Deafness can be a socially crippling handicap. A hearing aid with a cold, wet nose can often help bring down the wall of silence. By Ori Golan.
As soon as Reaver, the chocolate brown Labrador, hears the door bell ring, he runs to Andy, to inform him that there is someone at the door. He does this by placing his paw on Andy's knee and then leading him to the front door. In a few weeks’ time, Reaver will complete his training and qualify as a hearing dog, thereby joining the 469-strong team of working dogs who have already been trained to assist deaf people across Great Britain.
The British-based Hearing Dogs for the Deaf project was set up 15 years ago with the aim of training dogs to assist deaf people in their everyday lives. Claire Paine, the Association's public relations officer, says that for many deaf people, hearing dogs are not only companions, but a bridge to the outside world. "Deafness is often a socially crippling handicap; many become deaf at a later stage in life and experience a severe sense of isolation and loneliness."
"You have to understand the practical hazards of deafness; not only are deaf people cut off from sounds which we, the hearing public, take for granted, such as a knock on the door or a ringing telephone, but they are unable to pick up on such audible danger signals as a fire alarm or a cry for help. Unlike blindness, theirs is an invisible - but very real - disability. While you can usually recognise a blind person in the street, deaf people are not immediately recognisable; many deaf people conceal their hearing aids and some don't wear any, which renders their handicap undetectable. However, the difficulties which they encounter on a daily basis are varied and the perils of deafness are numerous. Often, being deaf also means being blind to certain dangers. For example, if a deaf person crosses the road and a wailing ambulance races by, unless that person looks in the right direction, he or she will not be alerted to the danger of crossing the road. Many, on becoming deaf, remain at home, become introverted and lead a very limited life." This is where, and why, hearing dogs come in.
Set in the heart of Oxfordshire, outside the pastoral village of Kingston Blount, the Hearing Dogs for the Deaf Training Centre is home to 30 potential hearing dogs, as well as the ground where the dogs are trained. Over a four months period, those dogs which have successfully passed the initial socialising stage, will go through rigorous training to respond to common sounds such as the buzz of an alarm-clock, a ringing door bell, or the "ping" of a micro-wave oven. On hearing these sounds they’ll make their way to their deaf owner and attract his or her attention by placing their paw on their knee and bringing them to the source of the sound. The only exception to this sequence is the sound of a fire alarm to which the dog must respond swiftly by finding its owner and then lying down. "In the case of a fire alarm going off", explains Paine, "we obviously do not want the dog to lead the deaf person into an area where a fire might have broken out. Therefore, it is essential that the dog recognise the distinct sound of a fire alarm and warn its owner."
Unlike guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs are trained individually to suit the specific needs of the deaf recipient. The aim is to accustom the dogs to the specific sounds that they will hear once they are paired off with their deaf owner. To this end, the dogs are trained in a purpose-built training house which is simulated to the one they will eventually live in. Andy Cook has been training hearing dogs for the centre for the past ten years.
"Once we know who the recipient is, we try and find out as much as possible about his or her living surrounding in order to train the dogs to react to sounds they are likely to hear in their future home. For instance, we will install a telephone with a matching ringing tone to the one in the deaf recipient's home, or a door bell with a similar ringing tone. This will maximise the team work once the two - dog and owner - leave the centre, and allow the dog to recognise the noises immediately. We also take into account the personal circumstances of the recipient. So, if she, or he, is a parent of a young infant, we would train the dog to recognise a baby's crying sounds and alert its owner as soon as it hears these sounds". The match-making, says Andy, is also an important part of the training and much care is taken so that dog and owner will be compatible and able to form a close bonding. At the end of the training period, and once it appears that the dog is ready, its prospective owner is called up to centre for a five-day joint training period. "Basically", stresses Andy, "the five day joint-training is intended to show the deaf person what the dog can do and how to work together as a team."
For the most part, hearing dogs come from rescue centres, such as the Blue Cross, or are offered by members of the public. This is another departure from the policies of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association which breeds its own dogs. "The requirements and needs of a deaf person differ markedly from that of a blind person", explains Andy. "Whereas guide dogs need to satisfy quite strict physical criteria in order to lead a blind person safely, such as height and sturdiness, hearing dogs do not require to physically guide their owners and their work involves primarily leading the deaf person to the source of a sound. Therefore, they can come in all shapes and sizes". And they certainly do.
