Pushing Buttons: My Love/Hate Relationship with My Doorbell

For most people, the relationship between their doorbell and their dog is this: Someone rings the doorbell, their dog barks and runs to the door.

I didn’t have a doorbell before Gadget died. People either knocked or just came on in. I don’t know if he would have barked at it.

We got the doorbell because Gadget died.

Gadget’s death has meant a severe decline in my ability to communicate with others in my household. I miss this help every day, several times a day. Very soon after he died, I was beside myself with grief and frustration over my increased isolation and decreased ability to communicate.

This is how Gadget helped me communicate with people in my home: When I needed one of my personal care assistants (PCAs), Gadget opened my bedroom door and flagged them down. If he didn’t show up with them, at least now my door was open and they’d be more likely to hear me ring my bell again, or I could hear if they were washing dishes or had the fan on and that was drowning out my attempts to ring for them.

On occasion, if I was in the bathroom alone with the door shut for privacy, and I didn’t have my bell with me, I’d call Gadget. He’d open the door. I’d send him back out for a PCA, then call him back again. My PCA would realize we were trying to get her attention.

What’s been harder is not being able to communicate with my human partner, who is in a sound-buffered room on the second floor, when she’s home. When I wanted to tell her something, I’d write a note, stick it in Gadget’s collar and tell him, “Find Betsy!” It didn’t matter if I could voice or not because Gadget knew both signed and spoken commands. He would gallop upstairs, open Betsy’s door, and run to her (sometimes run into her).

He demonstrates this skill in the video below.

Click here for a captioned version of the video.

Click here for a text description and transcript of the video.

If he came back to me without the note, I knew he’d delivered the message. If he came back with the note, I knew Betsy was asleep or outside or otherwise beyond reach. If I needed him to wake her up, I’d tell him to go back, and he’d bark and paw at the door or nudge her or generally make himself a nuisance till she responded.

Gadget lays his paw across Betsy's arm

Gadget makes sure he has Betsy’s undivided attention

Sometimes Betsy would write a reply for him to deliver to me. He loved that, particularly.

When I lost Gadget, I suddenly lost part of my relationship with Betsy, too. Betsy came up with the great idea of using a doorbell to bridge this gap. When she showed it to me, I cried with gratitude.

I love the doorbell.

Here’s how it works: It’s a wireless doorbell with two separate parts. The button is taped to my over-bed table, and the chime can be plugged in anywhere there’s an electric outlet. Usually, it lives in the kitchen. I push the button, and my PCAs hear the chimes ring throughout most of the house. My PCAs were thrilled with how much louder and easier to hear it was than what we’d been trying before (the puny “beep” of the “horn” on my powerchair or a bell I rang by hand).

I was so relieved that it was working. Yet, I also worried that people would think I didn’t need another service dog because now I had this doorbell that worked so well. It felt almost disloyal to Gadget. I told my friends I felt guilty that I was replacing Gadget with technology.

My friends said, “You’re not replacing him. You loved Gadget. He was so special. That can never be replaced with a doorbell,” but it felt like they were talking about the loss of love, the heart-dog loss. I wasn’t just talking about that. I was talking about that and the Gadget who was my arms and legs and voice. I didn’t know how to explain the wholeness of Gadget as my partner, and the essentialness of that partnership beyond finding a solution for any one task — my longing not to make do in life any more than was strictly necessary.

Still, here was this wonderful doorbell, and initially, I was so happy with it. I let go of my fears of how others would interpret my “replacement” of Gadget.

The doorbell has its limitations.

Sometimes I press it, and I can’t hear it ring. Sometimes, nobody comes right away. Then I don’t know — are they in the bathroom? Outside? Did I not press the button hard enough? Should I press it again, or will that cause annoyance?

Also, if Betsy is upstairs asleep, the chime in the kitchen won’t wake her. The doorbell is also a totally one-sided and “one note” form of communication. All it can convey is, “I’m trying to get someone’s attention.” Generally, that’s the most important point, but I can’t indicate whom I’m trying to reach or tell them, “Before you come to my room, can you please grab such-and-such?” Or, “The phone’s for you. You didn’t hear it ring because I was on the other line, and I picked up call waiting.” Or, “Help! I need you now!” Or, “You don’t have to come now, just when you get around to it.”

I also can’t reach the button to ring for assistance if I’m not in bed. If I’m on the commode — just a yard away — or in the bathroom or even in my powerchair right next to the bed, it’s beyond me. If I’m stuck on the toilet, and my voice isn’t working, I can’t call the doorbell to me, no matter how appealing I make myself. I cannot entice it with cheese or liver or belly rubs.

