In Deaf Awareness Week, the touching story of how a dog, called Inca, has transformed the life of his profoundly deaf owner – even helping him indulge in his passion for baking cakes. PETER BARRON reports

THE adorable little cocker spaniel's ears twitch as the alarm pings, and he's swiftly on his way to the kitchen with his nose in the air.

Inca pokes his head round the door, as if to check he’s not mistaken, then runs upstairs to the study to give his owner, Martin Peagam, a nudge.

“Ah, is it ready, Inca?” asks Martin, knowing it’s time to get his speciality – a lemon drizzle cake – out of the oven, before giving Inca a treat for sounding the alert.

This has become a regular scene in Martin’s house in Hartburn, Stockton, where Inca is on duty round-the-clock as one of around 1,500 dogs that are trained in this country by the charity, Hearing Dogs For Deaf People.

Martin was born profoundly deaf and credits Inca with transforming his life, including helping him with his passion for baking.

“I love baking but, before Inca came along, it was very frustrating. All too often I wouldn’t hear the alarm, and the cakes would get burnt,” he explains. “There were a lot of disasters but I’m doing more baking than ever now, and getting it right, thanks to Inca being my assistant.”

Being a 'cooker spaniel' is just one of the ways that Inca has become Martin’s 'ears'. He also barks and fusses around Martin to let him know when there’s a caller at the door, and he’s a potential lifesaver should a fire alarm go off.

Perhaps most importantly, Inca has given Martin – "a lifelong loner" – the confidence to have conversations with people who are drawn to the honey-coloured pooch, wearing a special Hearing Dogs For Deaf People jacket.

“I’m a different person,” admits Martin, who is an expert lip-reader “I used to hide behind my newspaper in cafes, but Inca has opened up a whole new world. People want to engage and I’ve discovered the joy of conversation.”

Janice, Martin’s wife of 42 years, is also loving the transformation. “Inca’s given me a chatty, sociable husband,” she smiles as she cuts the cake.

Martin was born in Middlesbrough in 1958. His Stockton-born mum, Joyce, was an ‘Aycliffe Angel’ during the war and was diagnosed with tuberculosis after being sent to another munitions factory, in Staffordshire. She was sent home and treated at Seaham Sanitorium – now Seaham Hall.

Martin’s dad, Frank, was an air-gunner in RAF Coastal Command, and was posted to Thornaby. The couple met at a dance at The Maison de Danse, in Stockton, and married in 1945.

Joyce recovered from TB and, despite being advised not to have children due to her health problems, the couple’s first child, Heather, was born in 1949, and Martin followed nine years later. 

While pregnant with Martin, Joyce developed a chest infection and was prescribed anti-biotics, which affected the development of nerve-endings in her baby's ears. It led to Martin being born with 25 per cent hearing in one ear, and none in the other.

He's never heard birdsong, apart from the cries of owls and seagulls that are just within his range.

He likes punk rock because it has a low, repetitive beat. He can also hear some classical music by Verdi and Beethoven, because of their low tones, but not Mozart whose compositions tend to be higher.

Frank insisted that his son went through mainstream education, while also attending speech therapy classes once a week.

Martin passed the 11-plus and went to Grangefield Grammar School, where a PE teacher, Doug Agar, attempted to overcome his isolation by involving him in rugby.

"I was the classic loner – libraries were the best places on earth because I didn't have to talk to anyone, but I've been in buildings where I haven't heard the fire alarm," he explains.

Martin and Janice met as students at Stockton Sixth Form College. He plucked up courage to ask her to dance at a ceilidh, not realising that the sequence would take them in opposite directions, but they met again at a party.

"Martin was on his own in a corner, so I went to talk to him, and he walked me home," she recalls.

They married in 1981, had a daughter, Emma, and have a grandson, Walker –named after John Walker, Stockton's inventor of the friction match.

Martin proved to be a bright spark at university, taking notes by lip-reading during lectures, and developing what's close to a photographic memory.

He went on to have a long career in education, ending up as Assistant Principal of Middlesbrough College, while Janice was a lecturer in health and social care.

Martin later worked for the Riding For Disabled charity and came across Hearing Dogs For The Deaf when a representative came to give a talk.

"When they found out I was deaf, they said I would benefit from a dog," says Martin.

The couple had never had a dog, and Martin's allergic to dog hair, but he was paired with Inca who doesn't moult.

Four breeds are used by the charity – cocker spaniels, labradors, cockapoos, and miniature poodles – with puppies having to pass early-years training.

Inca was three when he went to support Martin, and he'll be seven on May 4. He'll be in service for another couple of years before seeing out his days in Hartburn as a pet, and Martin will be assigned a new dog.

In the meantime, Inca has a passport to go everywhere with Martin, including the cinema, theatre, and restaurants.

He frequently joins Martin when he's giving local history lectures, and attended an England versus Australia Test match at Old Trafford , where he made friends with spin bowler Monty Panesar.

Indeed, he has such a fun-filled life that he has hundreds of followers on his own Facebook page: Inca – The Adventures of a Hearing Dog.

When the chance arose to be Community Fundraising Manager North East for Hearing Dogs For Deaf People – covering from the Humber to the Shetlands –Martin happily came out of retirement to work for the charity that has changed his life.

This year, he's raising money by running four marathons in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – starting with the recent London Marathon.

As well as being secretary for two local history societies, he's also secretary for the Orchard Eagles Running Club, in Eagescliffe, where he's known as 'The Cake Runner' because he always brings home-made cakes to training sessions for members.

"If it hadn't been for Inca, I'm not sure I'd have had the confidence to join the running club but I love it," he says.

"I'd never have believed it, but I've seen the difference these dogs make to people of all ages.

"Deaf children can take their dogs to school and, instead of being the one in the playground who gets left out, they become the centre of attention.

"The range of things the dogs can do is amazing: from pulling the duvet off teenager's beds when their alarm clock's going off; to letting mums know that their baby's crying. Their work is absolutely priceless."

With the little hearing Martin was born with deteriorating as he gets older, he needs more help than ever, so his next Hearing Dog will have big paws to fill.

But, for now, it's still Inca's job, and his eyes are fixed on the lemon drizzle cake as Martin and Janice tuck in. Beautifully moist, and with no sign of a charred crust or soggy bottom, it's been timed to perfection.