Not all Hearing Dogs are Labradors

I’ve wanted a Hearing Dog so much for so long — but I thought it might never happen. When life throws you curveball after curveball, it’s easy to become a pessimist. But on a sunny day in January 2015, I found myself on my way to the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People’s Beatrice Wright Centre (named after Lady Beatrice Wright, co-founder of the UK charity) in the rural location of Bierley in East Yorkshire.

Hearing Dogs are trained to alert deaf people to specific household sounds and danger signals in the home and when out and about. Since dramatically losing most of my hearing, I became convinced that a Hearing Dog would help give me confidence and independence I had lost, and so I embarked on the application process.

My husband and I didn’t really know what to expect from our two-day visit to the centre. We thought we’d be in a group with other applicants — possibly in a classroom setting. What the two-day stay entailed was very different, dog-focused, hands on and much more fun!

My Applicant Advisor, Emma, was there just for us. We were introduced to a variety of dogs of different breeds suitable to the career of Hearing Dog. We learnt about the different temperaments and care needs of each type of dog.

The process of matching applicants and hearing dogs is a bit like going to a dating agency. The Applicant Advisor asks lots of questions about your work and home situations, travel, location (rural/urban) and other pets so they can build up a picture of your needs and what you can offer in terms of lifestyle for a working dog.

I work from home but I also travel for my work as an Accessibility Consultant and Trainer — and for my travel writing — so I have overnight stays and weeks away throughout the year. I need a dog that travels well and can also sit quietly for long periods (for when I’m delivering training sessions). As a family, we also need a dog who is good with other dogs as we already have a Westie.

The first dog we met was Sally, a Working Cocker Spaniel; she was a very affectionate, lively bundle of fun. Sally had started her training as a Hearing Dog but is now looking for a change of career as she’s not quite cut out for being a Hearing Dog. She’s likely to join the Police as a sniffer dog, but in the meantime, she’s helping people like me to meet each of the breeds of Hearing Dogs available.

Emma told us that in a Working Cocker Spaniel the ‘chase instinct’ is great and if they see a pheasant or a sheep, they may feel the urge to chase it, so this breed is not matched to people living in rural locations. As we walk in the countryside a lot, this would not be the best breed for me.

Next up was a black Cockapoo called Indie. This is the breed I’d had in mind so I was excited about meeting her. Indie was so well-behaved and she demonstrated her ability to be calm and still by immediately coming to sit by my feet. As I groomed her and practiced putting her uniform on her, I imagined what it would feel like if she was my dog. It felt pretty good! We tried out the basic commands and she responded well to me. It was all very exciting.

Then, Indie was taken back to the office and in trotted Lily, a Show Cocker Spaniel. She was adorable. A real show-stopper! The immediate rush of affection I felt for her was totally unexpected. I hadn’t considered this breed of dog before and didn’t know anything about them. I wasn’t aware of the differences between the ‘Show’ and ‘Working’ Cockers in looks or temperament and so after meeting Sally, I’d expected another bundle of nervous energy but Lily was so much calmer; so placid.

RCA_5487I looked across at my husband and could see that he was smitten with her too. I raised my eyebrows and asked if he thought this was the type of dog for us. I say ‘us’ because, when not working, the dog will be a family pet so it’s important that he’s happy too. It was clear that he thought it was.

Emma explained that every dog is an individual and that Lily was a particularly calm spaniel, but that there was every possibility that there could be another like her which could be matched to me. I felt a twinge of disloyalty towards Indie, but Emma reassured me that being open to multiple breeds of dogs as potential matches would speed up the matching process.

Spending time with each of the dogs showed me how easy it would be for me to fall in love with any of them. I decided not to worry about it and leave it to Emma and the team to work their magic.

We then also met Dexter (a Labrador/Retriever cross), Chance (a Retriever), Tilly (a Miniature Poodle) and Cameron (a Labrador) — but it was Lily and Indie who seemed the best fit for me. Indie and I got to work together on some of the commands.

In my next post about Hearing Dogs, I will share with you the exercises and activities I got to try and how a hearing dog would be able to help me. I hope to also be able to let you know how I get on at my home assessment.

If you have a Hearing Dog, I’d love to hear how yours helps you. Why not show us a photo too?

Photo credits: Richard Aspinall 

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