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Golden Ears and Hearing Dogs

When I wake up in the morning, it's usually to a wet nose bumping me because the alarm clock is going off. I open my eyes and see Dominic, an enthusiastic, tail wagging six-year old Belgian Malinois, who I trained as a hearing dog at Golden Ears. Golden Ears is a nonprofit hearing dog training center in Washington State. Golden Ears was founded in 1993.

Dominic is my second hearing dog and has been my companion for the last four and a half years, accompanying me to work, trips, drives, walks and wherever else we might choose to go. My first hearing dog, Nicky, lived to be 14 years old. Nicky lost his hearing around age 12. I have fond memories of Nicky stepping in front of me to stop me from getting hit by a car as it flew around the corner.

These special companions have been a challenge and a joy. I have been working with hearing dogs for 18 years and they have been an important part of my life from the beginning.

So, you are probably wondering why a hearing dog? I have a severe to profound hearing loss. Normally, I wear digital hearing aids during the day. However - even digital hearing aids do not always pick up sounds at the other end of the house, such as the telephone, door knock/bell, smoke alarm, oven timer or microwave. Hearing aids don't always provide directional hearing either, so you can't always tell where the sound is coming from. I love brownies, but not burnt ones! It can be very frustrating to miss the oven timer and wind up cooking food too long (or worse!). The dog makes sure I am aware of the oven timer, and other important sounds too.

Sometimes, I might go for a walk and cross the street without knowing there was a car coming around the corner. The dog helps me stay in tune, and on top of, the sounds all around me.

About 8 months after I got Dominic, he alerted me to a cap exploding from a gas line -- and gas was leaking into my office building! Because he alerted me to the danger, I was able to safely exit the building

Golden Ears became a reality for several reasons. Many years ago, my first hearing dog became very ill and I began to look for options, just in case he didn't recover. I contacted several training centers and became discouraged by the long waiting lists and in some cases, the distance to the training center.

I visited a couple of centers. One treated me rudely and another didn't have staff who could sign. Although I lip-read very well, I wondered how those staff members communicated with deaf or hearing impaired people who sign, and I wondered - would deaf people be comfortable with them?

A friend encouraged me. "You already know how to train your hearing dog - so train another one." With support from friends and family, and lots of paperwork and planning, Golden Ears began.

The staff at Golden Ears are all volunteers. Individuals that contribute their time include: audiologists, legal consultants, veterinarians, a health services consultant, interpreters, dog trainers, family life consultants, clerical staff and others who share our love for these unique team members. All the dogs in our program are rescued from shelters and other rescue organizations in the area. We love what we do.

Centers that train hearing dogs in the United States vary with respect to their processes for applying, training and placing hearing dogs. Most centers have an application process, application fees, and often - a waiting list.

At Golden Ears, the process requires much more than the application form. We require a recent audiometric evaluation to determine the degree of hearing loss, and we require personal references. Typically, the applicants must have a minimum hearing loss of 65 dB and they must show they are willing and able to care of the dog. Once their references are returned to the center, a staff member visits the home to assess safety issues and appropriateness of the home environment for a hearing dog. Not everyone that "wants" a hearing dog qualifies. Our process helps us determine the size of the dog, the personality traits that may best match the applicant and the dog, and it helps us determine if a hearing dog would be helpful in their specific situation.

Most of our dogs are between eight months and three years old. Importantly, we look for dogs that are personable and comfortable spending most of the day indoors. Afterall, hearing dogs are essentially indoor workers. Many people ask "What breed of dog makes the best hearing dog?" Well, there isn't a finite answer. Several breeds and mixed breeds do well. The dogs are tested for their response to sounds (such as bells, whistles, pans dropping, etc.) and they are chosen based on their alertness and their ability to respond to sound. The dogs must be in good health and all those who pass the "response to sound" testing go through an exam at the veterinarian's office. We make an effort to choose dogs that meet the needs of the applicant and this is facilitated by the application and the home visit. Once a good dog candidate is found and qualified, the dog comes home for training.

Some centers house their dogs in a kennel and use a 'mock apartment' setting for training purposes. However, all dogs at Golden Ears are trained in a home. They live and work with their trainer daily. The home is where they will work and this is where their training begins.

Initially, the dogs start in basic obedience training. They learn "come, sit, stay" and other commands too. Social training is incorporated (going out in public to parks, libraries, offices, etc.) to expose the dogs to various environments. "Sound training" is based on the needs of the applicant, but basic sounds are: phone, door knock/bell, oven timer, alarm clock and smoke alarm. Some dogs are trained to a persons' name, or even a baby crying. Not all hearing dogs are seen in public. Many individuals prefer to have the dog trained for in-home only. Others choose to have a dog that will accompany them in public. This decision is made by the applicant, and they discuss the options with their training center.

How long does it take?

This will vary from center to center, and often from dog to dog. Training in our program generally takes from six to eight months. Training also varies depending on the specifics of the dog's job and what they need to learn. Some centers may take as long as 2 years. Some centers raise the dogs and train them from the time they are a puppy. Rescuing older dogs for our program has reduced the amount of time in training.

What does it cost?

Most centers are funded by grants and/or donations. Funding can be difficult to obtain and some centers close due to lack of funding. The typical cost for the dogs can be anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000. Part of the explanation for this wide variability is that some centers have paid staff and additional operational costs.

Other centers (like ours) are able to get by with a volunteer staff. Golden Ears has been able to keep the cost of training dogs in our program down thanks in part to volunteer staff, but still, the cost ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 per dog. One of the challenges in opening and maintaining a center is to get and maintain funding sources. Funding donations are welcome as well as donations including leashes, collars, bowls, crates, food, and other supplies used in training and caring for the dogs.

Hearing dogs are not for everyone. Owning a hearing dog is a 24-hour a day commitment. The dogs need to be fed, groomed, have regular health care (vaccinations, etc.), ongoing reinforcement of their training and lots of love. Nonetheless, the rewards the owner gets includes independence, companionship and personal well-being. Hearing dogs are dedicated companions and great workers. For me, Dominic is a constant source of joy. I appreciate the independence he gives me and the way he is alert to what takes place around us.

If you would like more information about hearing dogs, or how you can contribute to our program, please contact us: Golden Ears, P. O. Box 64183, Tacoma, WA 98464-0183, or email to: Goldnears1@aol.com. Web site is: hometown.aol.com/goldnears1/index.html. Another excellent reference for hearing dogs throughout the US is the Delta Society, at: http://www.deltasociety.org/ .

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