least twice from being hit by backing vehicles, alerts me to people and sounds so no one thinks I'm rude or aloof anymore, prevents me from burning food because I don't hear the timer and get engrossed in another project, and alerted on three different fire alarms - one of which had a fire attached to it. He's alerted me to light sabers, visitors, phone calls, people calling me from across the room, car alarms, ambulance sirens, and more.

We've been partnered 7 years now, and while I do dress him up in costumes (come on, he's small, and fluffy, and cute!), he's always serious about his duties.

He volunteers in a cat rescue shelter to help acclimate the cats to dogs so they have a better chance of being adopted.

To better help me, he's learned not only to respond to sign language, but to create his own unique signs so he can "talk" to me. He can tell me when he needs water, when he needs toileting, who is at the door, which alarm is sounding, if it's a train, an ambulance, or a police car approaching, if it's my cell phone or someone else's cell phone ringing, if a friend or a stranger is calling my name, if we've been "made" in a store and a manager or security is coming to challenge us.

It's not all business with him, either.  He's created some snarky, and even insulting, signals to apply to others.  "Bad dog" was his first and favorite, but he's added, "yappy person", and "dirty paw person" to his repertoire.

He's trying to teach his signals to Xoco, but she's a bit brain damaged from the hydrocephalus she had as a puppy so she's kind of slow.

He does all this with a brain no bigger than a walnut.

Here's a photo gallery of the dogs he's helped train:

Vladimir:

Itzl and Vlad

Pugsley:

Pugsley and Itzl at Play

Shika:

Itzl and Shika, Sunning

Pepper:

Pepper's Visit 006

Rafferty:

Rafferty and Itzl on Bench

Rhapsody:

Rhapsody

Xoco:

Itzl, Xoco

Hector:

Hector 008

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