In the UK there are over 30 charities raising money for dogs of some kind, from charities that train and home service dogs, to charities that rescue dogs from abusive homes and re-homing them in a loving environment. But it’s not just humans that help dogs have a better life but there are also thousands of dogs out there that hugely benefit people's lives too. There are many types of service dogs from your well known guide dogs to dogs that help with medical issues such as looking out for insulin levels or protecting and finding help for someone having a seizer. There are also dogs that are used not just for physical benefits but also mental, dogs are sometimes used for people with autism to provide emotional support and companionship. also they are used for people with depression and anxiety as petting an animal is known to release endorphins which brings great positivity to those in dark places.
Although many people are aware of these service dogs and how much of an impact they can have on one's life, I amongst many others are not familiar with how they are trained up to this point and what the dogs day to day life involves before they are re-homed to someone who needs their support and expertise. I have got in touch with a hearing dogs trainer and shadowed them together and spoken to her about what it is that she does to train these dogs to be suitable to for live as a hearing dog.
The charity that I have been in contact with to gather the information for this article is hearing dogs for deaf people. This charity have 2 training centers in the UK, one in East Yorkshire and the second in Buckinghamshire, not far from where I live. ‘Hearing Dogs for Deaf People was launched in 1982, at Crufts dog show’1, the charity started off with 3 members of staff and has grown into a huge charity helping thousands of deaf people round the uk. The main breeds they train are Labradors, Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, Golden Retrievers and cross breeds like Cockapoos, Wispa, the dog I will be photographing, is a cocker spaniel. These certain breeds are used as they have been shown to have the best success rates in the role and are the most suited to the charities recipients.
Hearing dogs can provide different support for different owners. The main intention of a hearing dog is to provide awareness to deaf or hard of hearing people of sounds that they would otherwise be unaware of. This may be sounds within the household, however they can also be trained to respond to sounds at work or in public areas as well, this training will vary on the recipient's day to day tasks outings and profession. However for many people a hearing dog main purpose isn’t to alert them of sounds around the house that they may not hear, but to provide them with a sense of companionship and confidence, and a way to feel safe in public places when they may feel completely isolated. This can often be the case in people who lose their hearing later on in life as they quite often get shut out of social situations which isn’t something they grew up accustomed to. Since its ‘launch in 1982 it has since placed over 1,000 hearing dogs trained to alert deaf people to sounds in their homes and workplaces throughout the UK.
Training a hearing dog starts when a puppy is just a few weeks old. The charity has its own breeding scheme which produces the right amount of puppies that they will be needing. Once the puppies are 8 weeks old they start their training and go to stay with a volunteer who will look after them and take them to weekly classes to teach them basic training where they learn commands like ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and ‘down’. They also visit towns, go on trains and learn to settle in cafes so they become familiar with things they’ll do as a hearing dog, this carries on until they are about 16 weeks old.
Once they get to this age they start school at Hearing Dogs HQ where they are put into specialised training that focuses on alerting them to sounds that their deaf recipient will miss. depending on the recipient that they will go to the dog will be trained for different sounds but the main ones include sounds such as the doorbell ,fire alarm and alarm clock. Each trainer is given about 4 dogs to train at each one time, and their training lasts about 4 to 6 months, this can occasionally vary if the dog has issues with any of their field testing, this can be from something little such as being afraid of a hoover to something big such as being afraid of children, or being resilient to respond to any sounds around them. Training takes time to get properly grooved into the dog's behavior. For example for a while wispa had a tendency to bark in very busy noisy cafes but after a few more training session she was better at keeping calm. It’s very rare that a dog doesn't make it to some level that they could be of some use to the charity, the year of 2015, only 4 dogs were rehomed as normal pets due to them not making it as a hearing dog, where as about 140 dogs were homed as hearing dogs. ‘At the moment there are currently over 900 hearing dog partnerships over the uk’3 ‘From the beginning when the charity first started to 2015 there were 2,091 partnerships, however with over 800,000 partially to fully deaf people over the uk the demand for hearing dogs is huge, yet the charity does its best to help as many recipients as it can’4
Each recipient will have their hearing dog for around 10 years, sometimes more something less. Although they often live longer than this after 10 years the dog will begin to lose its ability to perform the tasks it has been trained to do as well as they could when they were younger This is because many dogs will lose its energy as it gets older and it will also often begin to lose its hearing and sometimes sight so it wont hear all the sounds that it needs to or won't be able to react accordingly or as quickly as needs be. Once the dog gets to this point the recipient is given a new hearing dog. Most recipients tend to keep their older dog as just a pet as once they get to this point they have formed a strong bond with their dog and don't want to let go of it, so that dog is left to grow old without having to perform the tasks of a hearing odg as they will have a younger dog to do that job. ‘It costs the charity £25,000 to create the partnership between the hearing dog and their recipient, and then £15,000 for the ongoing support after its training making the total cost of a hearing dog over its lifetime about £40,000.’5
At the centre the style of training they favour is positive enforcement so they try not to punish for bad little habits but praise for success. This is a very effective method of training that encourages good behaviour that the trainers want out of the puppy, this is emphasised by rewarding a puppy when they get something right. The reward will vary from treats to toys to cuddles and praise, anything that will make the dog happy and excited. However is the dog makes a mistake or shows signs of unwanted behaviour then they are ignored. The dog is never punished for unwanted behaviour as studies have found that this can sometimes lead to dogs avoiding certain tasks out of fear of performing them incorrectly, whereas this method creates trust between trainer and dog, it allows the dog to think of tasks in a positive way. This positive reinforcement encourages them to behave in the correct manner and it also makes training more of a fun game like activity for the dog rather than work.