The kennels of the Hearing Dogs for the Deaf is populated by a veritable hotchpotch of canines; Poodles, Terriers, cross-breeds and the undefineables. As Paine points out, deaf people often suffer from a balance disorder and prefer a small dog which would not knock them over when calling for their attention. That is why the majority of hearing dogs are small - sometimes very small - to medium in size. Like otehr assistance dogs, hearing dogs wear a special jacket when "on the job", so getting a jacket that would fit a toy dog necessitated special arrangements. "We had to get the manufacturer of these jackets to expand his range of sizes", recalls Paine, "He now also makes small, and extra-small, sizes to accommodate our pocket size hearing dogs!"
In the course of the interview, Andy sets off a number of sounds so as to demonstrate the training which Reaver is currently undergoing. Using a specially designed telephone time-switch, he makes the telephone ring in the adjacent room, as we are talking. Reaver, on hearing the telephone ring, immediately responds by running to Andy and stretching his paw on his knee. Andy ignores him, but Reaver persists, barking and pawing him more vigorously. "He knows that his job is not done until he actually leads me to the telephone" says Andy as he finally allows Reaver to lead him to the telephone. Andy picks up the receiver and then praises the wagging Labrador. "We tell the deaf recipient that even when there is no apparent reason for their dog's call, they must trust their dog's instinct and follow when called. This can be rather tedious at times, especially if the telephone rings when the person is in the bath. In one case the dog was so persistent that it actually jumped into its owner's bath tab to alert her that there was someone at the door. Drenched, and clad in a bath towel, she ran to the door, only to find that it was a passing salesman."
It is important to remember, stresses Paine, that, other than, and on top of, the initial independence and safety which a hearing dog provides a deaf person, there are many extra dividends for both dog and owner. "These dogs, who too often come to us with a sad tale of abandonment and neglect, provide their deaf owners with companionship, mobility and a boost of self-confidence." According to her, hearing dogs owners often launch into an active life with their newly found independence. Many become active fund-raisers for the Centre, which exists solely on the public's generosity, and others tour the country giving talks about their hearing dog and campaigning for the deaf awareness. "It is this transformation", she enthuses, "which makes all the work worth while".
According to Anthony Blunt, director general of Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, the project has been a tremendous success and is as these dogs are sipping into public awareness, more and more deaf people are showing interest in becoming a recipient of a hearing dog. "The project" says Blunt, "has now reached the stage where, with the ever-increasing demand for hearing dogs, we must expand our premises."
The increase in demand has been partially answered by the inauguration of a new Hearing Dogs for the Deaf Centre in Cliffe, North Yorkshire, and currently, funds are sought to set up a third centre, this one in Chilterns, with the long-term aim of relocating the Association's headquarters there. The project receives no government funds and, as Paine points out, the centre depends on the generosity of the general public. Training a hearing dog from start to finish runs in the region of £2,500 to train. The recipients receive the dogs at no charge.
Currently, the Hearing Dogs for the Deaf Association is engaged in a campaign to bring hearing dogs into public cognisance and to bring them in par with guide dogs, securing them access to public places, thereby allowing deaf people a greater degree of independence. "As the number of these dogs increases," stresses Paine, "so does public awareness and there is an increasing number of public places are adopting a receptive attitude to them and allowing them into their premises. Hearing dogs are already allowed free travel on London Transport, British Rail, and British Airways flights. Ideally, we would like the "No dogs except Guide Dogs" sign to be replaced by a new logo which will accommodate all "Assistance Dogs" and allow them access into public places, including theatres, supermarkets and restaurants. Marks & Spencer is the first large-scale commercial store to incorporate the Assistance Dogs logo in its stores, but I am sure it will spread."
Isabelle Foulkes is the young owner of Hiro, a hearing dog of mixed breed. "Hiro entered my life like a whirl-wind" attests the young woman through the intermediary of sign- language translator. "You cannot even begin to imagine what a change he has brought to my life. There are no words to describe it."
"As deafness is invisible, having Hiro has helped tremendously; Firstly, since he wears his yellow jacket, people realise that I am deaf and speak to me more clearly and are generally more patient. If I am in a train station and there are public announcements made regarding changes in train times, there is usually someone who would approach me to let me know. These are little things which can make a tremendous difference. Hiro also notices things that I would normally miss and I can pick up from his body language if there is someone outside, which makes me feel more secure at home, especially when I am on my own." She looks at her four-legged companion and then suddenly picks up again, as an after-thought; "But you see, even these examples are just a tiny indication of how my life has been transformed thanks to Hiro. I could never tell the whole story", she says, smiling. Hiro, on hearing his name, pricks up his ears and barks furiously.