Service dog lends ears to aid resident

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

TinaMarie Sifford had been looking for a good dog, one that could be her service dog.

She finally found Whimsey, a Labrador retriever provided by NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. Whimsey has become her ears and at times even her eyes.

Sifford has been deaf all her life.

“I was born with rubella,” the Shallotte resident said.

When she was born, she had only 3 percent of her hearing ability.

Her mother had contracted German measles while pregnant with TinaMarie, who also has limited sight because of glaucoma caused by rubella.

Years ago, Sifford started looking for a service dog.

“It took me four years to get here,” she said. “I was on the waiting list for two years.”

She was waiting for one “rather large,” specific dog, one that had been specially trained as a hearing service dog. She was finally placed with Whimsey through NEADS, which is based in West Boylston, Mass.

Whimsey, she said, “hears for me. She’s wonderful. She helps me with balance.”

The certified service dog places her body against Sifford’s “to make sure I don’t fall backwards,” said Sifford, who was matched with Whimsey last September and notified by NEADS in October.

Following a two-week training program together in Massachusetts from Nov. 25-Dec. 5, Sifford and Whimsey are finally at home in Brunswick County, along with an Australian shepherd dog named Buster and a calico cat named Butterscotch who make up Sifford’s domestic menagerie.

One of the program’s stipulations is Sifford had to be responsible for $9,500 of its $25,000 costs. She’s been doing fundraising to help offset her obligation.

“I’ve already raised $3,547,” she said. She did it by networking with Facebook friends and through pet photos she’s been doing.

Sifford doesn’t know how, but Whimsey responds only to her name, TinaMarie, alerting her when someone calls her name, when the alarm clock goes off in the mornings, to the phone ringing and the smoke alarm, and other fundamental day-to-day activities that hearing people take for granted.

“I love her so much,” Sifford said.

Whimsey also alerts her when she drops something, like her keys.

“Matter of fact, I dropped my cell phone the other day,” Sifford said.

When she isn’t busy tending to Whimsey and her other pets, Sifford has been studying photography online via Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

“So far, I’m doing good—I just made a B,” she said.

While Whimsey has been a big help in her life, Sifford does well on her own. She talks on the phone via TDD, aka “telecommunications device for the deaf.”

“I lip-read all the time—I look at your face,” she said. “And if we’re having a conversation with a lot of noises, I wouldn’t understand or comprehend what you’re saying. It’s really hard in a loud environment or if there’s four or five people in here talking, I’m lost.”

At times like that, Sifford is thankful all over again that she has Whimsey to help her through.


Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.