Barry Steinberg didn't hear the alarm clock when it began to ring near his head. But King, his spunky black pup, did. King shot up onto the bed and licked, nudged and nuzzled his master until he got up.
King has wake-up duty every morning at Steinberg's bachelor apartment in Bladensburg. He also alerts Steinberg, 30, to a knock at the door, a ring of the phone and other sounds Steinberg is unaware of because he is deaf.
King is an unlikely name for this scraggly little mongrel. Despite his unheroic looks, he performs noble work and has the honor of being the first "hearing dog" in the Washington area to be certified by the American Humane Association (AHA).
Steinberg, a draftsman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, has been deaf since birth. Two years ago, he learned of the Humane Association's new program to train dogs to help make life easier and safer for the deaf, and was placed on a nationwide waiting list, now over 400 names long. He was selected last August to receive a hearing dog on a trial basis.
Eighteen-month-old King arrived from Denver with trainer Sandy Kilstrup, who spent several days acquainting Steinberg with his new set of ears.The match worked, and last week Kilstrup returned to give King his certification papers and a shiny orange collar that identifies him as a bona fide hearing dog.
Kilstrup said that deaf people are more apt to go out and to travel if they are accompanied by hearing dogs. But Steinberg has encountered some problems when trying to take King into public places. Hearing dogs are now included under the "white cane" laws in Maryland and Virginia, which permit seeing eye dogs to enter public places where ordinary dogs are not allowed.
According to Steinberg, word has not gotten around about the amended laws yet. He said he recently went to a Giant Food Store in Maryland, and the manager would not let King in. Steinberg tried to show him a document describing the law, but the show him a document describing the law, but the called in, Steinberg said, and they made the manager read the letter. Steinberg -- and King -- were allowed to stay.
Steinberg has had similar experiences at restaurants in Maryland and at the Smithsonian Institution (the District has not amended its white cane law). His mother often calls the place in question later to explain the situation.
"It's really a matter of education.... People don't know about hearing dogs," she said. "The Smithsonian wrote us a letter of apology." after the incident with Steinberg.
As King bounded around the Bethesda apartment of Dr. and Mrs. Gerald Steinberg, Barry's parents, Kilstrup talked about the AHA program. She explained that the association retrieves young dogs from animal shelters and trains them for three to four months.
"They are taught to respond to alarm clocks, burglar alarms, smoke alarms, a baby's cry, a knock at the door, a ringing telephone, honking cars," she said. "They never signal by barking."
The dogs alert their owners by brushing up against or jumping on them and running back and forth to the source of the noise.
Through an interpreter, Steinberg said he feels "safer and more independent with King" who accompanies Steinberg everywhere, even sleeping under his desk at work.
Trainer Kilstrup said the Humane Association has placed 81 dogs who have been trained at cost of $2,500 each."Priority is given to deaf living alone or in households with no hearing people," she said.
So far, the AHA only has training facilities in Denver although it would like to begin programs elsewhere to serve some of the 2 million Americans with full hearing losses. She said it takes a strong commitment to train the dogs and that a lack of funds has prohibited the growth of the program, despite increasing interest in it.
Kilstrup added that the deaf who receive the dogs never pay for them. Steinberg got King with the help of a group called the Montgomery County Friends of Animals.
People who are interested in acquiring hearing dogs are advised by Kilstrup to contact the AHA at 5351 S. Roslyn St., Engelwood, Colo. 80110 or the National Association of the Deaf, 814 Thayer Ave., Silver Spring, Md., (301) 587-1788.