Working With a Dog

Employment Matters column,

Most deaf and hard of hearing people don’t have a hearing ear dog. Never had one myself, never felt I needed one. Then I got accustomed to living with my fiancee’s dog. Her dog was never formally trained as a hearing ear dog, but he just sort of took on the job anyway – and does it very well. It’s really nice to know when someone’s at the door and I’m away in another room, Poppy will tell me about it.

But getting a formally trained hearing ear dog can be long, expensive wait. Many training centers have a variety of conditions, fees, waiting times, and even annual recertification requirements. Some places won’t even let you own the dog – they own it, you merely borrow it. Many of these conditions are created with the best of intentions – they want to ensure the safety of the owner and the good health of the dog. But it also unfortunately means fewer service dogs for people who want them.

If you’ve thought about getting a hearing ear dog, or already have a dog and want to train it, good news – you can do it yourself. It’s not terribly difficult, but it does require a serious investment of time and energy on your part. Be sure you can commit to that before you begin. Think of it this way – your dog is going to school, and you are the teacher!

It’s not all work – treat it as a game you play with the dog. Your dog will enjoy the attention, the training will stretch the dog’s mind, and you’ll develop a much deeper bond with your dog than most people have.

There’s one condition that can be a deal-breaker – your dog’s temperament. Not all dogs are a good fit with the job of alerting you to sounds. Some just don’t have the attention span, or maybe too high-strung to train, or maybe too aggressive to have around the house. If you’ve already got a dog you want to train, you’ll have to use your own judgment here. If you’re not sure your pooch is up to the job, give it a try anyway – you might be surprised.

The most popular way to train a dog, or any other animal, nowadays is through clicker training. To get an idea of what it involves, check out this video of a cat being trained to flip a light switch: There’s about 30 seconds of voice introduction, but the rest of the video is subtitled and the action is clear. This method is used successfully with many different animals – dolphins, horses, chickens, parrots, even fish. It works great with dogs. This system is entirely reward-based – no punishments needed.

You can see that training can go surprisingly fast with some patience, and it’s very simple. You don’t need any fancy or expensive equipment. Just a bag of cheap treats and simple clicker – you can get those here for less than a dollar:

Don’t expect to teach new skills in a single training session. Your pet’s stamina and attention span will likely grow as it becomes accustomed to these strange new games you’re playing. Just take a break once in a while. Once you’ve trained a dog using the clicker, you can lose the clicker and switch to your own commands – signs, voice, whatever works for you. Practice once in a while until the dog understands the routine and knows what is expected. Training like this sticks, even for years afterward.

Start by training the dog to recognize a particular sound, ideally a sound that is always the same. Door knocks are not the best choice to begin with, because people knock doors in different ways. But fire alarms are a good pick – they make the same sound each time they go off. First train the dog to come to you when you click on the clicker. Then train the dog to go to you when the fire alarm sounds off. Start with you and the dog in the same room, then gradually train at greater distances and in different rooms. It becomes fun when the dog “gets it” and understands how the game works.

The big advantage of doing it yourself is clear – once you’ve trained the dog to react to sounds for you, you can take it further and train it for other useful tasks – fetching it’s own leach, bringing in the newspaper, staying off the furniture, or general obedience training. Once you’ve taught the dog some skills, you’ve also learned how to train, so you both benefit. There’s an amazing amount of helpful tips and guides for training available online, on websites, in videos and books. It’s not at all complicated – if you have kids, they can learn how to do this too. You can put your dog to work and have fun at the same time!

Related Links:

Training Standards

DIY Training

Paws to Freedom

Lend Me An Ear

Living with a Hearing Ear Dog

Life with a Hearing Ear Dog

DIY Basic Sound Training