Instinct and Learned Behaviors

One of the most frequent questions I am asked about Chloe is “What kind of dog is she?” She is rather striking looking with her muscular build and red coloring. As her breed is “questionable”, I always tell them:

“My trainer believes she is a Vizsla and Golden Retriever mix”

My trainer has had a wide exposure to dogs, their breeds, and AKC shows and obedience trials. I’ve attended some of these functions with my daughter who now shows her Chinese Crested, and other dog enthusiasts have agreed with my trainer’s guess.

I suppose if I ever just wanted to know for sure, there are two tests available to the public now that will identify your dog’s “mix” for you. The Canine Heritage Breed Test and the Wisdom Panel Mixed Breed Analysis Test will take all the guess work out of the equation for you!

I do know by simply observing Chloe, that she is a scent hound and not a sight hound.
Chloe will follow a scent all over the yard when off leash. The scent trail may twist and turn, having her meandering across the lawn, over stumps, around sheds and even across gravel walkways. However I have seen her following a scent and miss a squirrel sitting on a lower branch of a tree watching her with interest. Unless the squirrel makes a noise causing her head to jerk up in awareness, she will never notice that critter unless her nose leads her right to it. If the scent trail she is following doesn’t lead her to the trunk of the tree where the squirrel is, then the trail she is following belongs to something else… something likely not even in the yard anymore.

I’m amazed when her nose begins to follow scents she can smell in the air even! She will even TASTE the air as she “tracks” something that wasn’t on the ground and yet came through our yard through flight.

Whatever her true breed mix may be, the “hound” in her is very obviously a scent hound. And yet… even though instinct drives her to behave a certain way, Chloe has learned particular behaviors and responses. This is why she is such an incredible hearing dog, and balance assist for me. These behaviors and responses were not “bred” into her, rather “trained” into her.

She knows I will praise her for “hearing things” and so will alert to even the smallest sound. I enjoy watching where she intently tunes into, as she tries to discern what is making a sound in order to take me to it. Those incredible ears will perk up, and she cocks her head to one side as if saying, “What in the world was THAT… and should I take Denise to it?”

I think one of the most difficult things for me in learning to live with an acquired disability like deafness, is learning to ignore instinct and instead rely on learned behaviors.

I was born with normal hearing, and like any child learned the different sounds an animal makes. I likely had more success in this than some others as I grew up on a ranch in Southeastern Colorado! I learned what a door closing sounded like, a baby’s cry, a coffee maker percolating, water boiling on the stove, and what water sounds like running in a stainless steel sink. I learned what the dishwasher sounds like, and the sound of a car engine that is running “correctly”. I learned that almost everything in the world makes a sound… even to the smallest whisper of noise like the sound of a breath exhaled on a cold winter’s morning.

Even though I lost my hearing over a period of twelve years, I still had to concentrate on using my other senses. When my coffee maker was finished, I had to see if any steam was still emerging from the top in order to know when it was finished. I had to learn to feel the vibrations of a door slamming to become aware of whether or not one of my children had returned from the backyard. A hand placed on the outside of the dishwasher, helped me to conclude whether or not the machine had completed its cleaning cycle. I think that is why losing one of your senses can cause STRESS in our lives. Our ears still want to HEAR the sounds of the world in order to help our brains make sense of everything around us. I had to “re-learn” how to become AWARE of small, relatively unimportant signals. I very quickly had to learn to perceive important emergency situations, and invested in some signaling devices that were visual or tactile alerts for things like fire alarms, alarm clocks, etc.

After my cochlear implant was activated, I again began to hear things that were silent to me for over a decade. I remember it took me a full week to discover the SOUND my coffee maker made. I didn’t have Chloe at the time to take me to it. It was very frustrating to hear something every morning and not be able to determine what it was. As I only have a CI on one side, I had difficulty with directionality as well. My family were unable to assist me in finding the “sound”, as these noises were things they had long ago learned to tune out as unimportant “background noise associated with life”. Even though it has been almost three years, I clearly remember how I practically HUGGED my coffee maker when I finally pinpointed the sound! In a period of 6 weeks, my husband had replaced our garbage disposal, dishwasher and vacuum cleaner as my brain “reconnected” sound with household items, and I by instinct and memory recall, knew they were not running correctly or effectively. The car ended up in the shop as well for some brake work!

I am “blessed” to be hearing again, however I am quick to explain that I do not hear normally. I am still adapting and learning to “hear” in new way. I allow my bionics to “hear” for me, and yet have learned behaviors that I continue to use to help me make sense of what I’m hearing.

I think people are incredible! The way our bodies work and have been put together at times astounds me! God certainly created something unique and special when He created us. We can adapt to disabilities and re-learn how to accomplish simple tasks.

Chloe? Well no matter WHAT her breed is, she assists me and helps that adaptation and “re-learning” to be a much lighter burden!

Denise Portis
©2008 Hearing Loss Diary

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