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.
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.
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.
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.