A Love Story

Fidos For Freedom, Inc., a Maryland volunteer group that trains therapy dogs, service dogs and hearing dogs, recently lost its facility. The donated space is being demolished to make way for a Lowe�s shopping center.

They named him “Pendulum,” because he was constantly moving--back and forth, back and forth through the house.

He had more energy than it seemed possible for his canine body to contain--typical for Australian shepherds, dogs bred to work all day herding sheep or cattle. They are an exuberant breed that thrives on, that needs activity.

When the rescue group got him, he had spent a good portion of his nine-month life crated in a basement. The family that owned him, realizing that wasn’t the best life for the dog--which was then named Steve--passed him onto a friend.

But the friend couldn’t handle him either. He wasn’t willing to give the dog back to the family--their method of keeping his energetic nature under control seemed harsh.

So Steve got a new home at an Australian shepherd rescue foster family, and a new name.

The first night Dorene Farnham had him in her care, she took him for a 10-mile run--she on a bike, the dog tethered alongside--just to exorcise those pent-up energy demons.

This one, Ms. Farnham knew, was going to be difficult to place.

It wasn’t his looks--Pendulum was a gorgeous, classic tri-colored Australian shepherd, with white, brown and black markings on his face, black tinged with brown along his back, and white down his legs. It wasn’t his personality--he was an affectionate, intelligent dog, a playful clown, and a ham in front of a camera.

But people who want pets don’t want dogs with that much restlessness, that much of a drive for activity. “We thought he’d be in rescue for a long time,” she said.

Pendulum didn’t just need a home to be happy. He needed a job.

He was about to get one.


John T. McCormick Sr. was a truck driver. He had worked all his life hauling groceries for Pantry Pride Stores, beverages for Pepsi, and refrigerator shelves for Olson Wire.

He noticed something starting to go wrong in the 1980s, when CB radios became popular. Other drivers would try to talk to him over the radio, and end up shouting. “They kept yelling at me-- `What’s wrong with you? You hard of hearing?’”

At diners, other truck drivers would sit with him and start talking. But Mr. McCormick couldn’t hear them. He dealt with it the best he could. “When he smiled, I smiled. When he frowned, I frowned.”

Eventually, the charade became tiring. “I would sit in a booth, so no one would come and start a conversation with me.”

Mr. McCormick doesn’t know why his hearing started to deteriorate. He blames it on the years of driving--nerve damage, maybe, from the noise. The doctor told him nothing could be done except to amplify the sounds with a hearing aid.

He got one hearing aid, then two.

His deafness continued to increase. The withdrawal that had begun with the truck drivers did the same. It wasn’t embarrassment over being partly deaf, Mr. McCormick said. It was just discomfort.

“With a crowd, I can’t join in,” he said. “I used to be a party man--I used to love parties. Now I’m always the first one to leave.”

Even family dinners were a problem. Mr. McCormick, 77, has six married children and 10 grandchildren. His wife died in 1997.

During dinners, the family members furthest from him would chat, and he would talk to his nearby son-in-law, since he had no idea what the others were discussing.

Eventually he excused himself from the larger group meals, explaining to his daughter that he felt bad about the situation. “The only thing I can do is talk to Ray--who probably would rather be talking in your conversation, but out of respect he’s talking with me.”

Not being able to hear drained enjoyment from gatherings. “I’ve had feelings--`I wish this conversation would hurry up and get over, or this dinner would hurry up and get over,’” he said. “You feel like you’re lost and have no where to go. “

His children were worried about him as well. He was alone in his Glen Burnie, Md., home, where he’d lived for 50 years, and he couldn’t hear all the warning sounds that tell people when something is going wrong--the sound of a pot boiling over, the clatter of an object hitting the floor. “My dad can be sitting under a smoke detector that’s going off, and not flinch,” said JoAnn Gomes, one of Mr. McCormick’s daughters.

The Gomes family was moving into a new home. They convinced Mr. McCormick to move in with them. They would build him his own addition--a senior apartment. He agreed. It seemed settled.

But a few of his children had also brought up an odd idea one day. One of his daughters had heard of a Maryland group, Fidos For Freedom, Inc. The group trained service dogs--dogs to help the disabled with everything from undressing to pulling a wheelchair.

The family discussed it among themselves, then approached Mr. McCormick. Dad, they asked, how would you like to have a hearing dog?