Each dog only has 40 minutes of training a day, this is So they stay engaged and able to concentrate while having fun and learning. Wispas treat is 5 minutes with her kong toy, however in between exercises she also get treats. There are times when wispa is required to do more than one thing in her exercises and stopping part way through to reward her with a treat is not convenient. In this situation, wispas trainer has got a device which makes a click sound, Wispa links this sound with her behaviour and knows that if she hears the click that she is doing well, she also knows that is she carries on with the behaviour that she will get a treat at the end of it.
There are many sounds and commands that a hearing dog can be trained to respond to accordingly. Somethings may vary depending on the recipient's situation and needs, however the standard sounds that every hearing dog is initially trained to listen out for are, alarms for things such as alarm clocks and food timer, doorbell, phone and fire alarms. All these sounds apart from the fire alarm and the morning wispa is trained to react the same way to. What wispa does when she hears a sound is she listens to what it is, then she will go and notify her recipient by nudging them, and them lead them to the sound that they heard and sit down in front of it until the recipient rewards her and attends to the sound. With the morning alarm the dogs are trained to either pop their front legs on the bed to wake them up or jump up and lie on the recipient, this usually depends on how big the dog is and who the recipient is. However when she hears the sounds of a smoke alarm instead of leading her recipient to the sound she will lie flat on the ground, this is to avoid both wispa and her recipient being lead towards potential danger. Dependant on the size of the dog will depend on how the alert the recipient to the sound, the smaller dogs such as wispa will place their paws upon the recipient lap/leg, however the larger dogs will just nudge the recipient to avoid knocking over a possible elderly or startled recipient.
Hearing dogs are also trained to respond to specific hand gestures and words for commands. For instance raising of your hand means sit down then lowering it means lie down. These simple commands are often learnt with the puppy socialisers before they even get to their daily training at the centre. Words such as hurry up are used to tell the dogs to quickly pee and poo, and more simple commands such as stay are also used. Not many word commands are used though as some deaf recipients will be unable to talk very well or will be unable to communicate words in an understandable clear way for the dog to understand.
The trainers will train the hearing dogs to behave accordingly in public as well as in the home. This means that they will take them out of local towns, pubs, shops. They will also take them on public transport such as buses, trains and sometimes the underground if they deem this necessary for the recipients lifestyle. In these situations the dog will have to be trained to behave well and react to certain sounds. Sounds such as fire alarms in shops or cars when crossing the road. They will also have to be trained against temptation, when in shops they will have to sit down accordingly and stick by the recipients side and not get overwhelmed by all the smells, sounds and colours around them. When in cafes or pubs etc they will also have to learn to settle down and not cause disturbance to other customers by barking or interrupting people. This is even more crucial for recipients who might have to use the tube/buses to get to work as the dog will have to be confident to behave around huge groups of people.
Throughout their training each hearing dog goes through a number of assessments to ensure that they are fit to be put into the environment that the recipient requires. There are a number of things that hearing dogs are tested on. The things that they will be tested on is their response to certain sounds in the training house. The dogs won't just be given a pass or fail for these tests, they are graded 1 to 5. 1 is no response. 2 is dog did work but needed help. If they get more than 3 twos they fail. Over an hour the tester sets off 8 sounds (some are repeated). The dog gets assessed on each one. If the dog fails they will receive more training and get tested at a later date, it is rare that the dog will be deemed unsuited for any recipients home. They also have assessments to grade their responses on recall, town behaviour, obedience, settling, behaviour with dogs and people. The other assessments aren’t quite as important as the grading in their sound work as if the dog has certain issues with public places or struggle settling etc they will be homed to someone who would rarely need hearing dog out in public or someone who lives in a quiet village with few people. Once they have passed the tests they need to and once the trainer has decided which recipient the dog will be best for the trainer will start training the dog in certain areas to suit the recipient's needs. For instance in the recipient takes the train often they will take them on frequent train trips, or if the recipient has children or animals they will frequently introduce them to animals and kids. This is to get the dog familiar with these situations to make sure that they are fully suited for their new home.
Wispa did quite well in her assessments, she passed her soundwork first time along with everything else except for her social assessment which she had to retake as she barked in a coffee shop, this however has not affected her and she has still gone on to become a fully trained hearing dog. She will be leaving to live with her new owner in a matter of weeks now.
Once the trainer has decided upon the recipient who will be best matched for the dog a meet will be planned. If both the recipient and the dog seem happy with one another the trainer will continue training them to their needs focusing on certain sounds and situations that will be essential in their day to day life. After a month the recipient will stay at the hearing dog centre for a week of bonding with the dog before they are rehomed. This is to tailor the recipient to the dogs needs and commands and to allow the dog to become comfortable with its new owner. Throughout that week the trainer will show the recipient certain commands and praises that will be needed to keep the dog enthusiastic about its sound work training. After that week the new owner will take the dog home for the weekend unsupervised to allow the dog to settle in its new home and become comfortable with its surroundings. After this weekend the trainer will visit for a few days to help them both settle, by taking them both out for local walks and to local towns and familiarising each other with sounds and situations that they will be dealing with. After this is all finished the recipient will get occasional visits and updates and will have to give feedback as to how the dog is doing but other than that the dog will stay with its new recipient furthermore to help them with day to day life difficulties.