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Assistance dogs for the deaf

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing

John Drach is a welcome site in Central Point, Oregon animal shelters. Staff know he's looking for dogs to train as assistance dogs, and even if the dogs he adopts don't work out for the program his organization will find families to love them.                          

John is the training director for Dogs for the Deaf, a nonprofit organization located in Central Point, Oregon which has trained more than 1,000 dogs to assist deaf individuals all over the country. The organization is celebrating their 35-year anniversary and is the oldest hearing dog organization in the country. Dogs for the Deaf also trains Autism Assistance Dogs and Program Assistance Dogs, which help fulltime professionals working with disabled individuals.

Accredited assistance dogs programs are available worldwide in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. There are three categories of assistance dogs: hearing, guide and service. Hearing dogs help hearing-impaired individuals live independently and confidently. Guide dogs give that same assistance to blind individuals. Service dogs are trained to assist their owners with physical or psychiatric disabilities. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), certified assistance dogs are permitted to accompany their owners into public and private venues.

Dogs must complete an extensive 
amount of training before becoming
service animals.

What is the benefit of a hearing dog?

Because hearing loss affects the ability to communicate, hearing-impaired individuals often experience loneliness, isolation, depression and frustration. Untreated hearing loss can also negatively affect emotional stability, an overall sense of control and participation in social activities.

"One of the biggest things a hearing dog can give someone is confidence and a sense of security that they don't have otherwise," Kelly Gonzalez, Dogs for the Deaf Development Director, said.

What do hearing dogs do?

Hearing assistance dogs are trained to identify sounds, make physical contact with their owner, and lead them to the sound.

Some of the sounds these dogs can be trained to identify include fire and smoke alarms, telephone, oven timer, alarm clock, doorbell/knock at the door, name call and, if applicable, the baby cry. Once they're placed, they can also learn to respond to additional sounds such as the tea kettle, microwave, or washer and dryer buzzer.

Some organizations like Dogs for the Deaf also train the hearing dogs to accompany their owner into public places. Although the dogs aren't trained to respond to sirens or approaching cars, their owners can be alerted to what the dogs are paying attention to and react accordingly.

"After we train them for 4-6 months, we try to match them up with an owner as best we can," Kelly said. "If there's someone on our waiting list who goes bowling, then we take the dog into the bowling alley. If we have a very active dog, we're not going to place them with someone who sits at home all the time. We want to make sure up front we won't have to take the dog back."

Once the match is made, a Dogs for the Deaf trainer travels to the client's home to place the dog and stays for 3-5 days for one-on-one training. The organization provides follow up training for the life of the team.

Who can benefit from a hearing dog?

Most programs require applicants be deaf or have severe to profound hearing loss in order to qualify for a hearing assistance dog. Each organization has their own screening process to make sure they're placing the right dog in each individual's home.

For example, individuals requesting a hearing dog from Dogs for the Deaf must complete an application and submit a $50 application fee. Applicants must also submit a copy of their medically-based audiogram that reflects the level of their hearing loss. Each application is reviewed by a committee; a Dogs for the Deaf associate conducts an in-home interview to determine the applicants needs and lifestyle.

Dogs are matched with individuals on the basis of the dog's temperament, and the lifestyle, needs, personality, activity level and health of the hearing-impaired individual.

Where do the dogs come from?

According to Assistance Dogs International, hearing dogs come in all shapes, sizes and colors - and mainly from animal shelters. They need to be friendly and people oriented, energetic, and ready to work as soon as a sound occurs. Some programs will train a hearing-impaired individual's pet dog to assist them as long as the dog has the right temperament and age. Because their purpose is to encourage independence, protective breeds don't work well for this assignment.

Not every dog can be trained in this manner. When it comes to selecting dogs from the local shelter, John says confidence is key.

"The big thing we're looking for is one that's looking for contact with an individual," he explained. "The dog has to be interested in me when I walk by his cage. He can't be laying in the back or cowering."

John tests the dog by reaching out to give him a scratch or two, then moves his hand to the other side of the kennel to see if he wants more. If he does, John says he might take the dog out and test his interaction with other dogs, all the time measuring his interest, eye contact and personality.

"These dogs have to jump through several hoops before I decide to adopt them," he said. "Some of the local facilities even let us take the dogs out in public. They know us very well and know we'll find homes for all the dogs we adopt - regardless if they become hearing assistance dogs or not."

How to apply

If you or someone you love might benefit from a hearing assistance dog, search for an organization in your community. If you can't find one by searching online, ask your family physician or audiologist. Each program has their own application and qualification process. Be sure you are willing to commit to the responsibility of owning a dog and are patient enough to work with the dog as he learns to obey you.

Not only can hearing assistance dogs provide a sense of security and confidence, they are also loyal, loving pets that will be companions for years to come.

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