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Hearing-Assistance Dogs: Loving Companions and Guides

Our trainer explains how the right rescue dogs can assist people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Chances are you’ve run across guide dogs for people are blind or partially sighted. But did you know dogs can also aid people who are deaf or hard of hearing? Hearing-assistance dogs can provide essential help, either at home or in public by providing awareness of nearby sounds.

A hearing dog is trained to respond to common noises, such as doorbells, telephones, smoke detectors, alarm clocks and timers. When the dog hears one of these cues, he walks up to his owner and places one paw (or two paws, in the case of smaller dogs) on his owner to get her attention. The dog then runs back to the source of the sound to show his owner where the sound is coming from. Some dogs are even trained to let owners know when their name is being called.

Hearing-Assistance Dogs Have Confidence
Our organization, the Sam Simon Foundation, serves applicants spanning in age from 14 to 80. We exclusively use rescue dogs and look a relaxed and friendly temperament. The dog should be confident in public and comfortable with people and other animals. Almost any breed can work as a hearing dog, although some are more commonly used.

For clients who prefer small dogs, we most often use terrier or poodle mixes; for medium dogs, we prefer spaniel and herding mixes; for large dogs, retrievers and some hounds work best. Training begins with basic obedience, socialization and then specific instruction for sound awareness. Total training time is five to six months.

Using Rewards to Train Dogs
The key to successful training is food and, to a lesser extent, toys. We seek out dogs that are highly motivated by either of these rewards. In the training, the canines are rewarded each time they correctly complete a command. Rewarding must continue in the client’s home: Every time a dog alerts an owner to a sound, he must receive a treat because he’s accustomed to work for a prize.

Not all dogs are this motivated. In fact, only about one in four canine candidates are selected to become hearing assistants after completing our training process. And although they may not be fit for hearing assistance, they’re still well-trained dogs who are placed in homes following a careful selection process.

Some deaf or hard-of-hearing people have trained their own dogs. I’ve seen owners who might not use the same techniques and signals as we do, but still develop their own effective way of communicating with their dogs. And even after our traditionally-trained dogs are placed in a home, some communication personalization is required.

Not every person who is deaf or hard of hearing should have a dog. The most important factor to consider is that these dogs are companions and not tools. A owner needs to be committed to caring for and reinforcing the training of his dog. Training takes work and can be time-consuming, and these canines make mistakes that require patience and love, just like any other dog.



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