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Hearing assistance dogs are changing lives

Contributed by | Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

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Get ready for a cuteness overload. March 23 is National Puppy Day, and your social media feeds will no doubt be filled with images of the cuddly canines. National Puppy Day was created not only to celebrate puppies and the love and devotion they bring to us, but to educate the public about the need for forever homes for shelter dogs.

Close-up of terrier breed dog
Small and energetic breeds, like
this terrier mix, are often trained to
be hearing assistance dogs.

Several organizations are not only doing their part to provide loving homes for shelter dogs, but are providing a much needed service for a certain segment of the population: individuals with hearing loss.

The first use of hearing assistance dogs was in the 1960s. Now, a number of organizations such as Assistance Dogs International and Dogs for the Deaf rescue dogs from shelters, train them to be hearing assistance dogs and match them with partners. By acting as the “ears” for their human partners, the dogs can provide safety, a sense of independence and improve quality of life.

Hearing assistance dogs are trained to alert people to household and other sounds, such as alarm clocks, doorbells, kitchen timers, fire or burglar alarms, or telephones. While at home, the dogs alert their partner by making physical contact, such as a nudge to the arm or leg, and then directing the person to the source of the sound. And while it is not possible to train dogs for every sound they might encounter while in a public setting, the human partners learn to be attuned to their dogs’ reactions, and to react accordingly.

Hearing assistance dogs do not have to be of a specific breed. Temperament is more important than anything, although some organizations such as Canine Companions for Independence focus on providing specially bred hearing assistance dogs such as Labrador retrievers or golden retrievers. Most organizations that train for hearing assistance favor shelter dogs, particularly small to medium mixes of breeds such as terriers, poodles, Chihuahuas, shih tzus, cocker spaniels and Lhasa apsos. Small to medium sized dogs are favored simply because that is the size that most of those seeking a hearing service dog request.

And what makes a good hearing assistive dog? Nicole Tallman of Dogs for the Deaf explains that, first and foremost, the dogs must be friendly and approachable. In other words, a dog that hides at the back of the kennel would not be an ideal candidate to be a service dog. The dog should also be food- or treat-motivated (i.e. willing to work for reward), comfortable in a public setting and be in good health. Energy level is also crucial, as the dogs have to be ready to work at any moment.

When a potential hearing assistance dog is first rescued from the shelter, he is first given a basic veterinary check up to ensure basic health. After that, the first stage of training begins. Initial training involves basic socialization and obedience, just like any dog. The dogs are raised by volunteer puppy raisers until they are about 6 months old and ready to move on to the next stage, which is formal audio response training. And that is where the path diverges from that of a standard family pet. Once the early socialization stage is complete the dogs go through one to two hours a day of training in which they are taught through a system of rewards to respond to common household sounds. This phase of training lasts about six months, although that can vary according to the individual dog.

Not all of the dogs make it through this stage of training, however. Tallman reports that at Dogs for the Deaf, only one out of four is eventually placed as a hearing assistance dog. “Some dogs just don’t want to work,” said Tallman. Fortunately, however, the remaining dogs are put up for adoption through Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, which is committed to ensuring that all receive loving homes.

Each dog that qualifies is matched up by the organization to a human partner in need of hearing assistance. Not everyone with hearing loss qualifies, however. “You must be profoundly to severely deaf or hard of hearing to qualify for one of our service dogs,” explained Tallman. “We assist our clients in getting audiograms, which are then reviewed by our own audiologist.” As far as cost goes, many organizations that provide hearing assistance dogs are non-profit, so might require only a refundable deposit and a nominal application fee. A short training period for the human partner is usually required as well.

The number of service dogs in the U.S. has increased rapidly in the last 10 years, especially for invisible needs like hearing assistance. This can present a problem for some, who face daily the risk of confrontation with those who can’t see their disability and therefore object to the dog’s presence. Fortunately the Americans with Disabilities act requires businesses, government and many nonprofit organizations to allow service animals wherever the public has access. While special equipment is not required by law, hearing assistance dogs can usually be identified in public by a vest or a bright orange leash and collar.

There is no question that hearing assistance dogs can change lives. Steven Taylor lost his hearing as a result of an accident, and struggled readjusting to life until he acquired a hearing assistance dog named Echo. "Having Echo has given me the confidence to go out again. I've now done things that I never would have thought of doing and am back enjoying life again,” he said.

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