Dorene Farnham had been fostering Pendulum for about a month, working with his manners, teaching him basic puppy training. She was returning with Pendulum from the veterinarian’s office one day when she decided to make a quick stop at the mall.

Fidos For Freedom had an information table set up there, staffed by Debbie Gavelek, executive director. Ms. Farnham, envisioning potential homes for Australian shepherds, stopped at the table to ask about their policy on accepting rescue dogs.

She wasn’t thinking of Pendulum as a candidate--service dogs were supposed to be calm, quiet types--golden retrievers and Labradors, she thought. But she mentioned that she had an Aussie with her in the car. If the group members would take a look at Pendulum, it would give her a comparison she could use in finding appropriate dogs.

Ms. Gavelek went with her to the car. She was immediately struck by the dog inside. “He seemed very sure of himself,” she said. “He had a lot of awareness of the environment around him. He seemed very confident.”

A few days later, she went with another Fidos member to see Pendulum at Ms. Farnham’s home. The dog’s typical reaction to visitors was to grab a toy and start playing, Ms. Farnham said. This time it was different.

Ms. Gavelek sat down and Pendulum crawled into her lap.

Ms. Farnham was amazed at the dog’s response. “It was almost like he knew. `I want to go with you.’”

Pendulum was about 10 Ω months old when he entered the Fidos For Freedom program. He was the organization’s first rescue dog to make it through the program.

Fidos takes a broad approach toward training service dogs. The dogs are trained for everything at first, and then the members move them into categories as their skills and strong points become apparent.

Service dogs are taught to open doors, to help remove shoes, to retrieve objects, to pull wheelchairs. Hearing dogs are trained to alert their owners to noises--the telephone, the alarm clock, the doorbell, the sound of their name being called, a dropped object hitting the floor.

The two types of dogs have different personalities. Service dogs are laid back, willing to wait for their owners to tell them what to do. Hearing dogs are self-starters. They have to be self-motivated; listening for sounds, eager to identify noise.

“As little puppies, we’re not sure what way they’re going to go, so any dog that displays interest in a sound--`What is it?! Good boy!’ And we encourage them to be a brave puppy and go out there and investigate that sound,” Ms. Gavelek said.

Pendulum was a dog that could have gone either way, his trainers said. “There wasn’t really anything he couldn’t do,” said Ann Dunn, one of his trainers and a Fidos board member. “He was one of the smartest dogs I’d ever met. He could just look at things and figure them out.”

Ms. Dunn owns a black Labrador, Maddie, that was trained as a service dog before a health problem made her ineligible for Fidos.

One day Ms. Dunn was going over Maddie’s old service training, having the Labrador take off her sneakers. The Aussie sat watching. Then he nosed in and pushed her aside, sniffing the shoe. O.K. Let me do that.

“You want to take my shoe off?” Ms. Dunn asked. She pointed to the heel--the place he had to grip. “Fetch.” The dog reached in and pulled the shoe off.

“That’s not normal,” Ms. Dunn said. “With any other dog, I would have been [surprised], but he’s just that quick.”

But it swiftly became apparent that the rescue dog had a special aptitude for hearing. When Pendulum entered Fidos, he went through a third and final name change. They called him “Radar,” after the character on “M.A.S.H” who could hear the helicopters approaching from so far away that he always knew it before the others.

“It wasn’t so much the acuteness--all dogs have good hearing,” Ms. Dunn said. “It was just that he was so attuned to his surroundings.”

She recalled taking Radar to a conference of Assistance Dogs International in Orlando, Fla. There lay Radar, a student dog, in a conference room full of handlers and mostly fully-trained service dogs.

The other dogs were sleeping. Radar wasn’t.

“I was amazed, sitting there looking at him,” Ms. Dunn said. “The other dogs were asleep and snoring, and he would just lay there, his ears twitching, always on alert. He’s always like that. He’s always waiting for that sound.”

But Radar did need some extra work because of his past. He hadn’t been raised from his first few weeks of life as a service dog, constantly trained and socialized. His obedience, particularly his “stays,” needed a lot of enforcing.

“Radar had a problem with distractions,” said Sandy Melichar, a former Fidos’ trainer. “He would see food or hear a noise, and his instinct would be: `Let’s go check it out.’”

Fixing such glitches is particularly important because service dogs need to have manners beyond reproach. Establishments aren’t fond of dogs, and service dogs have to be exemplary visitors. The behavior of each reflects on the entire class of canine.

