We recently had a chap named Richard Cross from thedogclinic.com get in touch with us. He said we hadn't written enough about hearing dogs, and on reflection, we agreed. So we asked him to contribute a post to us on the very subject. He did and you can read it below.
Hearing dogs are trained to alert their owner to sounds around the home, such as alarms or doorbells. They can also provide emotional support, give signals about outdoor hazards, and provide more independence to people with hearing disabilities.
Many people don’t understand the purpose of hearing dogs or how they are trained though. Here are seven things everyone should know about these wonderful service dogs.
1. Hearing Dogs Take Months (or Even Years) to Train
The process of training a hearing dog is long and expensive. Training usually starts with simple obedience commands and socialisation. This lays the groundwork for future training and ensures the dog has the right temperament. The dog is then trained to recognise and respond to specific sounds, such as doorbells or alarms. Some dogs use their paw to get the owners attention, while others nudge their leg. Once the dog understands the basics, it may be taught to listen for more specific sounds that are relevant to its future partner. These could include the owner’s name or the sound of a household appliance. Finally, the dog is taught how to behave in an outdoor environment. The length and cost of the training process varies depending on the organisation. It’s estimated that training a dog from scratch can cost over $20,000 though.
2. Hearing Dogs Alert and Lead to a Noise Source
The primary task of a hearing dog is to alert the owner to sounds such as fire alarms, doorbells and alarm clocks. To do this, the dog gets the owner’s attention, before leading to wherever the sound is coming from. Teaching a dog to recognise a certain sound is hard enough, but the task is more difficult when outside. The owner probably doesn’t need to be alerted to distant car horns, people shouting and other ambient sounds, but it’s hard for the dog to determine which sounds are important. For this reason, dogs don’t alert their owner to ambient sounds. Instead, the owner is taught to read the dog’s body language cues. By doing this, the owner is warned about people, vehicles and other potential dangers, without being overwhelmed by constant signals from their dog.
3. Small or Medium-Sized Breeds Are Often the Best Hearing Dogs
All hearing dogs need intensive training - there’s no such thing as a “natural” hearing dog. While almost any dog could be taught, some breeds have traits that make them better suited to becoming a hearing dog. The best hearing dogs need to be interested in sounds, friendly, have the ability to focus, and are naturally alert. They should also be comfortable around both humans and dogs. Most hearing dogs are small or medium-size breeds, as these are easier for the owner to handle. Hearing Dogs for Deaf People in the UK, for example, exclusively uses Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles, Cockapoos and Labrador Retrievers. Other organisations use Terrier mixes or Golden Retrievers.
4. You Shouldn’t Interact With a Hearing Dog Without the Owner’s Permission
Most people know that guide dogs for blind people shouldn’t be approached, but the same is true for any service dog - including hearing dogs. Owners of a hearing dog rely on the dog’s body language to alert them to danger. It can be frustrating if the dog is constantly distracted by people stroking or talking to it. A distracted dog is also more likely to miss another sound that the owner needs to know about. It’s also important to keep your dog away from a hearing dog. Aside from being a distraction, it can be distressing for the owner if there is a dispute between the dogs.
5. Hearing Dog Puppies Are Usually Raised by Trained Volunteers
The puppy socialization period is roughly between six and 16 weeks. During this time, the puppy’s experiences shape its future personality. This is why volunteer puppy raisers are crucial to the training of a hearing dog. These volunteers are taught how to slowly introduce new environments and experiences, while teaching basic obedience commands. The process is different if the organisation is using a shelter dog though. These dogs have finished their socialisation stage, so need to be carefully selected for their temperament. The advantages of using a shelter dog, aside from giving a dog a second chance, are that the dog’s personality is already developed and there is no need to find a puppy volunteer carer.
6. Hearing Dogs Need to be Carefully Matched With an Owner
Training a hearing dog is only half the equation. Once the dog understands its duties, the next stage is to match it with a suitable owner. There are many considerations when placing a hearing dog. These include everything from the person’s age and lifestyle, to the temperament of the dog. An energetic dog with a fast walking speed, for example, probably wouldn’t make a good match for an elderly person. On the other hand, a naturally sleepy dog with a slow gait wouldn’t be a good choice for an active 25-year old. A lot of time and thought goes into matching a hearing dog, as selecting the right match is essential for a successful partnership.
7. A Hearing Dog Can Re-Build a Deaf Person’s Confidence in Life
The benefits of a hearing dog go far beyond alerting the owner to certain noises. Many deaf people feel isolated by their disability. By having a companion who can alert them to dangers or just someone trying to say hello, many feel more confident, independent and able to enjoy life. Hearing dogs also make wonderful pets. They provide emotional support and loving companionship, which can make a big difference to a person’s life.
A hearing dog isn’t a replacement for a properly functioning hearing device. But they can provide extra safety, independence and confidence for people with a hearing disability.
Many people don’t realise the time, money and thought that goes into training a new hearing dog. The life-changing benefits are worth the expense though.