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She's All Ears

Featured Photo from She's All Ears

Meet the winner of our Greatest Pet Photo Contest: Coco, the homegrown hearing ear dog

When John Chmielewski’s hearing loss became severe about a decade ago, his sister Cynthia fretted constantly about his safety. Oftentimes, John missed visitors because he failed to hear his doorbell ring when people stopped by his Lake Mary home. But what worried Cynthia most of all was the thought of her brother not being able to hear if an intruder broke in. The close-knit siblings, both in their 70s, live in separate homes in The Forest, a retirement community off Lake Mary Boulevard.

Cynthia’s solution to the situation came in the form of an adorable long-haired Chihuahua named Coco, who has become John’s sidekick and service dog. Using tutorials Cynthia found on the internet, the Chmielewskis trained Coco themselves to alert John to sounds – particularly the ringing of the doorbell.

“Coco has relieved my worries,” says Cynthia, 72. “She bonded with John immediately and just loves him to death. She’s brought to him such joy, and they absolutely adore one another.”

John, 74, gradually lost his hearing because of a viral infection that settled in his ears. Initially, he used hearing aids but switched to a cochlear implant for his right ear about eight years ago. When John removes the implant’s sound processor, he is completely deaf in that ear, and his left ear can only detect extremely loud noises.

Coco came into John’s life in 2016 through one of Cynthia’s friends, who was seeking a good home for the dog. Cynthia thought the sweet pooch would be a good companion for her brother, and later, they began training Coco as a service dog.
“At first, I was leery about taking a dog because it had been a long time since I’d had one – I didn’t know how we’d get along, but we took to one another,” says John, the frequent recipient of the devoted dog’s kisses and cuddles. “Coco doesn’t leave my side. While I miss some sounds even with the implant, Coco does not.”

The petite pooch is a registered service animal with her own photo ID card from United Support Animals to prove it. Before the Chmielewskis decided to homeschool Coco, John contacted an organization that formally trains hearing dogs to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, the organization only trains its own dogs, not those from the general public.
So, the siblings and New Jersey natives embraced a do-it-yourself approach. A retired electrical engineer, John wired an old doorbell to a wooden board so they could work with Coco while inside, instead of standing outside his front door. When Cynthia rang the makeshift doorbell, John would call Coco, pat his leg, and offer treats to encourage her to come to him as soon as she heard the ding-dong sound.

Now, Coco alerts John by barking whenever the doorbell rings, and if he doesn’t respond, she leans on him with her front paws. At night when John is sleeping, Coco jumps on him to get his attention if she hears a concerning noise.

“She was pretty easy to train,” says Cynthia, who has a dog of her own – a smart-but-stubborn Scottish terrier named Auggie.
Cynthia attributes Coco’s successful schooling to repetition and the positive reinforcement of treats as rewards. As a service dog, the cute canine can accompany John wherever he goes, from tooling around the neighborhood on his golf cart to taking road trips.

A couple of years ago, John took Coco on a road trip from Florida to New Jersey, and the pooch’s presence made him feel more at ease during motel stays.

“I know that she would alert me if someone came around,” John says. “Service dogs really help people with their handicaps. Coco has definitely given me peace of mind.”

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