Everyone is aware that blind or partially sighted people rely on the help of guide dogs but are you aware that dogs can support those with hearing loss?
‘We train clever dogs to help deaf people’ say the charity Hearing Dogs For Deaf People. And this charity, which has been going since its launch at Crufts in 1982, has successfully matched 2091 hearing dogs with deaf recipients.
The charity currently has 873 working hearing dog partnerships across the UK, 27 of which are with children.
Why a hearing dog?
Dogs are trained to alert deaf people to sounds they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. These can be simple sounds as the doorbell or alarm clock. Being alerted to these sounds really benefits the quality of deaf people’s lives.
Furthermore, hearing dogs have saved countless lives in their important role: alerting their deaf partners to fire alarms in the middle of the night, letting them know when a family member is shouting for help. The charity even reported one of their dogs averting potential car thieves.
Deafness can be a very isolating. It leaves people feeling disconnected from life and from the world of spoken communication. Here’s when a hearing dog offers a link to the outside world, alerting them to sounds they need to know about and reconnecting them to the world around them.
This connection offers the deaf person a sense of independence and confidence. They also benefit from the canine companionship of a loyal friend being by their side, both at home and when out and about.
Each hearing dogs costs £40,000 to train and support each hearing dog throughout their lifetime. The charity trained 140 dogs last year.
Getting the chemistry right
A hearing dog and their deaf recipient need to be carefully matched to ensure the partnership will work well.
Making a match
Many aspects are taken into consideration. Compatible lifestyle factors are important. For example, an energetic Labrador wouldn’t be matched with a more mature person with mobility problems. However, that same lively Labrador would be a great fit for a younger person who goes out for regular runs every day.
The majority of our new recruits are Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles, Labradors and Cockapoos. Over half the Charity’s dogs come from their own Kennel Club Accredited breeding scheme.
At eight weeks old the hearing dog puppy arrives at the Hearing Dogs training centre, located in Buckinghamshire. Here the dogs meet their puppy socialising volunteer, who teaches them basic obedience before they start their Soundwork training. The puppies have welfare health checks, receive their vaccinations and are micro chipped.
The puppies stay with their puppy socialising volunteers for up to 16 months. This is where they receive most of their obedience training. This includes understanding responding to commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘down’ commands, responding to their name and obeying the command ‘wait.’
A crucial part of a hearing dog’s training is to be relaxed in new places such as restaurants and cafés and to have the ability to lie quietly at their deaf companionship’s feet. This is known as a ‘settle’ and training for this starts at around four months old.
Reward based training is used
It takes 16-24 months to train a hearing dog. Training includes finding out what motivates each puppy. Rewards can include: food, praise, or playing with their favourite toy. Training revolves around choices. A puppy is given the opportunity to choose between two actions – the right action or the wrong action. Whilst the right action is rewarded, the wrong action is ignored. The charity feels this is key to ensuring dogs feel safe and comfortable – crucial to their success as a hearing dog.
Introduced to new experiences
When they are older, the puppies are also familiarised with different environments such as towns, parks and beaches. They are introduced to noises such as hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, crowds of people, traffic and objects such as walking sticks, shopping trollies and bus stops. The intention is to remove the fear of the unknown and allow the puppy to confidently integrate into everyday life.
Strengthen their skills
Later training includes testing impulse control. This involves unexpectedly dropping food and seeing whether the training dog chooses to try and eat it or not. Other tests include the trainer doing star jumps to try and distract the dog whilst they are concentrating on their ‘wait’. These tests strengthen the pupil skills which the puppy will need to rely on later on.
A crucial part of these hearing dog’s training is Soundwork so they can effectively become their deaf recipients’ ears. Hearing dogs learn to alert to sounds like the doorbell, telephone alerts, digital timers, alarm clocks and fire alarms.
Smaller breeds like Miniature Poodles and Cocker Spaniels are taught to signal an alert by placing both their paws on their deaf recipient’s lap. However, larger dogs alert through a gentle nose nudge on their recipient’s leg. A hearing dog either leads the deaf person to the sound after alerting them, such as the doorbell.
In an emergency
In the case of an emergency such as a danger signal like a fire alarm or smoke alarm, a hearing dog lies down in order to avoid a dog leading someone into an unsafe situation.
Increasing the challenge
Once a hearing dog can competently alert his trainer, the training becomes more challenging. For example, training the dog to alert to the doorbell whilst the vacuum cleaner is running.
All of these scenarios are crucial for a hearing dog to focus on the fact they still need to tell a deaf person.
Making a Hearing Dog Partnership
Once the hearing dog has undergone all their training and attained their hearing dog accreditation, they have a placement with their new deaf recipient.
The hearing dog stays at their future recipient’s home for a couple of days so they can get to know one another. Meanwhile, the trainer stays overnight in a nearby B&B to be on hand for any teething issues.
If this start is successful, the hearing dog returns for a month of further training which is specially tailored to the noises that will be a feature in his new life, such as public transport noises or a baby monitor.
The next step is the deaf person attends a week at the training centre to begin the handover from trainer to recipient. During the week the hearing dog demonstrates exactly how they can respond to the recipients needs and make their lives easier.
Finally, the hearing dog returns with their recipient for their first weekend together in the recipient’s home. The trainer is on call to help them both settle in.
Support continues for the hearing dog’s life to ensure it is a happy and successful partnership.
Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal has been the charity’s Royal Patron since 1992. TV presenter and adventurer, Ben Fogle (the son of the Charity’s co-founder, Dr Bruce Fogle) is also actively involved.
Celebrity spokespeople for the charity include John Barrowman, Esther Rantzen, Pam St Clement, Tim Vincent and Marc Abraham.
If you are interested in supporting this charity or in becoming a hearing dog volunteer, find out more here: https://www.hearingdogs.org.uk
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First Aid for Pets provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for veterinary advice. The author does not accept any liability or responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any mistreatment or misdiagnosis of any person or animal, however caused. It is strongly advised that you attend a practical First Aid for Pets course or take our online course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.
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