Imagine waking up to a furry face and two paws scrabbling at your duvet? What a great way to start the day! Well, more than 800 people in the UK experience this ritual every morning, when their hearing dog springs into action after hearing the alarm clock.
This is just one of a variety of household sounds to which hearing dogs are trained to respond. The others include the doorbell, telephone, cooker timer and baby cry.
So how do the dogs tell their owners there is a sound occurring? Instead of barking, they will find their deaf owner and touch them with a paw or nudge them with their nose. This lets the recipient know that there is a sound, but, of course, they don’t know which one at this stage. So they ask the dog! “What is it?” they ask, while opening their arms to give the dog a visual clue. This is the dog’s cue to lead them straight to the source of the sound, whether it is the cooker timer, baby monitor or front door.
The dogs can also be sent to fetch their deaf owner when someone else in the house wants them. This is a particularly useful – and sometimes life-saving – sound.
Ann Barford tells how her hearing dog Jinty responded to “the call” and helped her when she was in distress. “One Christmas I suffered a severe bout of the flu. I had got up early in the morning to use the toilet, which is separate from our bathroom and is quite a small room. As always, I shut the door. Next thing I knew was when I came round and found myself lying wedged between the toilet bowl and the wall. I thought I was waking up in bed, then realised I wasn’t. I felt too weak to pull myself up but managed after some effort to slide along the floor and stretch up to open the door. I knew that Jinty would be waiting for me outside the door. I also knew it was no use calling to Keith as without his hearing aids in he wouldn’t hear me. When I finally opened the door Jinty took one look at me lying there. I told her to fetch Keith, which she did, not once but twice before Keith realised something was wrong and she wasn’t just waking him up. It was then that we realised I must have collapsed and needed the doctor.”
In addition to the daily sounds in the home, hearing dogs are also trained to respond to danger sounds such as the smoke alarm, carbon monoxide alarm, burglar alarm and fire siren in public places. The dogs react in a different way to alarm sounds.
Obviously you would not want to be led into a fire or into a smoke-filled room, so once the dogs have alerted their owner in the usual way, when asked “What is it?” they will drop to the floor to indicate danger. This one sound alone prompted many of our now recipients to apply for a hearing dog. Lara Mayhew was one such person. She was born profoundly deaf and unlike people who lose their hearing later in life, she never felt she had really missed sounds because, as she puts it, “what you’ve never had you don’t miss.”
However, one particular situation was to make her realise how vulnerable she was. “I was in the changing room of a clothes shop trying on clothes. After 15 minutes I came out and found the whole shop completely deserted. I put down the clothes and walked out, to be met by embarrassed shop assistants explaining the fire alarm had gone off and they had assumed everyone had heard it because they had not realised I was deaf. It was after that episode that I began to think about applying for a hearing dog.”
Unlike most other assistance dogs, hearing dogs can come in all shapes and sizes, from little toy breeds like the bichon frise to the much larger Labradoodle (Labrador crossed with a standard poodle!). We take them from a variety of sources too. Some are donated to us by members of the public or breeders, others are part of our breeding scheme. Where possible, we will take dogs from rescue centres meaning that not only does the deaf person’s life change but the dog’s life does too.
Once a suitable puppy or young dog has passed our initial assessments tests, they will enter our puppy socialising scheme and will find themselves living with one of our wonderful volunteers. These people are saints! They take our new recruits into their homes for up to a year and spend valuable time house-training them, bringing them to our puppy classes, taking them out and about into all sorts of different environments and introducing them to children, dogs, cats and other assorted animals! In fact, the youngsters need to be exposed to anything that a working hearing dog might encounter when placed with a deaf person.
On top of all of this, socialisers have to keep detailed reports of how the puppy is progressing; whether there is anything he finds scary and also tell us whether he has got any unsavoury habits! This socialisation period is vitally important and is hard work for the volunteers, but is a great deal of fun too. The fact that “their” puppy will hopefully one day make a real difference to the life of a deaf person is the incentive that encourages our socialisers to continue doing what they do … that and having a bundle of fun to play with for a year!!!
Assuming the puppies pass all their tests during the socialising period, they will then move into the advanced training where they will be taught to respond to up to ten household sounds.
Every hearing dog has their training tailored to match the individual needs of the deaf person to whom they have been matched. This matching (rather like a dating agency!) happens at the beginning of the soundwork training period, and is possibly the most important piece of the hearing dog jigsaw. We will have built up, through personal interviews and assessment forms, a picture of the deaf person’s day-to-day life, their needs and requirements and will have visited their workplace too if necessary. We then marry all that information up with the knowledge we have gained about the dog during his socialisation, and hopefully a perfect match is born.
This might seem a very involved procedure, but we would not want to place a dog that is not overly confident in noisy environments with someone who lives and works in London, for example! Likewise, putting a lively exercise-mad spaniel with an elderly person who lives in a flat would not necessarily be the most successful pairing.
During the soundwork training, the dogs are trained in stages, first of all learning to master what is called “the alert” – the touch with one paw, two paws or nose nudge when a sound is heard. This is then followed by introducing the various sounds slowly and methodically, making sure the dogs are confident to alert at all times and in all situations.
Any time you drop into one of our training houses, you are likely to see trainers lying in bed, vacuuming or washing up waiting for the trainee hearing dog to bound up and tell them about a sound. The training houses are set up to mirror the inside of an ordinary house, a flat and a bungalow.
All of this soundwork training takes 16 weeks, and the very final week is when the chosen recipient stays at one of the training centres and spends time learning how to work with their new dog. At the end of a very tiring week the partnership finally goes home to begin their new life together – but that is not the end of the Charity’s involvement.
The partnership has the weekend to settle down together before Hearing Dogs’ partnership support instructor turns up on the doorstep the following Monday to work with deaf person and dog to ensure that both are happy and working well. A few weeks later there will be another visit, again to make sure the dog is working for real in the home.
Assuming the dog is alerting to sounds and the deaf person is really benefiting from having the dog there, the partnership will face a final assessment after which they become fully qualified. The Charity remains involved with each and every partnership, making regular annual visits and support visits if required. This way, we can ensure that the dogs are continuing to change and enhance their recipients’ lives.
Mel Smith is one such person who could not envisage life without her hearing dog Keri. “I feel both blessed and privileged to have had Keri in my life for the past eight years. She has changed my life, my outlook and my sense of self-belief beyond measure. With Keri’s unwavering support I really feel I have grown, and I have developed as a person through knowing her. I now find it so much easier to acknowledge my deafness as, having such a wonderful little dog acting as my ears, has enabled me to feel proud of who I am and lifted my feelings of self-worth.”
As you can imagine, all of this takes finances and resources, and we could not have existed for 27 years creating over 1500 life-changing partnerships in that time, without the generosity of the public who either donate money to us or give up their time to help us.
Find out more about Hearing Dogs for Deaf People or make a donation, here.