Much More Than A Hearing Dog: The Story Of Jane And Sita Biehl
By Julie Flanders
Jane Biehl resisted getting a hearing dog for years. Biehl, a counselor and professor in Canton, Ohio who has been deaf since childhood, felt that she had managed fine without a hearing dog for decades, and she could easily continue to do so.
Her attitude changed after a friend was robbed and beaten in his own home. Biehl felt vulnerable, and set out to change that by getting a hearing dog. As with so many things in life, the timing was fortuitous. If Biehl had decided to get a dog sooner, she wouldn’t have been partnered with Sita. And if there is one thing that has become clear in the nearly four years they have been together, it’s that Sita and Jane were meant to be.
While Sita has found her place now, getting there was quite rocky. She was abandoned on the streets of Springfield, Ohio, and was rescued from a county shelter by Circle Tail, Inc., a rescue organization that trains service dogs. It was immediately clear to Circle Tail staff that they had found a “working girl” in Sita. Her calm demeanor and gentle spirit impressed everyone who came in contact with her and, within no time at all, Sita started training to be a hearing dog.
As part of Sita’s training, she participated in the Inmate/Canine Educational Program, in which Circle Tail partners with three Ohio prisons in order to provide care and training for their dogs. Inmates in the program are taught to meet all of the dogs’ basic needs, and to train them in both basic obedience and advanced service skills.
Sita’s trainer wrote an open letter about her that is posted on the Circle Tail website. When describing his experience with Sita, he wrote:
“I set out to teach her how to become a better dog; instead she trained me to become a better person.
I know! It just seems backwards.
I have taught this loving companion nothing compared to what she has taught me.
If you receive this bright-eyed beauty, I pray she will teach you too, as well as she has taught me.”
Jane Biehl read this letter when she was researching Circle Tail, and was profoundly moved. In her work as a counselor, Jane had heard from ex-prisoner clients about the long, seemingly endless days in prison. She was touched by the idea that training the assistance dogs gave the prisoners a purpose, and an opportunity to bring meaning to their lives by helping others.
After much soul searching, Jane made the decision to apply for a dog from Circle Tail. She states that while she was excited when she made her first trip to the organization, she was also filled with anxiety. Was she doing the right thing? When she met a beautiful yellow lab with soulful brown eyes named Sita, she knew the answer was a resounding yes.
Jane was instantly smitten, and astonished to learn that Sita was the dog she had read about in the inmate’s letter. She began working with Sita in the Circle Tail training room, and it was obvious to all who watched that the two were a match. After little more than two hours together, Sita and Jane were partners.
Jane realized immediately that her decision to get a hearing dog had indeed been the right one, as thanks to Sita’s ears, she was able to relax in her own home more than she ever had before. Sita was always ready to alert her to the doorbell, telephone, or smoke alarm, and she was also on the lookout for more unusual sounds or occurrences.
During Sita’s first week home, a terrible windstorm hit Jane’s neighborhood. Sita “bumped” Jane to alert her to a sound, and ran to the patio door. To Jane’s surprise, her patio furniture had been overturned and blown around by the ferocious wind. Sita had heard the noise of the furniture scattering and, as she was trained to do, alerted Jane to the problem outside.
In a much more serious incident, Jane and Sita were in a parking lot getting ready to return home, and Jane gave Sita the command to jump into her car. Instead, Sita sniffed the car next to them in the lot, alerting Jane to a possible danger. Instinctively, Jane moved to the back of her car, seconds before the driver of the car peeled out of his parking space. If Sita had not alerted her to the sound of the running car, she and Sita would have both been hit, and most likely seriously injured.
Jane has countless examples of the ways in which Sita helps her every day, from nudging her when someone calls out her name, to alerting her to a siren, to bumping her when she forgets to turn off her car lights. As Jane puts it, Sita is much more than her partner. She is her “guardian angel.”
While the practical ways in which Sita has helped Jane are endless, Jane states that Sita’s biggest impact has been psychological. Beyond just being her ears, Sita has helped Jane come to terms with her hearing loss.
When Jane was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, hearing loss was considered something to be ashamed of and hidden. For Jane, hiding her hearing loss was not possible, as she had to wear a large, body-style hearing aid in her shirt pocket, and was often bullied and made to feel “different” at school. While Jane is no longer embarrassed by her hearing loss, and leads a productive life with a successful career and a large network of friends, the scars from her early days have never completely gone away.
Jane believes that anyone with a disability, be it hearing loss, blindness, or an inability to walk, has suffered a loss. This loss exists if the person has been disabled since birth, or was disabled later in life due to an accident or illness. All grieve what could have been, what never was, or what used to be.
In Jane’s view, those who are disabled go through the same emotions as someone who loses a loved one, but without the social support of a memorial service. She and others with disabilities are often told to “get over it,” or made to feel that whatever their disability, they should be grateful as it “could be worse.” There is little recognition or acknowledgment of the loss of a dream, whether that dream be hearing a doorbell, seeing a child, or walking unassisted.
As a result, Jane believes the disability can become a form of trauma, and bring about symptoms of severe stress such as high blood pressure and ulcers. For Jane, not hearing the person behind her in a dark parking lot, or not knowing the car next to her was running, brought about rushes of adrenalin and a cycle of stress that was similar to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Through her work as a counselor, Jane knows that overcoming PTSD involves learning to move from emotion to logic. A rape survivor learns that the footsteps behind her are not necessarily those of a rapist. A soldier learns that loud sounds are not always gunfire. And a deaf person learns that she can be safe regardless of whether she can hear all of the sounds around her.
This is what Sita has done for Jane. She has taken Jane on an emotional and psychological journey that has resulted in Jane feeling safe and secure, both in her own home and out in the world. Along the way, Sita has allowed Jane to grieve the loss of what was, and helped her to discover a whole new understanding of what is, and what can be.
Thanks to Sita, Jane has expanded her circle of friends to include the many dog-lovers she has met through Circle Tail. She has traveled around the state of Ohio, and all over the United States, from Boston to Las Vegas, educating others on the remarkable benefits and extraordinary abilities of a hearing dog. She has shared Sita’s story in professional publications, and spoken at fund-raising events for Circle Tail. She has watched Sita’s enthusiasm for life, and her pleasure at the simple joy of playing with her doggie friends, and learned the value of “carpe diem.” Through her partnership with Sita, Jane has indeed “seized the day,” and her life has changed in ways that go far beyond the practical assistance of a hearing dog.
Jane describes Sita as “my ears, my friend, my companion, my confidante, my soul mate.” Not bad for a dog that was once abandoned and frightened, wandering the streets alone.
Sita and Jane found each other and, as a result, found a new life. Jane calls her relationship with Sita “a spiritual experience,” and their bond has allowed both to overcome the obstacles that life has thrown at them. Jane cherishes the path she and Sita have already traveled and, with Sita by her side, looks forward to the journey that is still ahead.
Julie Flanders Bio:
Julie Flanders is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is an animal lover, and shares her home with a dog and a cat. Julie is particularly interested in writing about animals and animal-related issues, and has been a news writer for Best Friends Animal Society since July, 2010. Visit her blog, What Else Is Possible?, at http://julieflanders.blogspot.com
Back to Stories