Locally-Trained Hearing-Assist Dog Helps Orthodox Rabbi In Everyday Life

When Dov Ber Smith, a Milwaukee-based Orthodox Rabbi, met Cinco, a three-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Smith said their relationship developed extremely quickly. Now, Cinco, a hearing-assist dog, helps Smith with certain everyday tasks like alerting him to specific sounds.

The story of Smith and Cinco’s meeting starts with Can Do Canines, a nonprofit based out of New Hope, Minnesota that provides assistance dogs to clients across the state and Wisconsin. Assistance dogs can help their handlers in a variety of ways, from assisting with hearing loss to diabetes to mobility issues, according to the organization’s website.

To date, Can Do Canines has placed more than 800 assistance dogs, according to Caren Hansen, the marketing and communications manager for the organization. This year, another 52 canines are on track to be placed with clients, similar to last year’s figures.

Most dogs at Can Do Canines go through the organization’s “Prison Puppy Program,” where groups of puppies are sent to one of seven participating prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Hansen said. Here, the dogs receive around-the-clock care and training.

When the training ends, Hansen said the prisoners are just as changed as their new four-legged friends.

“The things we hear from these inmates is just incredible of, ‘I’ve never been responsible for something else in my life and this taught me empathy, this taught me compassion,’” Hansen said.

The dogs can also go through other programs for parts of their training. The dogs can go through a Can Do Canines host home with one of the organization’s hundreds of volunteers, FETCH, a partnership with the University of Minnesota where students take care of a dog for a semester, or, like in Cinco’s case, be donated to the organization.

After two years of training, the dogs return to Can Do Canines for their final assessment. The type of assistance dog they will be is determined at this stage as well.

“We listen to them and we look at their personality and their strengths and figure out along with them,” Hansen said.

Cinco’s handler, Smith, was born with limited hearing, but wore a hearing aid when he was younger to better integrate into the “hearing world.” Smith’s parents were firm believers in giving him as many opportunities to participate in the hearing community as possible, like speech therapy, new hearing technologies and tutoring.

“They [Smith’s parents] tried to provide as many tools as possible for me to integrate into the hearing world,” Smith said. “Simultaneously, also gave me opportunities to be part of the Deaf world. So it was both.”

At first, Smith didn’t think he would be eligible for an assistance dog after hearing about Can Do Canines because of how well he functioned without one. However, because Smith takes out his cochlear implants at night and isn’t able to hear for periods of time, he applied and was later deemed a qualified candidate. 

“There are moments when I don’t hear. So, having the dog next to me and alerting me to sounds that are important and crucial in life is good,” Smith said.

Two years after initially applying, Cinco was matched with Smith. 

Cinco assists Smith with tasks like waking him up in the morning and alerting him to specific noises that may happen overnight when his cochlear implants are out. Smith also likes to study Jewish texts and tends to take out his hearing devices to focus. In an event where Smith needs to attend to a noise happening in the house while he studies, like knocking at the door or one of his young children needing him, Cinco can usher him toward the noise.  

“It makes the job that I’m doing a lot more efficient and calmer and less stressful,” Smith said.

Cinco has also forged a deep connection with the rest of Smith’s family. Smith, who has five kids, said Cinco handles all the stimulation very well. In particular, Smith’s youngest child has a close bond with Cinco, even going so far as to stop crying whenever she holds onto the dog’s leash.

“One thing I can almost guarantee that will stop her [Smith’s youngest child] from crying is if you give her the leash,” Smith said. “If you give her the leash and she hold onto the leash, she’ll stop. It’s unbelievable.”

Now, almost a year and a half later with Cinco, Smith, a self-proclaimed canine-lover, considers her a “very special dog.”

To learn more about Can Do Canines, visit their website.