Known as the ‘silent disability’, deafness can all too frequently mean depression and isolation for sufferers. Heather Harris reports on the work of a charity that trains dogs to help people with hearing impairments, so that they no longer have to navigate a silent world alone…
“He’s given me an identity, a purpose and made me complete.”
No, it’s not a quote from the latest rom com or a line from a current love song, but something far more significant…
Vincent Wakeling was born deaf and was isolated from the world until a small brown poodle called Teddy arrived on his doorstep. “The day I went training with Teddy was the day my life started. I no longer feel like I’m on the outside looking in; I’m part of the world at last,” he explains. Isolation and loneliness, he tells me, are two of the biggest problems facing deaf people.
Teddy is one of the 950 hearing dogs currently working in the UK. All have been specially trained by a charity called Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Their main centre, The Grange, is set in 27 acres of Buckinghamshire countryside near Princes Risborough and it is here that I meet the team behind this incredible service, so often overlooked. They also have a second centre in York.
“People all know about guide dogs [for the blind] but still seem genuinely amazed when they tell them about our work,” spokeswoman Fredrica Bowcett says, before introducing me to Nina the cocker spaniel and her owner Dionne.
Unlike Vincent, Dionne had hearing until the age of 23 and was a ‘bubby, outgoing person’ until nerve damage caused a steady decline into deafness. “I stopped going out at all because I couldn’t follow the conversation and the trouble with deafness is that it’s the silent disability. People just thought I was rude or unsociable!”
Three years ago, Nina came to live with her, and her confidence returned. “Suddenly I became visible. People would see Nina and her burgundy Hearing Dogs jacket and their attitude towards me would totally change.”
Dionne does admit, though, that there is one downside to having such an obedient dog in the house. “My teenage daughter will call Nina and give her a written message to say she wants a drink or a sandwich, which Nina will obediently deliver to me. Not exactly the emergency she’s trained to alert me to!”
The specialist training that Nina and Teddy underwent is a strict four-stage process that can take over a year to complete, depending on the individual dog. The charity breeds its own puppies specifically, and also has links with some recognised breeders who will donate one of their litter.
At 8-12 weeks old the puppy will go to one of the volunteer Puppy Socialisers. It will live in their home, be taught basic obedience and every week go to a puppy training session at the Centre.
Rachel Keen has been socialising puppies for the last five years. “I always wanted a dog but my husband didn’t, so I thought this was the perfect compromise,” she explains, after returning from a very wet walk. “It means we don’t have the seventeen-year commitment to our own dog and also, if we go on holiday, the Hearing Dogs charity will find cover.”
After the puppy has successfully received its ‘Third Puppy Star’, the socialiser then passes the dog over to the Centre for the final stage of its sound training with their specialist team.
“I admit I cry every time I have to say goodbye to a dog,” Rachel says. “The good thing is the Hearing Dog charity always have a new puppy for me to take on so I don’t have time to get too upset!”
Rachel has now had five dogs and clearly finds it hugely satisfying. “I remember one Labrador called Sam. At nine months I couldn’t get him to do anything, then suddenly it clicked and at 14 months he was brilliant at his ‘job’ and has changed the life of Helen, his new owner.”
Helen Burridge was born with a hearing impairment, but was not diagnosed as severely deaf until her late twenties. Helen tragically lost both her parents in 2011, leaving her feeling lonely, isolated and depressed.
“Everything changed when I got Sam. Everyone says what a fantastic bond Sam and I have. He is so devoted and loving. Without him, I don’t know where I would be,” she says. Helen is now working with her local community fund-raising manager to help spread the word about the amazing work that the Hearing Dogs charity undertakes.
As well as helping with socialising and confidence boosting, these working dogs are also specially trained to solve the practical problems faced by deaf people. As Dionne explains, these include simple things such as sitting in a doctor’s waiting room until your appointment is called. “With a Hearing Dog the receptionist can tell the dog to nudge me when it’s my turn, instead of me sitting there for hours and missing my slot.”
Fredrica also told me about one young mother who was deaf and refused to go to sleep at night, worried that she wouldn’t hear her baby crying. “The first proper night’s sleep she got was when her Hearing Dog arrived and immediately showed how he would hear the baby cry and run to nudge her awake.”
Other deaf people have admitted to sitting up all night if they had a job interview or plane to catch the next morning, in fear they wouldn’t hear their alarm clock. A Hearing Dog is trained to respond immediately to the alarm, and, as one owner says, “What nicer way to be woken than by a wet nose and a wagging tale?”
The expert sound training is carried out by the team based at The Grange, where there are purpose-built rooms with smoke alarms, alarm clocks and door bells. One of the trainers, Claire Bott, has worked with over 30 dogs and tells me about the reward-based approach they take, breaking commands down into simple steps and teaching the dog to find their owner if a doorbell, alarm clock or cooker timer goes off – and to lie down flat to alert the owner to a smoke alarm or fire siren.
During this period of training, the dogs live with one of the charity’s B&B volunteers. “Each dog is dropped off in the morning and picked up at the end of the ‘school’ day. They spend the weekend with the B&B volunteers too making it ideal for working dog lovers.”
And when training is complete they are ready for their placement with their new owner. To apply for a Hearing Dog an individual must be severely or profoundly deaf.
“We are as much a dog charity as we are a disability one,” said Fredrica, “so we do meet each applicant to see which type of dog would best fit their lifestyle. People who live in the city and travel on the tube will need a very different dog to an active retired person with a large garden.”
Cocker spaniels, miniature poodles, cockapoos and labradors are considered the ideal breeds and the vast majority can be successfully trained as full Hearing Dogs (so no excuse for my cockapoo ignoring me the majority of the time!). The few that don’t pass their four stars are given ‘alternative careers’ within the charity, so could become a ‘confidence companion’ or ‘sound supporter’ to an individual with less severe hearing loss.
Recently, the charity has been working more with deaf children and there are now 27 Hearing Dogs placed with young people (over seven years old) throughout the UK.
Hearing Dogs for Deaf People are keen to extend this area of their work and also continue to increase the number of dogs they train. The concept of using a dog to support someone with a hearing disability was officially launched at Crufts by Bruce Fogle and Lady Beatrice Wight in 1982, as a three-year pilot scheme. Since then, there have been 2,225 dogs successfully trained – but the demand is continually increasing.
“It is such a simple idea but one which requires a huge team of volunteers to make happen. The level of commitment needed can be from as little as an hour every few months to act as a public speaker for the charity, to being a full time puppy socialiser,” explains Frederica.
There’s also the small matter of fundraising. It costs £40,000 to train a single dog but to deaf people like Vincent the result is priceless.
“For so many years I’d had fears about all sorts of things; I was afraid of life itself. But when I got Teddy I didn’t feel frightened anymore…”