As part of Freshers’ Week 2017, the Union organised for hearing dogs to visit the Redbrick and for students to be allowed to have a sit down with some gorgeous and intelligent canines. As a dog lover (understatement of the century), I was interested to do more than simply sit and admire these dogs, I wanted to find out more about how they are brought up and what they are taught in their lifetimes.
The charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People visited the Redbrick on Thursday 28th September of Freshers’ Week and I was struck by how such adorable animals could be so clever and have the potential to save lives. When I stopped looking at these gorgeous puppies and pulled myself together before I started weeping, I actually found out some information about these incredible dogs!
Let’s start at the beginning: about 90% of these dogs are often bred for the purpose of becoming assistance dogs for the deaf. It is quite common that assistance dogs, either guide dogs or dogs for the deaf, are used to breed puppies who are then trained to become hearing dogs also and follow in their parents’ footsteps… or paw steps. The process of training a hearing dog takes between 18-20 months, starting when a puppy is 7-8 weeks old. To train one puppy as a hearing dog, including their aftercare, costs the charity £40,000. Of course, this figure is ginormous, however, these dogs are so clever that it would make sense that they need an incredible amount of high-quality support and training and this all adds up.
Every year, new students begin the training for their lives as hearing dogs and there are four main steps that they must go through. For these stages, the puppies stay with a variety of owners from individuals to families to improve their social skills which also explains their visits to the university. The puppies live with volunteers in their first year and they are introduced to new places and faces which causes them to become familiar with various situations that occur on a daily basis from the pub to an open road.
When the dogs visit the university, they meet hundreds of students eager to stroke a dog as they’re likely to be missing their own at home. A small dog like Hope (photographed above) can find this meeting hugely daunting. She must then be taught basic obedience such as ‘wait’, ‘lie down’ and how to heel on the lead without bolting off at the first sight of a squirrel. As a hearing dog, it is important to be familiarised with all kinds of noises so there are none that cause them discomfort or fear. When the alarm clock sounds in the morning, the dog should know that it is time to wake up their owner or what the difference is when the doorbell sounds for example.
The abilities of a hearing dog include being able to tell their owner if the phone rings, if the microwave beeps, if a smoke or fire alarm sounds. We often think of these examples when we think of a trained hearing dog’s talents. However, we often forget how vulnerable and isolated being deaf can cause an individual to become. They are unable to hear if a car beeps at them if they are crossing the road so they miss out on this warning. They are unable to call others in their own home so their hearing dog can respond to the command ‘Go find daughter/name’ and they will know which human to go and get the attention of.
The final step of training is to find the perfect match of owner and hearing dog. This match is tricky and is done carefully through a series of bonding sessions to see if a relationship forms between man and dog. Not only does the dog act as an assistant for a deaf person, but they are also a companion. Being deaf can be extremely isolating so to have a constant, loyal friend is invaluable.