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Deaf Sonoma special ed instructor gets teaching assist from hearing dog

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Around 12:45 on Tuesday afternoon, a fire alarm went off at Sonoma Valley High School.

School officials quickly determined there was no fire. That didn’t stop an occupant of Room H23 from taking the alarm very seriously.

Repeatedly, insistently, a 2-year-old golden Lab named Sierra poked her nose into the right leg of Patty Ruotolo, a special education teacher at this campus in the town of Sonoma.

It was a false alarm, but no one told Sierra. “She was going nuts,” said Ruotolo, who is deaf, and relies on her “hearing dog” to alert her to a variety of sounds in her environment: her alarm clock going off, her phone ringing, her name being called and her keys falling on the floor, to name a few.

She and Sierra met during an intensive two-week training in November at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa. In addition to improving and enriching the life of her owner, Sierra has had a positive effect on the students in Ruotolo’s classroom.

“If I’m angry when I get to class,” said sophomore Kapono Meyer, “(Sierra) kind of calms me down. She has that effect on the whole room.”

Ruotolo goes by her maiden name, though her students refer to her as Ms. McVeigh — the surname of her ex-husband, whom she divorced 4 ½ years ago. If the room is quiet, she makes conversation with seeming ease, despite her profound hearing loss. She is able to hear some sounds with the assistance of a hearing aid in her left ear, and a cochlear implant in her right. That device bypasses damaged parts of the ear and directly stimulates her auditory nerve. Still, her hearing remains limited.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in communications from Chico State, she got a teaching credential, and a master’s degree from San Francisco State. “Tests were hard for me,” she recalled. “I would miss just enough” of classroom lectures “to make it difficult.”

She’d been teaching at Sonoma Valley High School for 18 years when a frightening experience in 2017 helped convince her to get a hearing dog.

Before going to sleep at night, Ruotolo removes her hearing aid and implant. “At night, I don’t hear anything,” she said. After retiring on the evening of Oct. 8, 2017, she woke up in the middle of the night and checked her phone.

Facebook was blowing up, she recalled. The North Bay fires were ravaging thousands of acres to the north and east, turning the night sky orange. While her apartment in the town of Sonoma was not threatened, that experience left her with lingering anxiety. If her son, Jake — now a junior at Sonoma Valley — is with her ex-husband, as Jake was the night of those wildfires, she’s alone.

“If someone comes knocking on my door to evacuate me,” she said, “I’m not going to hear them.”

Ruotolo did some research, and began the process of getting a hearing dog. After a lengthy application and interviewing process with Canine Companions, she reported to the nonprofit’s Santa Rosa campus for a two-week training session led by instructor Ken Reid.

On the first day, Reid observed as participants worked with various dogs, using commands he’d taught them. He knew ahead of time Ruotolo was a teacher, and that her hearing dog would be in the classroom most days.

“I had a feeling Sierra would do very well in that environment,” he said.

Ruotolo liked all the dogs she worked with but was especially partial to Sierra. “She just had this playfulness, and I kept thinking, ‘I hope I get paired with her.’”

She was. Her friends have noticed a difference in her since the dog came into her life.

“The fires definitely rattled Patty,” said her friend and colleague Veronica Gray, who teaches ninth grade English at Sonoma Valley. Now that she has Sierra, added Gray, “Patty tells me she’s sleeping better than she ever has.”

The dog has also made Ruotolo’s job less stressful. Teaching special ed “comes with its own set of anxieties,” Gray said. With Sierra serving as a kind of therapy dog for the whole class, that anxiety is ratcheted down for teacher and students.

“If I let Sierra walk around, do not call her,” she instructed her students during their Tuesday afternoon discussion of a book called “The Giver.” “Pet her a little and let her move on.”

But a pair of young women couldn’t help themselves, each monopolizing the dog for 10 minutes apiece. That was fine with Sierra, who seems puzzled when a fuss is not being made over her.

“If you’re sitting there minding your own business,” Gray said, “Sierra will nudge your hand, like she’s saying, ‘Excuse me, but is there a reason you’re not petting me?’”

But the dog is all business when she hears a sound she’s been trained to recognize. When that happens Sierra will nudge her owner, who responds by asking, “What?”

If the smoke alarm is going off, the dog is trained to lie down.

“But that’s only for the smoke alarm,” added Ruotolo, who was curious to see how Sierra would respond to the fire alarm at school.

“She kept nudging me,” recalled the teacher, who, in turn, asked, “What?”

Sierra laid down.

It wasn’t the smoke alarm at home, but it was close enough.

After praising the animal, Ruotolo went to the front of the classroom to get some kibble — Sierra’s reward for being such a good dog.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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