Ms. Melichar dealt with it by throwing all the distractions possible at Radar. The dog was with the trainer constantly. “If my daughter had a dental appointment, Radar had a dental appointment. If I went to dinner, Radar went to dinner.”

There was no doubt, though, that Radar was going to be a service dog. All service dogs enjoy their work, but Radar seemed to love it. “He was an ace,” Ms. Melichar said. “You’d show him something and he’d take it from there, and he’d own it.”


Initially, Mr. McCormick wasn’t sure about the hearing dog proposal. It sounded great, he admitted--a dog that could tell him when the phone was ringing, or someone was knocking on the door.

But when his family first mentioned it to him, he was still driving tractor-trailers 500 to 600 miles a day. That wouldn’t be a fair life for a dog, he thought, and dismissed the idea. But it kept coming up. His family wouldn’t let it lie.

After his retirement in 1998, there was less reason to refuse. Cost, Mr. McCormick thought--but Fidos’ fee is only $150 plus the $10 application cost--amazing, considering that each dog’s actual value is about $10,000, taking into account all of their training, as well as their purebred status.

So Mr. McCormick and his family filled out the paperwork and applied to the program. After an interview, he was accepted.

Mr. McCormick went with four of his daughters to check out the program at its headquarters in Laurel, Md. He watched with dismay as the clients put their highly trained dogs through their drills. “I used to sit there and watch everyone work with the dogs and think—`I could never do this. I could never get my dog to do that for me.’”

But the other Fidos clients inspired him. One woman, Trish, was wheelchair-bound. Her service dog was a black Labrador, Jellybean. “She said, `John, it’s very hard work, but it’s well worth it. It’s wonderful after it’s completed--It’s probably one of the nicest things that’s happened to me in my life.’”

Because Fidos wants to pair people and dogs perfectly, clients train with several of the program’s canines, trying the partnership out for size during the first 60 hours of client-dog training that takes place.

Not everyone is paired immediately. It can take as long as two to three years for a client to find the right dog. After Fidos makes a match, clients must go through another 60 hours of training. Clients can also return for additional work whenever they feel they need it.

Mr. McCormick was teamed up with Radar first. “I fell in love with him the first night,” he said.

He can’t explain it--it would be like explaining what attracts you to a woman right away, he said. “You find out this is what you want in life.”

The more they worked together, the more attached Mr. McCormick became. “I told Deb—`I love Radar.’ And she said, `Well, John, you can’t fall in love with the first dog you train with.’”

At the time, Radar was the only hearing dog in the program and Mr. McCormick the only hearing-impaired client. But Ms. Gavelek couldn’t tell Mr. McCormick they were likely to be matched.

“Even though he was the only hearing dog in the program, it’s whether you and the dog mesh together as a team,” Ms. Dunn said. “If we felt this was not the proper match, he might not have gotten Radar. But in this case, they clicked immediately.”

Mr. McCormick’s family was hearing about Radar, too. “He wanted Radar to be his dog,” said Sharon Moore, one of Mr. McCormick’s daughters. “I remember my sister was with him the first night and saw Radar, and she said, `I know Dad’s going to end up with a big old hairy Australian shepherd.’”

One night, about six months after Mr. McCormick had begun training with the program, Ms. Gavelek and Ms. Dunn drew him aside.

The group had made a decision. “The two looked good together, they worked well together--it was a match made in heaven,” Ms. Dunn said.

They told him. He and Radar were going to be a team. “He was ecstatic,” Ms. Dunn recalled. “He just had a big smile on his face. He said, `You know, I wanted that dog from the start ... he’s my boy.’ We said, `We know.’”

Mr. McCormick wanted to take Radar right then, Ms. Dunn recalled. But Radar still had a lot of training to do. Up until then he and Mr. McCormick had mainly worked on basic obedience. Now it was time to learn the hearing alerts.

Hearing dogs are personalized service dogs. They learn five initial sounds with their clients. Usually the first is the sound of a baby crying--a disturbing sound to dogs, easy for them to pick up on. Clients with children tape the sound of their own baby crying--the dog has to be able to distinguish that child from others.

Clients also tape the sound of their own doorbell and telephones for the dog to learn. Dogs are taught to identify the sound of the alarm clock going off, and an object dropping to the floor.

Dropping objects is particularly important--imagine dropping your car keys or a credit card and not hearing them fall. Eventually the dogs become so sensitive that a person can drop a dollar bill onto carpet and get an alert.

