Hearing dogs are trained specifically to support the needs of people with severe hearing loss,” according to the American Kennel Club. The dogs serve as their masters’ ears, and oftentimes, companionship is an added perk.
By U.S. federal law, service animals, including hearing dos, are allowed anywhere the public is permitted. They can also live in rental housing, even if pets are prohibited.
Hearing dogs are trained to alert their owners to common sounds in the home. These include knocks on the door, doorbells, alarm clocks, smoke alarms, oven timers, telephones, or even babies’ cries. They do this by making physical contact with their handlers, nudging or pawing them to get their attention. Many are trained to guide their masters towards the source of sound.
Most assistant dogs are not trained to respond to street noises, such as car horns or sirens. However, because they are alert to environmental sounds, owners can obtain information about their surroundings by watching cues from the dog when outside the home. This serves primarily to warn about oncoming people or vehicles which may be harmful or dangerous.
The majority of hearing dog owners have even reported feeling an increased sense of security and independence that other assistive means do not necessarily support.
“…hearing dog owners report feeling an increased sense of security and independence”
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Many hearing dogs are small to medium mixed breeds, and can be rescue dogs or purebreds. Many are a mix of breeds. Cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and poodles are particularly popular assistant dogs.
Pedigree is far less important in a dog than its trainability and temperament. There are some natural traits that make some dogs a better fit. Some characteristics of a model hearing dog include:
Temperament and instinct are key features of a successful hearing dogs. But they still must be trained for their specific duties. Dogs are trained to perform on and off a lead and to work for affection and small rewards. Generally, they start with the basics of obedience and socialization like stay, sit, come, and heel.
From there, the dogs participate in several months of audio-response training in which they learn to react to certain sounds in the home. When a hearing dog and deaf or hard of hearing person are matched, they train together and work as a team. At this point, the dog may be trained for other sounds that are specific to their master and the master’s home environment. Some additional sounds to respond to may include the master’s name, incoming e-mail messages, dropping keys, or other noises from household appliances.
It’s also worth noting that hearing dogs can also be trained to respond to American Sign Language (ASL) for those who are non-verbal.
The full list of qualifications for a hearing dog vary from organization to organization. Below are criteria to meet to become a candidate for a hearing dog:
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Training a hearing dog is an expensive operation that can run $20,000 or more. The cost to clients, however, varies. Most require an application fee, and some collect a refundable deposit. Organizations like International Hearing Dog Inc. rescue shelter dogs to assist persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, with and without multiple disabilities, at no cost to the recipient. Some organizations raise the funds needed through donations. Others require clients to share the costs by encouraging them to host community fundraisers to combat a portion of expenses.
The owner does assume total financial responsibility for the dog’s care including medical, food, etc.
Each organization has a different protocol for applying to receive a hearing dog. Most require a multi-step process for approval that includes a screening, in home interview, acceptance or denial, placement, and follow up. Assistance Dogs International is a great place to start the search process as they can help locate a hearing dog provider near you. Finding the right match and completing the full training process can take a few weeks to several months. Here’s a list of a few organizations that provide hearing dogs:
Canine Companions International – must be 18 or older
Paws with a Cause – must be 18 or older
4 Paws for Ability – all ages
According to Micheleigh Perez, Staff Audiologist with Hearing Planet, “A hearing dog cannot replace the use of properly fit hearing devices for people with significant hearing loss. Assistance dogs add to their masters’ sense of security and support. Some people with hearing loss may also feel a certain amount of isolation especially when home alone. A hearing dog is not only a working partner, but a wonderful companion and source of emotional connection as well.”
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