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Dawn Cirrito, 46, was on vacation in Las Vegas with her husband, Vince, when she was seized with a craving for independence. Completely deaf and mostly wheelchair-bound, Dawn was tired of relying so heavily on her husband. With plans to eat dinner at a restaurant across the street from their hotel, Dawn asked, "Can I go alone and meet you there?"
Vince didn't like the idea. She read his lips: "Too dangerous."
"But there are crosswalks and lights!" Dawn countered. "And I have Daisy!" Daisy, a 2-year-old mixed breed with big pudding eyes, wagged her tail. It was true: As a hearing service dog, she knew how to paw, nudge, jump on or lick her owner to attention anytime she heard a sound she was trained for -- a ringing phone, for instance -- or a sound that seemed odd, like breaking glass. Since her arrival two months prior, Daisy had given Vince peace of mind that Dawn could be safely left alone. Still, he worried. Alerting Dawn to whistling teapots was not the same as shepherding her through eight lanes of traffic.
Giving in -- 26 years of marriage had taught him when to fold -- he watched nervously from the hotel valet area as Dawn wheeled out from the curb. Then, halfway across four lanes, Daisy froze. The traffic light turned from green to yellow; cars and trucks were about to start moving toward them. "There was nothing I could do but watch and pray," Vince, a retired Marine, recalls. "Yelling wouldn't help and I couldn't possibly run to them in time."
At first when Daisy refused to budge, "I really started to panic," Dawn said. She couldn't see any reason why Daisy had stopped in the street. Then she remembered the fundamental rule of partnering with a hearing dog. "The main way a hearing dog helps is to get your attention if something is unusual, so you have to learn to look at your dog, feel your dog, and listen to your dog," she says. "I had to trust that Daisy knew something I didn't." On faith, Dawn rolled back to the curb she'd started from. Immediately, a police squad car barreled through the spot she'd just vacated. She hadn't been able to see the vehicle hurtling toward her because of a truck in the turning lane.
"I started to cry," recalls Dawn. "If she hadn't alerted me to danger, we could have both been hit."
Four years later, Daisy is still happily oblivious to the profound role she plays in Dawn's life. "She's forever present in my day by letting me know my TDD [telecommunication device for the deaf] is ringing, say, or my microwave is going off." Daisy also keeps loneliness at bay. "It's easy to get isolated when you can't hear and aren't very mobile, but Daisy does not allow that," says Dawn, who lives near Palm Springs, in Calimesa, California. "She'll Velcro herself to me and cheer me up." Dawn walks around the block with Vince and Daisy once a day wearing a full leg brace.
Their rewarding bond comes after years of hardship for Dawn. In 1982, the dizzy spells and hearing loss that she had suffered since childhood worsened, and doctors diagnosed her with Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder. Twenty-two years old and a new mother, Dawn at first managed her symptoms. But despite her doctor's best efforts to ease them (there's no cure for the disorder), her condition worsened.
By December 2000 severe vertigo attacks struck frequently. Dawn was forced to lie in bed -- sometimes for an entire week -- fighting nausea while the room seemed to spin. "Dawn is at the severe end of the spectrum of this disorder," says Olivia A. Galvan, MD, a family-practice physician from Corona, California, who treats Dawn. "When she's having a severe attack, she gets nauseous, sweaty, and pale until the attack peaks and eventually subsides."
Dawn also had trouble keeping her balance. "Falling became a concern and I couldn't do the things I'd always loved, like spending the day at the mall or walking through the park," she says. Worst of all, her world had gone silent. "That was devastating, knowing I'd never hear the leaves rustle or my husband say, 'I love you' again." Work was out of the question.
Depressed and angry, Dawn withdrew, staying home alone while Vince worked and her daughter, Errin, went to school. "It was easier than trying to explain myself," she says. Getting a wheelchair helped, but the solitude was brutal.
Intrigued by an acquaintance's guide dog, she began researching online and found a Web site for the San Francisco SPCA Hearing Dog Program. Like the many other hearing-dog programs around the country, the San Francisco SPCA's teaches dogs basic obedience commands (both voice and sign language, according to the recipient's needs) and sounds. The dogs are rescued from animal shelters, as was Daisy. "At first, 'sound work' -- learning to respond to fire alarms, microwave timers, alarm clocks, and phones -- is a fun game for the dogs," says D. Glenn Martyn, program director. "Eventually dogs observe that their new guardians don't react to sounds. That's when they begin to truly alert the person to significant sounds in the environment. No longer is it just a game."
Dawn's first night with Daisy set the tone. Exhausted from a day of training classes, she decided to soak off her stress in a hot bath. "Next thing I know, here comes Daisy in a full sprint right into the tub with me," says Dawn. "Water and soap flew everywhere! I knew right away that we were going to get along."
All Daisy asks for in return is love -- and the occasional dog treat, which is what she got that day in Las Vegas. "She had just saved my life," says Dawn, "and she's sitting there looking at me innocently like, 'I have no idea why I'm getting all these hugs and cookies -- but I love them both!'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2006.