Hearing Dog Use Spreading Worldwide

Brief History of Service Dogs

Dogs have been eyes for the blind  for a very long time.  The first systematic attempt to train dogs to aid blind people came around 1780 at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital for the blind in Paris and, shortly afterwards, in 1788, Josef Riesinger, a blind sieve-maker from Vienna, trained a Spitz so well that people often questioned whether he was blind.  In 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Education of the Blind (Blinden-Erziehungs-Institut) in Vienna, mentioned the concept of the guide dog in his book on educating blind people (Lehrbuch zum Unterricht der Blinden) and described his method for training dogs.  A Swiss man, Jakob Birrer, wrote in 1847 about his experiences of being guided over a period of five years by a dog he had specially trained and published a training manual for guide dogs.

The first recognized assistance dog institution in the world is the German Association for Serving Dogs, which was established by the Austrian Police and the War Dog Institute in 1916. The school, located in Pottsdam, Germany, trained German shepherds as guides for blinded veterans of the war, but did not stay in existence for very long.  However, an American woman living in Switzerland learned of the program and ultimately advanced the modern dog guide movement in the United States. Her name was Dorothy Harrison Eustis and she was a wealthy Philadelphian experimenting with the training of German shepherds as working dogs. When she visited the Pottsdam school, she thought the concept of a dog guide was a noble profession for which to train her own dogs. But it was not until after she wrote an article about the Pottsdam school which appeared in the November 5th, 1927 edition of The Saturday Evening Post that she had any cause to incorporate dog guide training for her dogs.

That article reached Morris Frank, a blind American who wrote to Eustis for help, seeking his own dog, and she agreed. She trained a dog named Buddy, and Frank went to Switzerland to learn how to interact with his new guide. Frank promised to publicize guide dogs’ abilities when he returned to the United States. When he got to New York in 1928, he showed off Buddy’s abilities in front of the news media. The success of Frank and Buddy inspired Eustis to give $10,000 to Frank to start a school, the Seeing Eye in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1929. In 1931, the school moved to New Jersey, where it remains today.  Since then, and especially since the 1960s the use of guide dogs for those with visual impairment has become common; guide dogs are well known to the visually impaired and the general population.

Hearing Service Dogs

More recently, the use of Hearing Dogs has really taken off in the US and other western countries.  Hearing Dogs were first trained in the United States and currently there are over 5,000 animals serving the hearing impaired in the United States.  What benefits do Hearing Dogs offer ?

Hearing Dogs at Home…

are trained to alert people to household sounds that are necessary for everyday safety and independence. They are trained to make physical contact and lead their person to the source of the sound. By providing sound awareness and companionship, these dogs enhance parenting skills, increase employability, and provide greatly increased freedom and independence.    (Click for Video on Hearing Dog use)

Hearing Dogs in Public…

Many people are curious about what Hearing Dogs can do for people who are deaf or hard of hearing when they’re in public. The most important thing a Hearing Dog provides a person in public is an increased awareness of his or her environment. A Hearing Dog isn’t specifically trained to alert to sounds, such as a siren or honking horn. Rather, when a person who is deaf or hard of hearing takes his or her Hearing Dog into public, he or she will gain an awareness of the environment by paying attention to whatever the Hearing Dog is reacting to. When the dog turns to look at something it hears, the person will notice and turn to see what’s happening as well.

  • Training generally takes 4-6 months of temperament evaluation, obedience training, socialization, and sound training. The dogs are taught to work for toys and affection.
  • Hearing Dogs are trained to respond to 7 sounds:
  1. fire and smoke alarms
  2. telephone
  3. oven timer
  4. alarm clock
  5.  doorbell/door knock
  6.  name call
  7. and, sometimes, a baby’s cry.
  • Once placed with their deaf partner, the dogs easily learn to respond to additional sounds such as the microwave, tea kettle, and washer/dryer. Hearing Dogs can be taught to alert people to any repetitive sound that can be set up and practiced regularly. If a sound is inconsistent or too difficult to set up, it is hard for the dog to learn it.  Generally, most audiologists at least know of Hearing Dogs in the USA. and how they can be obtained for their patients.  As clinicians, we realize the independence that these service animals provide to the hearing impaired and the companionship they offer, especially for those patients who do not do very well with amplification.  Since these service animals are often in short supply and take some time to train,  training can be expensive.  Some Hearing Dog providers have the capability to match recipients with funding for the animals.  One site even offers suggestions for how to present an application so that it will most likely will be accepted.

 International Use of Hearing Dogs?

Although Hearing Dogs have been trained in the US since about 1975, The concept began to catch on in Europe after a 1979  lecture by Professor Lee Bustad, Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University at the British Small Animal Veterinary Association International Symposium.  Professor Bustad’s paper discussed the dog training programs in various parts of the United States.  Ultimately this led to the founding of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, moving the concept to Europe in the early 1980s.  Largely through the efforts of Lions Club International, Hearing Dogs have begun to spread around the world.  Australia began its programs in 1982 and currently has about 500 dogs trained and placed. New Zealand began programs in the late 1990s and it seems that over 500 dogs have been put into service in that country to date as well.

In the past decade the use of Hearing Dogs has spread to Asia as well, beginning in Japan in about 1985.  A Japanese law on service dogs for the physically disabled went into force in 2003; this includes dogs for both visually and hearing-impaired people.  In Japan, however, problems still exist even with the legislation as the acceptance of the animals in various places where they are needed, such as restaurants, taxi, and other places.   Korea with sponsorship from Samsung, has recently begun Service Dog programs. Right now, they are primarily for guide dogs for the blind, but training of hearing dogs  typically follows, once the concept takes hold.

In the past few months, China has picked up the Service Dog concept, opening its first training center in 2011  with much fanfare. A recent story by Lin (2012) suggests that the concept of Hearing dogs is developing fast in China.  Lin tells about Liu Yan, 36, a hearing- impaired woman, walking on the streets in Beijing with her 2-year-old dog, Pan, wearing an orange uniform. When a cyclist behind them rang a bell the dog responded by suddenly jumping up and putting her paws on Liu’s legs.   Yan, who lost her hearing at age 11 due to mumps, says that “Pan is like family. I can’t hear, so the dog hears everything for me. With Pan, I’m more confident. I used to communicate with colleagues by writing, but now I often open my mouth to talk to them,” says Liu, who has mastered lip reading.

One of the barriers to the use of Service dogs in various countries seems to be legal restrictions of the importation of animals into countries, as many have strict laws regarding entrance for animals.  A particular challenge in service dog use appears to be in the Middle East and Latin America, but with the benefits of these remarkable animals this is a challenge that will be surmounted over time as well……….


About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.