Soon after I brought my hearing dog home from Canine Companions for Independence, we were walking in the neighborhood and ran into a friend who couldn’t contain her curiosity about my four-legged sidekick.
“So, what exactly does she do for you?” my friend asked, a hint of skepticism in her voice, upon meeting Gita.
Obviously, no dog can speak or translate conversations, much less cure deafness. What Gita can do, though, is alert me to sounds in my environment. Sounds such as an alarm clock, an oven timer, the doorbell or the ring of my phone.
Some hearing dogs may alert their human to more than a dozen different sounds, while others may alert to only four or five sounds, depending on their human’s individual needs.
Gita alerts me to specific sounds by nudging me with her nose, usually on my leg. When she gets my attention, I ask her “What?” Then, assuming all goes according to plan, she leads me to the sound source, and I reward her efforts with praise.
Training a hearing dog to alert to specific sounds is usually straightforward. But some sounds present special challenges. For instance, a priority for me is to have Gita wake me up in the middle of the night if our smoke alarm goes off. But she can’t lead me to the ceiling. And I certainly wouldn’t want her to run to the smoke alarm if a fire burned underneath it, say in the kitchen. The solution to this dilemma is to train her to nudge me until she has my attention, then when I ask “What?” she must lie at my feet, which is code for “the smoke alarm is sounding.”
Alerting me to sounds is Gita’s specialty. But – like all legitimate service dogs – she also bolsters her handler’s self-confidence and serves as a bridge to the wider world.
Gita may not be able to converse, but she sparks many a conversation, creating opportunities for me to tell people what it’s like to have hearing loss.
The bright orange leash I use when walking Gita in public signifies that she’s a trained hearing dog. But hardly anyone knows that, so I’ve sewn a patch on her service vest that says Hearing Dog.
I want people to know Gita’s service specialty because one of the biggest challenges for me is that deafness is invisible. People can’t accommodate a disability they don’t know about, and people typically don’t notice either my hearing aid or my cochlear-implant processor, because my hair covers both. But everyone notices my beautiful retriever! Especially when she’s wearing her service dog vest. In public, Gita is the beacon that telegraphs my hearing loss.
Seeing her vest, people realize that if they are standing 15 feet away from me, or behind me, where I can’t see their face, I’m probably not going to understand what they are saying. I may not even realize they are talking to me. If I’m in a restaurant, a server who sees her vest just might step a little closer or enunciate more clearly in describing the soup of the day.
In addition to formally alerting me to specific sounds, Gita is a natural early-warning system. I know when something’s up just by paying attention to her body language. If she jumps up from her bed and trots into the laundry room with her ears perked, I can be pretty sure my husband’s car has just pulled into the garage. Gita’s reactions are particularly valuable when I hear something – say a siren – but have no clue where it’s coming from. A glance at Gita and the mystery is solved.
For more information on service dog organizations, check out Assistance Dogs International. When working with any animal-related training organization, it is always important to research their training philosophy, so you know they follow force-free and Fear Free training techniques.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.