About Deaf Awareness Month
September is also an important month for the Deaf community: It is Deaf Awareness Month. The purpose of this month is to increase knowledge and awareness about the Deaf and hard of hearing community, hearing loss, and Deaf culture.
Hearing loss is unique and different for each individual. Some people with hearing loss can hear only certain frequencies, or can only hear out of one ear, while others have no hearing at all.
Some people with hearing loss use adaptive devices such as cochlear implants or hearing aids. And some people benefit from the support of a hearing alert dog.
Hearing Alert Dogs
A hearing alert dog is a type of service dog that has been specially trained to differentiate sounds and react appropriately. Here are some tasks a hearing alert dog might be trained to do:
- Alert their person to the sound of an alarm by pawing or nosing them
- Bringing their person to the source of the sound
- Alerting their person to someone approaching behind them
- Alert their person to name being called and bring them to person calling them
Watch Atlas Certified Trainer Shelly as she trains a future hearing alert dog. In this video, the dog is learning to alert her when he hears a fire alarm. A bit more practicing and he will be perfect!
Please be advised, there are sharp fire alarm sounds. These may be difficult for people with sensory disabilities or sound sensitivities.
We typically do not train dogs to bring their handler back to the source of a fire alarm, as this may be dangerous (there may be an actual fire or gas leak). In this specific case, the handler has a portable alarm which is why this dog is being trained to bring the handler back to the source.
Atlas Hearing Alert Team: Beth and Harvey
To learn more about hearing alert dogs, we spoke to Atlas client Beth. Beth has been training her dog Harvey to become her hearing alert dog.
“I have hearing loss on my right side and tinnitus which is pretty extreme (and) sometimes affects the clarity in my left ear,” she said. “It’s not really fun. (I am) hypersensitive in my ear… And avoid loud crowds, concerts, movie theaters, big box stores. I would get dizzy and disoriented. I trained horses for 35 years and I’m not as comfortable being in the barn anymore.”
Beth explained that there are several common misconceptions about hearing loss, whether or not someone has an assistance dog
“It’s more about clarity than about volume,” she said, explaining a misconception that speaking louder benefits a person with hearing loss. “You don’t have to yell at (someone). It’s a matter of being focused on the person. If you (talk to) a person with hearing loss, you need to look at them and focus on them.”
“You can compensate pretty well by reading lips and being aware of the environment. I watch my dog all the time to see what they hear. I wish people didn’t assume I was totally normal. (They think) I don’t have hearing loss and will talk really fast.”
Understanding the Role of Service Dogs
Because Beth’s hearing loss is not outwardly visible, some people do not understand why she has a service dog. Educating the public on the importance of service dogs — and the wide range of jobs they have — is essential to improving accessibility for everyone.
“People don’t respect why I need a service dog because it’s invisible. I think the general public should just have compassion,” she said. “I have grown to that place where I notice if someone has a service dog (but) I don’t look for their disability. It doesn’t really matter. There is a purpose.”
When a bystander asks to pet her dog, Beth will first try to let them know that he is a service dog and is currently at work.
“If someone doesn’t get it, I will disengage and walk away,” she said. “If I can release the dog from work at the time I will and let him play with kids.”
Training a Hearing Alert Dog
Beth worked with the Atlas team to train her hearing assistance dog Harvey. Harvey is 3 year old Havanese. A key task that he performs is “Watch”. Harvey will alert Beth to someone coming toward her, especially from the side or behind her. This helps Beth stay safe and aware of her surroundings. Despite having ample experience training horses, the process of training her dog was unique.
“I didn’t expect it would be so specific,” she said. “It was a little baffling…how careful you have to be. Because dogs are very sensitive to us as people — they hear and feel so much we think they do.”
The Atlas training process brought Beth and her dog together and solidified their bond as a team.
“I thought it was going to be easy. I didn’t realize the kind of relationship you have to have with your dog,” she said. “They are really like a piece of your person.”
“I wish I (had known) how heart rendering it is to do this kind of work with your dog. He is my other little human, yet you have to be careful how quickly they can get over threshold with something, so you can help them grow,” she said. “It really has changed my perspective on how we should and can relate to animals to improve their world.”
During training, she relied upon her best friend, a dog and horse trainer, for additional support. Beth emphasized that patience is important for everyone involved in assistance dog training — canines and people alike.
“I think the expectation is that when I say ‘come’ (the dog) should just come. Developing the patience around learning and making it appealing and fun for them (is important),” she said. “The other piece of it is when you become involved in a program, you want to get an A. You work really hard and get intense and it works better if it’s a little more lighthearted — make it playful and educational.”
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers.
Authors: Emily Gertenbach and Molly Neher