If you follow us on social media, you may already feel you know this gorgeous chap. This is Kimba, he’s a cocker spaniel and for the past year, my Mum and I have been training him to be a Hearing Dog for Deaf People. Today was the bittersweet ending to our amazing year with him as he left us to travel to his recipient in Scotland. I have shed so many tears today and desperately hope this won’t be the end of our journey with him, but just in case, I wanted to mark this day with a special post of Kimba’s Best Bits.
Kimba was only seven weeks old when he came to us, a tiny bundle of shiny black fluff with a rather serious expression on his little face! He was bred by Hearing Dogs especially for his temperament and his brothers and sister will all become Assistance Dogs too, Koko and Kristo for Hearing Dogs and Kasper for Dogs for the Disabled. All the puppies from each litter have names starting with the same letter.
We couldn’t take Kimba out on walks at first because he hadn’t finished his vaccinations, but he didn’t seem to mind exploring the garden instead. This boy just loves to help out with the digging!
The role of a volunteer puppy socialiser is help the dog experience as much of the world in their first months as possible, so they grow up to be confident and unphased when they go out to work. Even before he could walk on the pavements we carried Kimba with us everywhere to soak up all the sights, sounds and smells he might encounter. It’s amazing how important those early weeks are for a puppy as their ‘socialisation window’ closes at just 16 weeks, after which startling experiences are far more likely to upset them in the long-term.
Socialising a puppy is great fun, but if you’re considering it you should remember that trainee assistance dogs are no different to any other puppy when it comes to house training and chewing! We needed lots of patience in Kimba’s first few weeks until he got the hang of it and gave him lots of carrots and ice cubes to soothe his teeth. These are still his favourite treats to this day!
Another big part of being a puppy socialiser is training the puppy in all their basic obedience skills, such as sit, down and settle. To help us do this, we took Kimba to a special puppy class run by Hearing Dogs for Deaf People every fortnight so Kimba could train with other puppies the same age and we could learn what we needed to teach him. The puppy classes and training games were one of my absolute favourite things about being a socialiser. I gained so much knowledge about how dogs learn and it was very rewarding seeing him pick up new skills so quickly when I got it right! When Kimba passed his One Star Award he got a special rosette and when he passed his Two Star he got a cute little “I’m Learning” coat so he could come with us into shops and other places pet dogs can’t go. We even took him to the cinema!
One of the loveliest and most unexpected things about having Kimba has been his effect on our 13 year old pointer, Lottie. She was becoming a bit sluggish in her old age and we were unsure how she’d take to a pesky little pup, but Kimba has given her a new lease of life! She charges around playing with him like she’s a puppy herself and she seems so much happier and healthier too. It’s been so lovely to see them together and I know she’ll miss him as much as we do.
When Kimba was around six months old we started teaching him his ‘soundwork’; a series of alerts to noises which his deaf recipient will rely on him for. We started off by training him to nudge our leg with his nose when he heard the sound of a squeaker and progressed onto using this nose nudge alert when he heard the telephone, cooker timer and doorbell. Kimba’s favourite job of all is the wake-up alarm because this one has a different alert… he gets to leap up on the bed and lie on top of you! There’s no such thing as a snooze function when Kimba’s around! The coolest thing is that Kimba loves every bit of his soundwork – although to his recipient it’s the most serious part of what he’ll do, to him it’s all just one big game, with lots of praise and treats on offer if when he gets it right!
Kimba has become such a part of our family over this last year and, although we always knew he would be moving on, it has been truly heartbreaking to say goodbye today. It’s really the only bad thing about the puppy socialising experience – although we know he’s going to change someone’s life and that she will love him so, so much, it’s very hard not being able to explain that to him. I have to keep telling myself that he will be fine and we will keep our fingers crossed that his recipient will get in touch with us. For data protection reasons we’re not allowed to contact her (something I completely understand) but it does make it especially sad not knowing if we’ll ever hear how he’s doing in his new home.
But for now, we will be cherishing all our many happy memories of him. I never thought that a year with a dog could be life-changing but Kimba has enriched my life so much. I’ll never forget him and his special magic.
As the saying goes, “I wish I could be the person my dog thinks I am” and for you, gorgeous Kimba, I’m sure going to try!
[Photographs all © Decorator’s Notebook]