Once a dog gets three or four sounds down, it starts picking up the others quickly. Dogs start to pick up on important sounds and alert their owners--one Fidos dog will alert its owner to the sound of water boiling on the stove, Ms. Gavelek said. Another was taught let its owner know when water had been left running.

Radar took to hearing alerts like he’d been bred for it. “He’s almost a natural,” Ms. Gavelek said. “He didn’t take much real training at all to learn the hearing part.”

Radar officially became Mr. McCormick’s dog on June 30, 1999. The dog has changed his life, he says simply. Things have been different since they’ve been together.

One of Mr. McCormick’s first acts with Radar was to take the dog to his wife’s grave, to introduce them.

He recalled a time his wife was in the hospital. The family of the patient in the next bed convinced the staff to let them bring her dog in for a visit. “I thought, `Why would people bring that dog in?’” Mr. McCormick said. “I couldn’t believe it. But now I could.

“He’s filled a big void in my life. I hope I go before he goes. I just can’t describe it.”

He went on to try, though, looking for the right words. “I liked dogs, and I thought I loved dogs, but I could never visualize me loving a dog the way I love Radar,” he said. “I just know that he’s with me and I don’t have to depend on anyone.”


On a July afternoon, Mr. McCormick prepared for a trip to the local Wal-Mart. He needed to pick up a new grooming rake for the dog’s coat.

But first he showed off a few of the tricks he’d taught Radar. He tossed a handkerchief to the floor, then put a hand to his face and gave a loud sneeze.

Radar picked up the handkerchief and brought it to Mr. McCormick, who rewarded him with praise and a treat.

Mr. McCormick demonstrated some of Radar’s hearing alerts--the doorbell, the alarm clock. Each dog develops its own way of alerting owners to a sound. Some bounce and bump against them, some run around them in circles.

Radar goes into a controlled frenzy of activity, his movements necessarily restrained but bursting with urgency. He moves toward the sound, ears perked. He looks at Mr. McCormick and barks. He jumps against him with his paws. He leads him to the noise, turning his head often to make sure he’s following.

Each time, Mr. McCormick followed him to the noise. Nothing will kill a hearing alert faster than not responding, Ms. Gavelek said. Clients have to be careful to do such things as ignore their ringing phones until the dog alerts them to the sound, and to always, always respond.

Afterwards, the dogs get praise and attention. And Radar gets a little more. “John, he doesn’t need a treat every time,” Ms. Gavelek, visiting, told Mr. McCormick sternly, as she noticed a pattern developing after each demonstration.

She took one of the treats and broke off a tiny corner. “You should give him this much. He’s getting chunky.” Mr. McCormick made placating but not particularly convincing noises. Radar watched the exchange with concern.

On the drive to Wal-Mart, Radar lay silent as empty air in the back of the car, invisible behind the seat. Mr. McCormick recalled going for one long drive and hearing nothing for so long that he became worried. “Radar--are you my dog?” he called out. Radar responded, as Mr. McCormick had taught him, with a bark.

As the two walked into the store, an employee wondered aloud, sharply, “Is that a Seeing Eye dog?”

Two hearing aids, each made of a clear plastic, filled Mr. McCormick’s ear cavities. Two transparent cords looped behind the ears, where they connected to two plastic curves coordinated to match his flesh. It’s not a hugely noticeable disability.

But Radar wore an orange service-dog leash and collar. His leather harness has an ID tag looped to it, with pictures of both Mr. McCormick and the dog. There were no further questions.

“Do Not Pet” is emblazoned across the tag in red. One of the difficult things about owning Radar is having to tell small children that they can’t pet him, Mr. McCormick said. Radar is on duty and off-limits, and in any case the owner is supposed to be the primary source of the animal’s praise and affection.

But the dog doesn’t go unnoticed. “He’s a good dog, isn’t he?” one woman said. “How cute,” said another. People smiled. Children stared, eyes wide. Mr. McCormick smiled and murmured in response.

An employee greeted Mr. McCormick. “Hi, John--You back in again? Beautiful dog--he never ceases to impress me.”

The conversations happen all the time, Mr. McCormick said. Often they ask about Radar. “You meet so many nice people,” he said. “Before I got Radar, I really didn’t want to go out. I tried to stay away from conversations, so I stayed away from people.”

