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Kelly Godfrey & Hearing Dog "Panther" On the Prowl

By Blondell Peterson
September 2005

Kelly Godfrey
(Photo by Steve McCaw)

Kelly and Paws, the dog
Panther "paws" Kelly when he hears a knock at the door. (Photo by Blondell Peterson)

When Billy was 7 years old, he fell and hit his head on the corner of a bed. He cried for twenty minutes. His mom was in the kitchen, but didn't hear him. She could only read lips....

Seven years later - Billy is 14. Fortunately, there are no physical or emotional scars left from his fall. And, if there is a sound in the house or danger, mom now has an extra set of ears by the name of "Panther." The mixed lab, flat-coat retriever is the newest addition to the family. Panther is her hearing dog. Mom, better known to NIEHS employees as Kelly Godfrey, a supply technician in the Inventory Management Unit, is seen from time to time in the Rall Building with Panther in tow.

Godfrey has 80 to 85 percent hearing loss and can hear only with the help of hearing aids. "Panther lets me know when there are sounds like my name, smoke alarms, oven buzzers, door bells, knocks at the door and alarm clocks," she said. "We really need to work on the telephone a little bit more but I'm not worried about it. I'm close enough to my desk phone to hear it." Panther alerts Godfrey by touching her leg with his paw.

Besides Billy's fall, another incident happened in 1998 that made Godfrey think of getting a hearing dog. Billy had another dog at the time. Billy let the dog out early one morning, and forgot to unlock the door as he went out with the dog. Billy was locked out of the house in the rain and Godfrey was asleep. Finally when she got up, she found Billy outside drenched and crying. She didn't have her hearing aids in.

After being on a waiting list for almost two years, Godfrey was notified by Dogs for the Deaf that Panther was on his way from Oregon.

Dogs for the Deaf is a nonprofit organization that rescues unwanted dogs and trains them professionally to enhance the lives of people who have a hearing impairment. The organization has rescued and placed more than 2,500 dogs in 27 years.

It took about six months to train Panther at a cost of $5,000 to the organization and no cost to Godfrey. The training included basics like sit, stay and lay down as well as simple sign language. Panther passed his test after training and was placed with Godfrey. The three out of four dogs that don't pass the test are called Career Change Dogs and Dogs for the Deaf finds homes for them.

"Sometimes there are some sounds that he wasn't trained for, but he lets me know there is danger," she said. For example, one day Godfrey went into the closet to get her clothes she didn't realize her cat, Gracie was behind her. She closed the door and turned off the light. Panther heard the cat crying and led her to the closet.

Another thing happened a couple of weeks ago that reinforced Panther's reputation as an exceptional dog. Godfrey said she put dinner in the oven and set the timer for about an hour and a half. She stepped out of the kitchen, and all of a sudden Panther "pawed" her. That was her signal to follow him. "I knew the alarm clock didn't go off," she said. "I went ahead and followed him. He kept looking at the oven. I said, 'Panther the alarm clock didn't go off.' But I went ahead and praised him and gave him a treat."

She went back and sat down, but Panther pawed her again. "I thought what's going on?" she said. "So, I followed him and then I realized it was the parmesan cheese container sitting on top of my flat top stove. The stove was on. The container was melting and he smelled it. I praised him and gave him another treat. He was not trained for that. Not every dog can do that. They are only trained for certain sounds."

Godfrey said Panther carries his certified hearing dog license in his orange vest and a green book of each state's legal rights for hearing dogs when he's out in public. There's only been one incident when a restaurant owner didn't want to admit Panther. A bystander helped explain that Panther is allowed anywhere in public while he is working.

When Godfrey says the word "free" it means Panther can play or do whatever he likes. Although friendly, Panther is so disciplined that he will not go off duty or even eat until he hears the word "free." Even when Gus and Gracie, the cats, are eating his food, he won't budge until he gets the word.

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