MANATEE -- Terri Simon didn't know how much independence she was missing until she got Mister, a long-haired dachshund, last winter.
Simon, who has been hearing-impaired her entire life, then lost her hearing completely in her mid-30s, has been a library aide in the Manatee County Public Library System for almost three decades.
An expert lip reader, the 58-year-old checks books in and out, reshelves materials and completes other needed tasks.
Simon sits at the front desk of the South Manatee branch, where she works Tuesday through Saturday. With Mister lying on a blue polka-dot blanket under the desk, Simon helps patrons check out books
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and return DVDs, and collects fines.
Over the years, some patrons have gotten angry at Simon because they would try to get her attention when her back was turned to them, not realizing that she couldn't hear them.
Now, with the help of 3-year-old Mister, Simon knows when patrons are trying to get her attention for assistance.
"If he knows someone needs me, he will get my attention normally by pawing my foot," Simon said. "It's really a sense of independence. ... I wanted to give even better customer service."
This summer, Simon, who is the county's Employee of the Month for September, became the first county employee to use a service animal at work.
"Mister helps me with every sound I miss," said Simon, who celebrates her 29th year with the county in January. Simon was transferred from the two-story Central Library to the one-floor, smaller South Manatee branch in June when a library aide position opened up.
"This branch tends to cater to older people and has a slower pace," Simon said of the branch at 6081 26th St. W. in Bradenton. "It's been better for Mister."
Zenobia Giles, the South Manatee branch supervisor, said Simon is very welcoming to the public.
"She's very friendly and very open and receptive," Giles said. "She's a very pleasant person. She's very hard-working and tries the best that she's able to do. It's fun to have Mister around, too, and people enjoy him."
Before the brown and white long-haired dachshund could begin training at Florida Dog Guides for the Disabled, a Bradenton organization founded in 1984 by the deaf community, Mister's temperament had to be evaluated to ensure he would be a good fit. Mister passed the exam, which included "screening for health issues, intelligence, sound awareness and aggressive behavior," according to a news release.
Then Mister, along with Simon, began the 18-week training process, which includes basic obedience, service dog training and advanced obedience.
But the training is not finished for Mister. Every week, Simon and Mister attend a two-hour sound training session.
"We are still working on different sounds," Simon said. "You can't teach all sounds at once."
When Mister hears a doorbell, alarm clock, smoke alarm or telephone, he alerts Simon. But since Simon can't talk on a telephone, she is hoping to replace that sound recognition with the sound of an emergency vehicle on the road.
Simon said Mister helps her "hear those sounds that you take for granted."
In the event of an emergency at work, Simon said she has an additional sense of protection and safety.
"Knowing that if there is an emergency at any time, he is going to let me know," Simon said. "That sense of knowing that I'm going to be protected really helps."
With Mister, Simon is now able to live independently and be like everybody else.
"It's just him and I now," she said.
Mister is a shy dog, said Ava Ehde, the county's library services manager.
"He is just a really sweet dog," Ehde said. "If anything, he's raised awareness in the community in a really great way. We are really lucky that (human resources) and our county attorney made a way to make this happen."
In a couple months -- at Mister's sixth-month anniversary on the job -- he will be evaluated to make sure it is working.
"As far as I'm concerned, I think it's working out," Simon said.
Employee of the Month
At Tuesday's commission meeting, Simon was recognized as the Employee of the Month for September. Co-workers from the library and neighborhood services department read comments about her work ethic and great customer service.
"I was totally overwhelmed, very humbled, very humbled," Simon said. "Just humbled and honored and overwhelmed."
When Ehde and Cheri Coryea, the county's neighborhood services department director, came up to Simon at work, Simon said she was worried that she did something wrong.
Chris O'Hara, the youth services supervisor at Central Library, nominated Simon for the award. Simon said she has never directly worked with O'Hara.
"To me, it is even more an honor because he saw something he thought was deserving," Simon said. "It's so humbling because you are getting awarded for something you are supposed to do in the first place."
Since September is National Service Dog Month, Ehde said it is even more fitting that Simon was recognized.
"It is really nice to see her get some recognition for everything she brings to the job," Ehde said. "She treats everyone with huge amount of respect."
Simon embodies the saying, "Treat everyone like you want to be treated," Ehde said. "That shines through every time."
The fact that Simon is one of those people who knows no limit is what impresses Ehde most.
"Nothing in her life is going to be that thing that says she can't do anything," Ehde said.
Awareness of service dogs
When most people think of service dogs, they think of people with vision impairments needing the assistance, which is a misconception Simon is hoping Mister can change.
"It at least makes people aware to the fact that there are hearing dogs, mobility dogs, dogs for vets," she said.
Simon said she wants to inspire others.
"Just being able to feel that I can do what everyone else can do -- the only thing I can't do is hear," she said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.