By Tara Mitrovic
Hearing dogs are trained to support hard of hearing and deaf individuals by alerting them to sounds their handler cannot hear such as alarms, door knocking, doorbells, oven timers, handler’s name being called, approaching cars or people, and crying babies. Training is customizable such that alerts can differ for each sound. For example, a hearing dog might respond to a doorbell alert by poking the handler with its nose and leading handler to door. If the phone rings, the dog could slap the handler with a paw and lead handler to the phone. Name call recognition could involve the dog spinning on the spot.
Getting a hearing dog is not easy. In Canada, there are only two “program trained” service dog providers: PADS in BC and Lions Club in Ontario. There is a 2+ year wait for a program dog and so you must be patient! Another option is owner training (made easier with the assistance of a private trainer). You need solid dog training skills, great patience and must know a bit about what you need your dog to help you with. Alternatively, you could pay a private trainer to train a dog for you; however, the general price range for this is $5000 -$10000+, which does not include the cost of the dog!
While having a hearing dog to support your needs is great, you have responsibilities to care for the dog just as any normal dog. They must be fed and watered and given bathroom breaks, mental stimulation, and affection. You must constantly upkeep your hearing dog’s training weekly – if not daily – or your hearing dog will lose its skills, and require retraining.
In public, using a service dog automatically brings undesired attention, but they are staring at the dog, not you! Service dog rules and regulations are not identical in each province of Canada; however, persons with disabilities and their accommodation needs are protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter. Regardless of how the dog was trained, there is ignorance, discrimination, and access issues that arise from time to time. The handler must always be prepared to advocate for themselves, educate others, and stand up for their rights. When service dog teams are out in public they are constantly exposed to poorly behaved humans. These humans distract working service dogs by whistling and making gestures to attract the dog’s attention. Some also walk up to the dog, pet it without consent, and then walk away. These behaviours put the service dog user at risk as it distracts the dog from their job.
Hearing dogs are unlike any other service dog: 80% of selected hearing dogs fail to complete their training. The complex mix of a high working drive and correct temperament requires a highly motivated and energetic dog that is calm and obedient for public accessibility. Typical service dog breeds are not always a sure bet either, so each dog needs to be assessed on an individual basis at multiple stages during its training to ensure the dog is the correct fit for the job. Hearing dogs come in all shapes and sizes from a tiny Chihuahua to a massive Great Dane!