Meet Ember, a black Labrador Retriever working as a hearing dog
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 July 2014 | UPDATED: 10:42 11 January 2016
A boy’s life has been transformed by a black Labrador that couldn’t quite cut it as a guide dog for the blind. Emily Rothery reports
When an Irish breeder generously donated Ember, a black Labrador Retriever, to be trained as a guide dog he couldn’t have imagined what an impact his gift would have on the life of a Lancashire youngster.
Ember didn’t qualify as a guide dog but she went on to be trained as a hearing dog for deaf people. In 2010 she was matched with Sam Russell, who has profound hearing loss and was one of 12 deaf children to benefit from a pilot programme introduced by the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Previously only adults had benefited from the service.
‘Ember has made me feel more confident and safe,’ says 13-year-old Sam, who uses both speech and sign language. ‘She sleeps in my bedroom and will wake me by pulling the duvet off if the fire alarm goes. If she nudges me and lies down, that is the signal that indicates a fire.’
Jane, Sam’s mum, says: ‘Ember has made a big difference to all our lives. Sam used to get up in the night, 27 times being an all time record, because he felt isolated – he couldn’t hear all those little background noises that make you feel safe such as the TV and family voices.
‘But now he feels safe and sleeps right through. He’s an early riser but if that changes, Ember has been trained to pull his duvet off when his alarm clock goes.’
For Sam, it is never a case of ‘the dog ate my homework’ but ‘my dog helped with my homework.’ If work has to be timed or if Sam is cooking then Ember will alert him when the timer rings.
‘If mum or dad want me, then Ember will come and find me anywhere around the house and garden and give me a nudge knowing that I will follow her. She also has a special message purse so that mum can send written messages to me, like reminding me that it’s time to feed Ember or time for school.’
As we chat, Ember lies patiently at our feet but leaps into action when there is a job to do. Jane calls her and gives her the purse to take to Sam. Ember bounds across the lawn and is duly rewarded with a tasty treat. ‘Food and swimming are two of Ember’s favourite things,’ laughs Sam as he gives her an affectionate rub.
Jane says: ‘She is such a calm, steady dog and totally reliable. We say that she’s bomb-proof and she needs to be in our house – Sam is one of triplets and often the house will be full when their friends visit. Sam’s siblings, Edward and Isobel, love having Ember around too but Sam is the one who is responsible for feeding and grooming.’
Sam’s face lights up as he recalls being accepted onto the project. ‘It felt as if dreams really can come true.’ However, on first meeting Ember, Sam who is asthmatic, suffered an allergic reaction. ‘Never keen to give up, Hearing Dogs found a product that can be applied to Ember’s coat and the problem was resolved,’ says Jane. ‘Sam was so excited; he would have been devastated if we couldn’t have had her.’
Ember went through an intensive training programme, firstly, at the charity’s centre in York where, at one point, the whole family had to stay for a week, and then a trainer had to make several visits to their home in Lytham.
Jane says: ‘It was a huge commitment and Ember was assessed in stages before finally becoming fully qualified. Socialisation and sound work were the key elements to her training. Hearing Dogs for Deaf People is an amazing organisation and we still get back-up from our instructor but most things come as second nature to us now’.
When Sam and Ember achieved their Partnership Qualification they were delighted to be invited to Crufts. ‘I was a little bit nervous about going around the ring in front of 5,000 people but realised that it was a life time opportunity,’ says Sam who was interviewed by ex-EastEnder’s star Pam St Clement, a celebrity ambassador of the charity. Commentator Clare Balding declared Ember to be ‘a super star’.
Inspired by his trusty dog, in 2012, Sam organised a sponsored pyjama walk, named Dreams Can Come True, and raised an impressive £3,000 for the charity. Consequently, with Ember alongside, he attended a prestigious event at London’s Royal Artillery Barracks, where he met Princess Anne, the charity’s patron, and was presented with a Young Ambassador Award.
In 2013 Sam and Ember also featured in a film, which was shown on the BBC Children in Need show and on The One Show in the same week.
Sam is a great ambassador - mature beyond his years and focused on raising awareness of the charity. He has already spoken to the local Brownies and Cubs about Ember’s role and has more talks planned. Ember wears a special working coat when out and about and walks take a little longer now as she is now recognised in and around their home-town.
‘People will talk to Sam about Ember and, in turn, his confidence grows. The changes in Sam have been stunning. He was on the school council and continues to do things that I never thought I’d see him do. He is also just been selected for the Youth Advisory Board for the National Deaf Children’s’ Society and would love to become more involved in local talks and fundraising for Hearing Dogs,’ says Jane with more than a hint of pride.
Hearing Dogs for Deaf People are keen to start a fundraising branch in the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre area. If anyone is interested please contact Nicola Litchfield on 01257 260988 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.hearingdogs.org.uk. For more information on Petal Cleanse which may prevent allergic reactions go to www.biolife-international.co.uk