Assistance dogs have a reputation for being well-behaved and there’s a reason for this: they have a LOT of training!
At the UK charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, puppies are socialised by volunteer Puppy Socialisers who work with the pups to get them house-trained, confident in various settings, comfortable around people and other dogs and happy to walk on a lead. They also start them off with the basic commands of ‘sit’ and ‘wait’ and train them to come when called.
During my two-day assessment visit at the Yorkshire centre, I worked with a gorgeous Cockapoo called Indie and I practised my basic hand signals for ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘wait’ and ‘off you go’. I also practised getting Indie into and out of uniform, lead work and recall. Indie was so patient with me and she behaved perfectly.
The most exciting activity for me was getting Indie to alert me to a sound when I was busy doing a task. It gave me first-time experience of how a hearing dog works. Indie’s signal for this was to rest her two front paws on my legs to get my attention when a squeaker sounded. Some dogs learn to rest their paws on you and others — usually the larger breeds — learn nudge you with their noses as their alert signal.
Dogs are given a reward for each successful task and this amount of kibble is taken out of their daily food allowance so that they are not over-fed.
Once a trainee hearing dog is between 14 and 18 months old (depending upon the breed), it will have two months of intensive ‘sound work’ training. At the Yorkshire centre, the charity has a row of small purpose-built houses for the dogs to do their training and, when humans and dogs are paired, they spend a week together doing sound work in one of the houses.
On my second day, I worked with Cameron, a lovely black lab. We went to a garden centre so that my husband and I could experience being out and about with a uniformed dog. I have to say that I felt very comfortable on my own with Cameron.
We were approached by three different lots of people who all had questions about the dog or the work hearing dogs do. It was nice that people were so interested and we happily explained that we were on an assessment and that Cameron was a demonstration dog helping me to learn about hearing dogs. I quickly figured that, if I’m fortunate enough to be matched to a hearing dog, I will need to add an hour onto every outing to allow for this kind of interaction!
However, what astounded me was that the people who came to ask me questions made no attempt to speak clearly to me or to look at me while talking. Out of everything I learned over the course of the two days, this was the most surprising thing. I had expected that being seen with a hearing dog would prompt people to communicate more clearly with you but, in my limited experience at the garden centre, this was not the case.
I’d be curious to know if this is a general phenomenon, and if other people with hearing dogs also noticed it. Have you?
Photo credits: Richard Aspinall