His family has noticed the change. Mr. McCormick, never a public speaker before, now does speeches for Fidos. He recently took Radar to Baltimore, and on the Metro rail line to Washington, D.C. “It’s almost like he has to take the dog and entertain him,” Ms. Gomes said. “These are things my dad would not do without the dog.”

Everyone who knows Mr. McCormick knows the dog. Radar has been made a lifetime member of the Association of Retired Members of Teamsters Local 355. Mr. McCormick has his official, signed membership card, certifying that “Brother Radar is a lifetime member in good standing.”

The change in independence and self-confidence is significant, his children said.

“He’ll go out to eat alone, but I don’t think he feels that way with Radar,” Ms. Moore said. “I’ll call him and he’ll say, `Yeah, we went here and we went there today,’ and you’ll think he had another person with him. I think it’s that he knows that Radar will alert him to anything going on in his surroundings that he can’t pick up--he really trusts Radar to react to situations.”

Mr. McCormick is still leery about being in groups--"He kind of gets lost in the crowd,” Ms. Gomes said.

But he loses fewer opportunities to socialize. One friend had stopped coming over because Mr. McCormick never heard the doorbell or knocking. “That never happens now,” he said.

The safety issue has lessened as well. Shortly after getting Radar, Mr. McCormick decided to keep on living in his own home. The dog’s presence decreased the worry for both him and his family. “I used to think, `Dad’s home alone,’” Ms. Gomes said. “Now I think, `Oh, he’s home with Radar.’”

Mr. McCormick no longer lies awake worrying about someone breaking in, or a fire breaking out. One night, around 4 a.m., Radar woke him wildly and led him to the front door. Mr. McCormick looked through the peephole and saw a uniformed police officer.

He grabbed Radar by the collar and opened the door. “Before you say anything, I am hearing impaired,” he told the officer.

The officer asked him if he lived in the house alone. It was just him and the dog, Mr. McCormick said. The officer pressed him. Was he sure? No son? No one else?

No, Mr. McCormick said. No one. Then the officer told him that a hit-and-run had been reported to Mr. McCormick’s address.

Mr. McCormick wonders now what would have happened if Radar hadn’t woken him up. “Would they have broken the door down?” he said. “That’s why I can go to sleep at night now. I don’t have to worry about that as long as he’s here.”

In Wal-Mart, Radar was handling less dramatic tasks.

The store was out of grooming rakes. Mr. McCormick wandered over to another aisle. “No treats!” Ms. Gavelek called to him.

“I want to buy him something while we’re here,” Mr. McCormick protested, continuing to browse. “I’ll just buy a little bag.”

Ms. Gavelek gave in. “Lean would be good,” she said, and handed him a package of soft treats, instructing him to break off a little bit at a time.

Mr. McCormick handed them to Radar with the command, “Take.” Radar walked through the store with the bag of treats clamped in his mouth. As they waited at the checkout line, Mr. McCormick absently scratched the top of the dog’s head with his pinky finger.

Outside Wal-Mart, Mr. McCormick and Ms. Gavelek stopped for some pizza. “Leave it!” Mr. McCormick rapped out as Radar lunged for a scrap on the floor. Radar gave up the attempt immediately.

Recently he tried to go after a squirrel, Mr. McCormick said. It’s something he’ll work on during his next visits to Fidos. Like all service dogs, Radar needs continual reinforcement of his training.

Lying under the table, Radar spread his head and neck over Mr. McCormick’s feet. His ears twitched, tilted, constantly moving. Keys jingled and his head turned, pausing, identifying. A plastic bag rustled and he looked up, watching.

A woman approached. “Excuse me--what is your friend trained for?” she said.

“He’s a hearing dog, ma’am,” Mr. McCormick replied.

“Oh, I knew he wasn’t a Seeing Eye dog--I have a friend who has one--and I wanted to know.”

“Yes, I’m hearing impaired, and I live alone and that kind of thing,” Mr. McCormick said. “He’s an Australian shepherd. His name is Radar.”

The two chatted for a few moments, then the woman patted Mr. McCormick on the shoulder. “You have a good life now,” she said, and walked away.

Under the table, the dog lay silent and listening. “Radar,” Mr. McCormick said.

Radar’s head went up instantly. He rose and wove past Mr. McCormick’s legs and the table, and stared up into his face, intently.

“He’s my partner,” Mr. McCormick said quietly, rubbing him under the chin, on the throat. “He’s my partner.”

Posted by rosevine69 on 08/25 at 02:09 PM in Pet People

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