Sunday, 13 July 2008

A dingo stole my heart.

John Hogan has the one and only dingo hearing dog in the world. Ori Golan went into the wild to meet them.

A number of years ago, while he was driving, John Hogan suddenly felt his dog Donna’s paws tap him on his shoulders from behind. She was alerting him to the siren of an oncoming ambulance; he had to give way to the emergency vehicle. Another time, she alerted him to a snake wrapped around a tree in the park. Donna is a unique dog; she is Hogan’s hearing dog, drawing his attention to everyday sounds such as the ring of the fax machine, a knock on the door or a boiling kettle. But what makes Donna even more unique is that she is the world’s only dingo hearing dog.

In the 1950s, during the Korean war, John worked as a marine engineer. An accident left him devoid of speech and hearing. He communicates using sign language or writing.

When he emigrated to Australia in 1982, it was a dingo that stole his heart. "His name was Napoleon and he naturally knew that I was deaf. He would bang the table with his big paw or tap my leg to draw my attention. The dingo is decidedly cleverer than any domestic dog." In 1996, as soon as the State of New South Wales abolished its legislation prohibiting the private ownership of dingoes, Hogan acquired and trained with Donna. They have been together 12 years.

At 77, with Donna nearby, John is completely at ease driving his car, travelling interstate and flying overseas. His pedestrian skills are brisk and he enjoys the amazed looks he gets when he is out and about with Donna. He suggests we go for a walk with her around his central Sydney home, and I accept. As I prepare to photograph Donna, she bends down to sniff a bush so I tap her on the back. She leaps up and snarls at me, exposing her razor sharp teeth. My heart skips a beat as I recoil, terrified. I clearly startled her, but John reassures me that she means no harm and seconds later, she is back to her placid self. Has she ever bitten anyone, I ask him. "Never!" he replies. In fact, Dingoes have had undeserved bad press, he insists. "There are around 100,000 ‘non dingo’ dog attacks annually in Australia, compared with only one dingo attack per year".

Much of the negative attitudes toward the dingo stems from the sensational case of Lindy Chamberlain. In August 1980 Chamberlain’s 10-week old daughter, Azaria, disappeared in the Australian Outback where they were camping. Chamberlain claimed that a dingo had taken her daughter from the family tent but the police charged her with murder. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The discovery, six years later, of Azaria's clothes in an area full of dingo lairs, led to Chamberlain’s immediate release. She was exonerated of all charges and paid compensation. It is now generally believed that a dingo did in fact make off with the baby. Chamberlain’s story was turned into film, starring Meryl Streep who uttered the unforgettable line: "A dingo stole my baby".

Dingoes, stresses Hogan, are excellent, loyal and affectionate dogs. They don’t bark, they have no odour, they are very clean and have no fleas. Donna, he continues, carries out her job with consummate devotion. At home, she alerts him when someone is at the gate, or when the postman arrives; outdoors she pulls him aside when there are push bikes, skateboards or roller blades on shared public footpaths, which he cannot hear coming.

As we exchange notes, Donna looks on, her ear twitching, her senses alert. Since John cannot give her verbal commands, she is attentive to his body language.

Hogan and Donna have achieved celebrity status in Australia. Donna enjoys special privileges and star treatment when on tour to promote rights for the disabled. She has taken boats, planes and trains, always occupying a passenger seat. When they sailed to Tasmania, she was allowed into the en-suite cabin and dined in the ship’s restaurant. Unlike other dogs, she is allowed in Australia’s national parks and has visited Fraser

Island, home of the pure-bred Dingoes. She has tested the law and instigated a number of new legislations. The only states where it is still illegal to own a dingo is Queensland and South Australia, but when John travelled to these states he was protected by a federal law which allows all "passenger class’ into the state. She is the first, and so far only, dingo to enter New Zealand after the country changed its law to allow her in; she flew in courtesy of Qantas, free of charge. "People often look horrified when they see Donna – a ‘wild’ dingo on public transport!"

Despite the bad publicity that dingoes have had, Dona is an example of the companionship, devotion and talent which these intelligent dogs are capable of. As Hogan attests, she has improved his life considerably and serves as a prized ambassador of her species. He points to a growing wart on Donna’s head. "This is what happens to old people," he comments, looking wistfully at Donna, reminding me that she is now 84 in human years. He then walks over to her and gives her a big hug. "She is the most spoilt dingo in the world!" he concludes.


Dingosimon said...

That is a very beautiful story.

Carrol said...

Thank you for sharing such a lovely story. I first came across dingoes in the Northern Territory, I used to work at a country pub and dingoes shared my room...dare I divulge now, they are beautiful. I live in Queensland now and really want the dingoes on Fraser Island to survive....they are classed as vermin in Queensland. People seriously need to look out what their kids are doing on Fraser.

mogsbear said...

Donna's grace, intelligence and loyalty have moved me to happy tears! Assistance animals be they dog or dingo do fantastic work and should be admired far more by the public at large.

Random Jottings said...

Although this was written back in 2008 I am hoping you pick up my comment. I am researching the life of Berenice Walters, known as the Dingo Lady, and who owned Napoleon the Dingo John refers to in this story. In Berenice's papers she tells the story of John and the rapport he had with Napoleon. At the time he had a Chihuahua, also known as Donna and was determined one day to have a Dingo. May I have your permission to use the information and photo in thie blog. I am happy to give due credit to my source. Kind regards Pam