Tall or short, active or subdued, scruffy or carefully coiffed, dogs most definitely make good companions. But for some, our furry, four-legged friends are much more than house pets, they are actual lifesavers, providing service for individuals with a wide range of disabilities including those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
There are three categories of assistance dogs: hearing, guide and service. Hearing dogs help hearing-impaired individuals live independently and confidently. Guide dogs give that same assistance to blind individuals. Service dogs are trained to assist their owners with physical or psychiatric disabilities.
Accredited assistance dogs programs are available worldwide in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. According to a 2017 abstract published in Frontiers of Veterinary Science, 4,314 assistance dogs were placed in 2013 and 2014 alone to provide guide, mobility, autism, hearing, psychiatric, diabetic and seizure services in North America. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), certified assistance dogs are permitted to accompany their owners into public and private venues in the United States.
What do hearing assistance dogs do?
First used in 1960, hearing assistance dogs are trained to alert people to household and other sounds, such as alarm clocks, doorbells, kitchen timers, fire or burglar alarms, or telephones. While at home, the dogs alert their partner by making physical contact, such as a nudge to the arm or leg, and then directing the person to the source of the sound.
Some organizations like Dogs for Better Lives (formerly Dogs for the Deaf) also train the hearing dogs to accompany their owner into public places. Although the dogs aren't trained to respond to sirens or approaching cars, their owners can be alerted to what the dogs are paying attention to and react accordingly.
"After we train them for 4-6 months, we try to match them up with an owner as best we can," Kelly Gonzalez, former Development Director for Dogs for Better Lives, said. "If there's someone on our waiting list who goes bowling, then we take the dog into the bowling alley. If we have a very active dog, we're not going to place them with someone who sits at home all the time. We want to make sure upfront we won't have to take the dog back."
Who can benefit from a hearing dog?
Because hearing loss affects the ability to communicate, hearing-impaired individuals often experience loneliness, isolation, depression and frustration. Untreated hearing loss can also negatively affect emotional stability, an overall sense of control and participation in social activities.
"One of the biggest things a hearing dog can give someone is confidence and a sense of security that they don't have otherwise," Gonzalez said.
Not everyone with hearing loss qualifies, however. “You must be severely to profoundly deaf or hard of hearing to qualify for one of our service dogs,” Nicole Tallman of Dogs for Better Lives explained. “We assist our clients in getting audiograms, which are then reviewed by our own audiologist.”
Where do the dogs come from?
According to Assistance Dogs International, hearing dogs come in all shapes, sizes and colors - and mainly from animal shelters. They need to be friendly and people-oriented, energetic, and ready to work as soon as a sound occurs. Some programs will train a hearing-impaired individual's pet dog to assist them as long as the dog has the right temperament and age. Because their purpose is to encourage independence, protective breeds don't work well for this assignment.
Most organizations that train for hearing assistance favor small to medium mixes of breeds such as terriers, poodles, Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, cocker spaniels and Lhasa apsos. Small to medium sized dogs are favored simply because that is the size that most of those seeking a hearing service dog request.
And what makes a good hearing assistive dog? Tallman said dogs must be friendly and approachable. In other words, a dog that hides at the back of the kennel would not be an ideal service dog candidate. The dog should also be food- or treat-motivated (i.e., willing to work for reward), comfortable in a public setting and be in good health. Energy level is also crucial, as the dogs have to be ready to work at any moment.
If you or someone you love might benefit from a hearing assistance dog, search for an organization in your community. If you can't find one by searching online, ask your family physician or audiologist. Each program has their own application, qualification process and associated fees. Many organizations which provide hearing assistance dogs are non-profit and may require only a refundable deposit and nominal application fee. A short training period for the human partner is usually required as well.
Before you reach out, make sure you are willing to commit to the responsibility of owning a dog and are patient enough to work with the dog as he learns to obey you. If you are, follow through. Not only can hearing assistance dogs provide a sense of security and confidence, they are also loyal, loving pets that will be companions for years to come.