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Woman Battles Landlord to Get to Keep Dog That Does Her Hearing

February 23, 1986|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | United Press International

It took all the control the fuzzy white terrier could muster to stay put on its mistress's lap when the visitor arrived. As a certified signal dog, it is usually her job to be the ears of her hearing-impaired owner.

On this occasion, though, the pooch resisted the trained urge to notify her owner of any sound needing attention. Instead, she wriggled wildly and wagged her tail, awaiting the opportunity to lick a new hand.

Colleen Hughes watched the eager greeting with fondness during an interview at her attorney's office. She explained that Sali is trained to tell her about some sounds, but not about others.

"We had trouble with that at first," she said. "She seemed overtrained. We'd walk into a department store and she'd be responding to all the bells and telephones and other tones. It was impossible."

But Hughes says the two have now perfected their relationship and are "partners."

Although signal dogs are still relatively few, their numbers are growing. Ralph Dennard, director of the Hearing Dog Program at San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, estimates the national signal dog population at about 3,000.

What is believed to be the first training program sprang up in Minnesota in the early 1970s after a deaf woman lost a dog that had instinctively learned to notify her of significant sounds. A private kennel undertook to train a new dog for her and a program was born.

Dennard said there are currently about nine formal programs in the nation, two in California. Most train dogs at no cost to the recipient, he said.

After a three-year legal wrangle, Hughes, 35, just got final assurance that her landlord won't evict her and Sali from their Santa Monica apartment, where the lease forbids pets.

She said the settlement ends a legal battle that was headed for the state Supreme Court.

"State law expressly requires the admittance of all guide dogs, including signal dogs, everywhere that Seeing Eye dogs go," said Hughes' lawyer, Dan Stormer. "But a lot of people still don't realize that."

Sali's enthusiasm for her work is evident. The dog carefully monitored the room during the interview, glancing up eagerly into Hughes' face when office phones or buzzers sounded.

When the two are in someone else's home or office, Sali knows to restrain her signaling. When the two are at home, though, her movements dramatically illustrate important sounds.

"She runs over and makes physical contact with me," Hughes said. "She usually jumps on me, pretty clumsily, then darts off toward the phone, the door, the microwave, or whatever is making noise.

"And the dog is always right. You don't second-guess the dog."

Sali's confidence has pulled Hughes out of several near-misses with disaster. Once, Hughes left bread baking in the oven of her 14th-floor apartment while doing laundry in the basement. When she came back, her oven was on fire.

"My sense of smell isn't that good either because of allergies, so I didn't smell it," she recalled. "Sali just barked and barked. She knows when she's right, and she's very stubborn."

Without Sali's signals, the fire could have spread too fast to control.

Helps With Driving

Hughes relies on Sali for safe navigation in the car, too. Sitting at her mistress's right elbow, the dog makes sure Hughes notices sirens and screeches of brakes.

"She taps me on the right arm with both her paws," Hughes said. "But her hearing is so keen that she hears ambulances way ahead of everyone else. And there I am, pulled over to the right, with everyone else whizzing by saying, 'That lady must be crazy.' "

Six years as a flight attendant cost Hughes 50% of her hearing. She said her ears were damaged by the repeated readjustments to pressure changes and by subsequent negligent medical care. A worker's compensation claim helps support her.

With her hearing aid, her hearing range is 80% normal, but she still needs Sali because some sounds are hard to identify. Also, she cannot wear the hearing aid in windy or rainy weather or when she sleeps.

Eviction Attempted

The legal fight that ensued after Hughes' landlord tried to evict her was a battle that Hughes' lawyer, Dan Stormer, said never should have had to take place.

"State law expressly requires the admittance of all guide dogs, including signal dogs, everywhere that seeing eye dogs go," he said. "But a lot of people still don't realize that."

Hughes smiled wearily and rolled her eyes, nodding in agreement. At 35, she is the jaded victim of discrimination by landlords, airport security guards, maitre d's and scores of others who have denied her admittance with Sali.

She even had difficulty getting into her lawyer's Wilshire Boulevard high-rise for the interview. Spotting her entry with the lively terrier, guards sent a volley of radio calls back and forth and stopped her at the elevator.

Hughes whipped out copies of Sali's signal dog certification and the state civil code allowing such dogs free access to buildings, and eventually convinced the guard to let her in.

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