The doorbell is better than the nothing I had after Gadget’s death, but it is still just technology, and technology is always limited. It can’t adapt. Gadget and I trained so that he would look for Betsy whether she was upstairs or downstairs. He could look for her or listen for her. He could use his nose and sniff her out if he didn’t see or hear her. He could get creative: One time, when she didn’t unlock her door for him after I’d sent him up with a message, he got frustrated and barked. I didn’t teach him to bark when she didn’t let him in; he escalated his behavior because what he had been trying wasn’t successful. His new strategy worked! Betsy came out and said, “Don’t tell him to bark for me because I’m making calls for work.” I said that I hadn’t, that he’d done it on his own, but I did reward him for it. I didn’t know when I might need her urgently and he’d need to use persistence.

My PCAs learned how to interpret Gadget’s behavior and generally guessed correctly why or whether I was sending him to them. We were all part of a team; I was captain, and Gadget played center.

I hate the doorbell.

A chime, at best, is neutral. It’s an alert.

At worst, it’s irritating. It can feel like nagging. I’m starting to sense a slight undertone of annoyance in the household when I ring frequently.

It’s nobody’s fault. People enjoy being summoned by a dog. They feel sought out and special, and they get to be part of the reward. “Does Sharon want me? Good boy!”

A doorbell doesn’t wag its tail. It doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a treat and go galumphing past the person it has summoned to get to me first. It doesn’t feel satisfied at a job well done. It’s just a piece of hard plastic that I’m grateful for and resent.

It would have been impossible to resent Gadget. Even at my most exhausted, frustrated, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, overworked, and done-in over his being sick, I loved him. Even when he was young and difficult and drove me to tears, and I’d say things like, “That’s it! I’m making dog burgers tonight!” I loved him. I loved him far beyond my ability to express it in a blog.

The intercom.

Betsy and I are both dissatisfied with the limitations of our intra-house communication. Thus, Betsy ordered an intercom for my birthday. She told me ahead of time that it was coming; I was losing it over our communication breakdown, and she knew it would be a while before it arrived because it was on backorder. I was so grateful that she recognized my frustration and aloneness that I burst into tears and hugged her. It finally came today. I opened the shipping box and just made goo-goo eyes at it. I can’t wait until she installs it. It’s taking all my willpower not to nag her about it incessantly.

I’ve learned my lesson, though. I’m preparing myself for this new technology’s limitations: The intercom might be “smelly” (offgassing new plastic fumes), so that I won’t be able to use it until it has aired out for several months. Even then, at times when I can’t produce intelligible speech, the intercom won’t be as helpful as we’d wish. Finally, like the doorbell, if I am not next to it, I won’t be able to activate it.

In short, I will be grateful for it when it works and frustrated by its limitations.

Despite all this, it will be a big step up from the doorbell. But it will always be miles and miles away from replacing Gadget, my partner.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

As always, we welcome your comments.

P.S. Another “About” page is up, about how multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) affects me and my service dog partnerships. Click here to read the MCS page.

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11 Responses to “Pushing Buttons: My Love/Hate Relationship with My Doorbell”


  1. 1 Mary January 25, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Sharon,
    Your blog is almost, but not quite, too painful to read. It is beautifully done. The connection you had with Gadget and the tremendous help that he provided you are made vivid by your posts. He was a remarkable dog.

    Just a thought…have you considered a simple walkie talkie to use with your partner? I don’t know how impaired your voice is so perhaps this isn’t practical. But maybe it would seem less annoying than a bell.

    I have experience with grief–my much loved husband died suddenly several years ago. Your grief for Gadget reminds me of the depth of my emotions following his loss.

    • 2 Sharon Wachsler January 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

      Mary,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I don’t think of it being painful, because I feel better when I write it, but I have heard this from others, too. I am planning on doing some more “fun” posts in the future, because Gadget was actually a hilarious dude, and I want to celebrate and remember the fun and good times and ridiculousness, too.

      We did actually try walkie-talkies several years ago. We ran into technical difficulties as well as problems with the, uh, “human factors engineering” side of things. (i.e., She would forget to take hers with her or turn it on, and I would lose mine or not be able to get to it when it buzzed, etc.). Ironically, one of the ways we dealt with my side of the problem is I put a packet of nutmeg on it and trained Gadget to scent it out and find it for me. He was very versatile! (And he looooved using his nose.)

