A best friend to guide through silence and darkness

Labradors trained to help masters who are both deaf and blind.

tamara meirovich 248.88 (photo credit: Jessica Leving)
tamara meirovich 248.88
(photo credit: Jessica Leving)
When the warning sirens sounded across Israel for the security drill earlier this month, Tamara Meirovich, 45, could not hear them, because she is deaf. Though other deaf people might have noticed flashing lights outside or frenzy in the street, Meirovich, who suffers from Usher's Syndrome, could not see the commotion, because she is also blind. Without her Labrador retriever, Hope, whom Meirovich and a friend have trained to respond to sounds and sign language commands, Meirovich would be largely cut off from the world around her. With the help of donors from the Netherlands and a small team of local partners, though, she has developed the first program in Israel - and one of only a few programs in the world - to train dogs for people who, like her, are both deaf and blind. After two years of training in a rented house in Na'aleh, north of Modi'in Illit, puppies raised by the Ali Hope Foundation learn to "paw," to touch their owners at certain sounds or events, such as a siren, fire alarm, doorbell ring or baby's cry. The dog then leads the owner to the source of the sound. "I always dreamed about training a dog to help blind-deaf people," said Meirovich through an interpreter, who spoke to her with Israeli sign language that Meirovich read by placing her hands atop the interpreter's. "We also train [the dogs] to pick up objects that a blind-deaf person would not notice they had dropped," she said, and then demonstrated by dropping her keys on the floor as she walked across the room. Lev, a newly trained puppy who was loyally walking at her trainer's side, immediately fetched the keys with her mouth and brought them to Meirovich, rubbing her head against Meirovich's leg to alert her of the fallen object. The Ali Hope Foundation is one of only a small number of programs worldwide to train dogs for individuals who are both deaf and blind. Of those programs, most, such as Leader Dogs in Rochester, Michigan, train the dogs only as guides, not assistants or alarm messengers. "Leader Dogs are trained to guide individuals who are both deaf and blind, not to alert them to sounds," states the Leader Dogs Web site. Others teach dogs to perform both guide tasks and sound alert tasks, but separately. "Over recent years we have trained a number of dogs which work as guide dogs outdoors and hearing dogs indoors," said Alan Brooks, international affairs manager at Guide Dogs UK. "These dogs perform normal guide dog activities and hearing dog activities. The exercises are separate, as they occur in different environments." After witnessing one program in the Netherlands during a conference she attended with guide and translator Tracy van Eek, who is deaf but not blind, Meirovich and van Eek decided to start the nonprofit Ali Hope Foundation in Israel. "A deaf man from Holland came to Israel for a week to help us set up the center and create the business model," Meirovich said. "But I developed my own form of training for the dogs where they learn Hebrew sign language commands." For example, Meirovich holds up three fingers to form the Hebrew letter "Shin" for shev (sit), and Hope obeys. Since the program's inception in 2006, the Ali Hope Foundation has provided four dogs: one to a blind-deaf woman also suffering from Usher's Syndrome, one to a deaf owner and two to deaf parents of small children who wanted a dog to help alert them to their baby's cries. "My dog helped me through a time when I was beginning to draw away from society because I am deaf and going blind," said Lee, 40. "Because of my dog I got back the confidence I had lost." The foundation buys the dogs as puppies, and trains them in Na'aleh. Meirovich and van Eek volunteer at the center full-time with the support of part-time volunteers who help care for the dogs, build cages, and answer phones. "The whole process takes two years for each dog," said van Eek, a native South African who reads lips and speaks perfect English despite being completely deaf. "We raise [the puppies] for one year, and then the second year we teach them sign language." Buying and training the dogs costs about NIS 60,000 per dog, but people receiving the dogs pay only a small contribution. "We can't run without donations," van Eek said. When the dogs are trained, the potential recipient comes to the Na'aleh house every two weeks to meet and establish a bond with the dog they will eventually bring home. "We need to make sure to check that the character of the dog and the person is a good match," Meirovich said. "If there's not a good connection, there will be problems in the future." Meirovich added that all of the dogs in the program are Labrador retrievers, as they are the easiest to train. "The dogs are like children," she said. "You need to have a lot of patience to train them." Patience is one quality that Meirovich has had to cultivate a lot of in her lifetime. Born in Argentina with no hearing ability and deteriorating vision, doctors in her home country did not know how to treat her condition. She did not learn sign language until her family made aliya when she was 13 years old. The Ali Hope Foundation (www.alihope.com) was named for Aliza Alpern, Meirovich's friend from the Wingate Institute, near Netanya, who was studying to train service dogs for the physically disabled, and helped to train Meirovich's own dog, Hope. Alpern, who died of cancer two months after completing the Wingate course, used her experience to begin developing the training model Meirovich now uses.•