Note from Gael: This week, I am pleased to welcome Denise Portis as my guest author to write about life with hearing dogs.
I have many friends with hearing dogs and I’ve always been fascinated by their accessible way of life. I have asked Denise to share her experiences, rather than to write about her and Chloe – because my objectivity is limited. I’m an avowed ‘cat person’ and my first experience with a hearing dog was, to put it politely, interesting.
In 2001, I was in North Carolina speaking to two chapters of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH,now the Hearing Loss Association of America) and was the house guest of beloved SHHH members Ed and Mimi Clifford. Mimi had recently obtained Trixie, a young hearing dog so feisty that wanted to ask Mimi if she was sure the pooch had actually graduated from hearing dog school. Trixie ignored doorbells, yet howled at ants. Mimi and Ed had to carry her to the car, otherwise she wouldn’t get in.
I’m told that Trixie, although adorable, was not representative of all hearing dogs.
I was matched with Chloe, from Fidos For Freedom, Inc., in 2007. I am often approached by people with hearing loss and asked if I think a hearing assistance dog would be right for them. When I know people are seriously considering a service animal, I caution them not to make a hasty decision. As I am asked so frequently, I have come up with 6 considerations.
1. Dogs are DOGS.
A hearing assistance animal is not plugged into an electrical outlet, nor does it require batteries. These animals do, however, require vet care, food and water, regular exercise, and stimulating adventures. If you get a “program” dog they don’t keep their skills unless you practice them. When you get home from work and take the vest off, you will still have an extremely bonded canine in your shadow as you unwind for the evening.
2. Assistance dogs attract attention.
If you are quiet and like living an unobtrusive life, a working dog is not for you. When you walk in the park, you look like every other dog owner even if your dog is wearing a vest. However, when you walk into a store, restaurant, theater, or airport with a dog, you will attract a great deal of attention. My family with “normal” hearing tell me that “Look, there’s a dog!” is a common exclamation.
3. Be bold and know the law.
Thankfully it does not happen very often, but at some point in your working partnership you will experience access issues. You need to know the law and how the ADA protects your rights as an individual that mitigates their disability with a service dog  . Guide dogs have been around a long time. Hearing dogs… not so much! You must prepare for and be ready to educate employees who have never seen other types of service animals.
4. Outings require planning.
I was so glad when my kids were old enough that I no longer had to carry a diaper bag with me. Now that I have an assistance dog, I sometimes feel like I have to carry a “doggie care kit” – much like a diaper bag. Clean up bags, pamphlets about the ADA laws and information about the program from which Chloe comes, collapsible bowl for a quick drink if needed, doggie treats for rewards, and service dog vest come along on every trip.
5. No turn-off button.
Hearing dogs are usually trained to also retrieve dropped items. Chloe has alerted me and retrieved dropped car keys in the parking lot a number of times. She retrieved a dropped credit card for me at Wal-mart. However, she also brings me things all day long that she found on the floor. I have to treat each retrieve like it was a fantastic find! She is also my alarm clock. Chloe has no snooze button… I checked. When you have a living, breathing, feeling, helper you can’t just turn them off because you are tired of paying attention to them.
6. Not a fashion statement.
If you think having a canine partner with you will help you win friends and influence people, you are looking at this all wrong. Hearing assistance dogs are working dogs and their JOB is to assist you. Most service dog vests instruct the public not to interact, pet, or distract your dog. The dog must keep their attention on you, not a fan club.
My children are both young adults now. It was important to me to have a way of being independent of any one person’s help, as I knew I would eventually not have “my little helpers” at home. This prompted me to look into organizations that train hearing assistance dogs. As I have a balance disorder (Meniere’s) as well, Chloe also does directed retrieves, stand/brace, and assists on stairs. For me, having a canine partner meant I could go back to school and eventually work thanks to my new-found confidence and ability to “hear” what Chloe alerted me to notice.
There are many wonderful programs that train assistance dogs. A list of area programs may be viewed at Assistance Dogs International. Numerous individuals also choose to owner-train a hearing assistance dog and may enlist the help of an local trainer. I was a “rookie” at dog training and felt much more at ease in putting my confidence in an organization that trains these special dogs – and clients!
I am more independent, safe, and aware of the world because of Chloe. She hears things I don’t hear, retrieves items I do not even know I’ve dropped, and helps me on those “bad balance” days. I have no regrets and cannot imagine life without my partner. However, hearing assistance dogs are not the right choice for everyone. Consider all the changes it may mean to you and your family. You may discover that all the possible changes are GOOD. In that event… go for it!
Denise Portis is the founder of Hearing Elmo, a 9-year-old blog about hearing loss, disabilities, and service animals. Numerous guest writers have shared information about invisible illnesses, disabilities, and deafness. Denise lost her hearing at 25-years-old and received a cochlear implant in 2005. Denise has a MS in Psychology and teaches for a local community college in Annapolis, MD. She and her family are active in their community with organizations that advocate and serve hearing loss populations as well as service dog organizations. You can reach Denise at email@example.com
- In Canada, all provinces have adopted specific statutes to grant Guide Dog users the right of access. In most provinces, the statutes specifically state that no special conditions, terms, or fees can be imposed on a service dog user because of the presence of a service dog.↵