      I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. A good friend of mine was widowed a year-and-a-half ago, and I have learned a great deal about grief and handling grief from her. One of my friends who was partnered with a guide/hearing/service dog said that losing him was like losing a spouse, but with the added dimension that she also relied on him for daily function. But really, it all comes down to grief is grief. When you lose someone you love deeply, who was an integral part of your life, it’s very hard to make sense of life without them. And what I’m hearing from others whose losses happened longer ago than mine is that the grief never entirely goes away.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  2. 3 Lolly January 26, 2010 at 9:59 am

    HI Sharon,

    I’m glad you found the articles helpful.

    One of my goals is to put interviews with guide dog handlers on the site. I want real experiences to be shared, and to provide a place where people know they can go to find resources to help them through these life transitions.

    There are some technical things I need to put in place for that to happen, but once they are complete, I think there is a wealth of experience out there to be shared.

    There is a new type of phone that was intended for people who are hard of hearing, but it might be useful to you if the intercom doesn’t solve the problem. It gives the options of both voice and text out put, so if your voice isn’t strong enough for the person on the other end to hear, they could still read your words. I’ve seen ads for it recently, but I can’t remember the name. Perhaps a Google search could turn it up.

    Lolly and Brook

    • 4 Sharon Wachsler January 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm

      Lolly,

      I can tell I’m gonna keep learning from you! I look forward to the interviews.

      That’s interesting about the phone. I do have a TTY, but we actually just got rid of our second phone line — partly because of expense and partly because it didn’t work for me to try to phone her upstairs.

      The intercom is outgassing, though, so that’s something to look forward to!

  3. 5 Nancy January 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    (((hugs)))) what a sweet dog, and she helped so much. I would miss her too and I see how precious she is, her spirit still will visit don’t you think to let you know she loves you. Peace, Nancy

  4. 6 Annie January 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Sharon,

    I started crying when I read this. I can’t imagine the pain of losing such a special animal. I understand what you mean when you say people enjoy having an animal seek them out for help for you, as opposed to just feeling like an annoyance.

    I hope your journey through this will bring you peace.

    I love your writing.

    Lots of love from a fellow sick girl,
    Annie

  5. 8 Amy P. February 13, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Hi Sharon! What a great video of Gadget going off to find Betsy..it is so obvious he loved his job and took it very seriously. You are right about that piece of plastic technology never being a replacement for your boy! He was priceless, and I so hope your new baby will grow to be everything you need in a new partner. I can’t wait to “meet” him or her! :)

    All the best,
    Amy P.

    P.S.Hunter -who apparently thinks I work for HER ;)- is plugging right along, due for her 5th dose of CCNU next week and still in a strong partial remission. She has put on so much weight I’m getting scolded by the vet, but that’s alright. She won’t feel great forever, so we are going to enjoy every sandwich! :)

    • 9 Sharon Wachsler February 14, 2010 at 5:38 pm

      Hi Amy,
      Yay for Hunter! Keep pushing those odds, girl! I definitely support the sandwiches!
      I’m glad you like the video. I’m going to try to get more clips up soon. It’s only two weeks till puppy time — less than that — 13 days (of course I am counting the days!).

  6. 10 Doc Truli February 16, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Sharon,
    Of course, Gadget was the best partner for mobility and communication. I went “Ahhhh!” loudly enough to cut through my husband’s earphones as he worked at the computer, “What?”

    How do I get him up to speed on your blog?

    “Oh, nothing, honey. Sorry to bother you.”

    When what I really want to share is, “This dog chick is so insightful! Would you believe she figured out that the helper dog provides actual positive feedback for the people in her house that she needs to find or get a note to?”

    He’d say,”That’s not amazing; that’s obvious reality.”

    “Yeah but….so cool to envelope my mind around Sharon’s words and then my lungs catch and my heart beats faster and some more oxygen nourishes my aching joints on this chilly Nevada morning.”

    Like I said, I really enjoy reading your stories!

    • 11 Sharon Wachsler February 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

      Truli,
      Thank you so much! We have a mutual blog admiration society going.
      As far the positive feedback thing, I’m working on a blog about this (and once I finally get my “Dogography” and “FAQCC” pages up, there’ll be more on this, too), but I’m kind of a clicker/operant conditioning/Karen Pryor fanatic, so that’s how my minds works…. It’s thrilling when other people are as thrilled by it as I am! Thank you!
      Your medical/scientific perspective on the dopamine connection is interesting, too. That definitely makes sense. There was an earlier discussion thread in comments about dog-lovin’ releasing oxytocin, too.
      -Sharon


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