Could a Hearing Dog Help You?

We Answer Your Questions about Hearing Dogs

By Carly Sygrove

For centuries, dogs have been known as “man's best friend,” offering companionship, loyalty, and love to their humans. But did you know that clever canines can also benefit the more than 10% of the population that has hearing loss?

HearingTracker set out to find out more about a special type of service dog known as a hearing dog (or signal dog). We spoke with representatives from International Hearing Dog, Inc.(IHDI), Paws with a Cause (PAWS), and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. One note upfront: Hearing dogs are free to those referred to as their partners; the expense is paid for through the kindness of individuals, corporations, and foundation grants.

What does a hearing dog do?

Living with hearing loss can be isolating and even dangerous at times. “A hearing dog provides independence, love, companionship, and emotional support, giving deaf people confidence to reconnect with their family, friends, and community, and embrace the life they want to lead,” explained Lorna Armstrong, spokesperson for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

The canines provide assistance in a variety of ways. They are more than a friendly presence. By responding to important sounds, these service animals enable people with hearing loss to be safer in their space and not miss out on meaningful interactions with others.

“Hearing Dogs help people with hearing loss by alerting them to key sounds in their environment, like a baby crying, an ambulance’s siren, a knock on the door, a name being called, or a phone ringing. They do this by pawing their client or nudging them with their nose,” Cara Birchmeier, Public Relations and Social Media Coordinator at PAWS, told HearingTracker. You can see how hearing dogs alert their partners in this video. Many hearing dogs wear service vests or an orange collar and/or leash.

How does a dog become a hearing dog? What training is involved?

A hearing dog's journey begins in volunteer foster homes where they are cared for and learn about life in a home environment. The dogs undergo daily sessions at training sites, in the home, in public spaces, and in work environments. This involves positive reward-based learning, which uses games, food, and praise to encourage and reinforce understanding for the dog. Through this training, the dogs practice obedience skills and learn to alert humans to sounds.

It’s equally important that the dogs learn how to interact socially. “Our volunteers and trainers spend time teaching our new recruits how to be calm with children, meet other animals, and relax around traffic and many other stimuli,” Armstrong told HearingTracker.

The training and foster care process varies by organization and individual dog, but it can take between eight months to two and a half years. Each organization works to reach their own as well international assistance-dog standards. This allows them to provide accreditation to their dogs and partners and ensure success.

Which breeds make the best hearing dogs?

Hearing dogs are selected in a variety of ways: Some are sought from purpose-bred programs and others from local rescues & shelters. Good breeds include Labradors, Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles, and Cockapoos.

Kendra Plaschko, Director of Development at IHDI explained, “For our hearing service dog program, we look for dogs that enjoy spending time with people, love learning new things, and are curious about the world around them while also being comfortable in public.”

Another angle on the selection process is provided by Birchmeier: “One of the things our trainers look for in hearing dogs is a high drive for toys or treats!”

The benefits of having a hearing dog

Let’s hear from some people who know first-hand how life-changing a partnership with a hearing dog can be:

Molly and Mater

Molly, who lost her hearing to spinal meningitis in early childhood, told HearingTracker that learning to live independently post-college was “a struggle with assistive technology that occasionally failed and was mostly cumbersome.”

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Molly with her hearing dog, Mater.

After learning about PAWS, Molly realized she wasn’t the only one in this situation and Mater entered her life. “Mater is the difference between foolishly burning my food and enjoying a nice meal because he can alert me to my timers. He also wakes me in the morning to either my child crying or my phone alarm…whichever comes first! Having a custom-trained assistance dog gives me the peace of mind I’ve never had before,” she explained.

Darwin and Crispy

Darwin, who received Crispy from IHDI, says his canine wears his work vest and goes everywhere with Darwin, letting people know, “this person is hearing impaired and cannot understand what all you say. Hearing loss is an invisible handicap, but Crispy makes it visible. People have become more considerate and patient.”

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Darwin and his hearing dog, Crispy

Gaynor, Indigo, and Velma

Gaynor’s first pooch, Indigo, from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People is now 11 years old and retired, having worked as Gaynor’s ears for nine years. Gaynor, who is a probation officer at a prison, recently welcomed Indigo’s successor, Velma who “has big paws to follow!”

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Gaynor with her hearing dogs, Indigo and Velma

“Before Indigo retired, he made a very special difference as a hearing dog working in the criminal justice system. Those who have been convicted of a crime sometimes feel marginalized and judged by society. Seeing me, a professional who has a disability, enables them to be more open about their own struggles,” Gaynor told HearingTracker. She added that she used to be embarrassed about her deafness, but now, with Indigo and Velma by her side, “I am proud of being deaf. It’s part of my identity.”

How does a person qualify to receive a hearing dog?

While the criteria differ slightly across organizations, to qualify for a hearing dog, you usually need to be age 18 or older, have bilateral hearing loss (usually severe to profound), and be able to provide care and exercise for a hearing dog. Also, perhaps most importantly, you must like dogs!

To find out more, contact these organizations, and know that waiting lists for hearing dogs are not uncommon:

IHDI is located in Colorado and currently places hearing dogs with partners in all 50 states and Canada. Their ‘contact me’ applicant form can be found here.

PAWS, headquartered in Michigan, has a network of field representatives who provide services in dozens of states. For more information, visit their website qualification page.

For those in the UK, there’s Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. To find out more about their hearing-dog partnerships, visit their application page.

Another route: Search for organizations and/or hearing dog trainers that might meet your needs at Assistance Dogs International.