Hearing dogs

Interview with dog trainer for Hearing Dogs, Lucy Rimmer
By Laure-Anne Viselé, February 2011; Released May 2011

Hearing Dogs UK – skills, organisation, friendliness

I’d long been intrigued by the work of hearing dogs. So one day, I contacted Hearing Dogs for Deaf People for an interview. That’s how I got to speak with training team leader, Lucy Rimmer.

Every interaction along the way was efficient and friendly, from the website to the Press Officer to, well, Lucy. I am definitely impressed: here is a cause that is not only truly noble and adds real value to people’s lives, but it is also run by qualified, well-organised, AND friendly staff. If you’re looking to donate your money to a worthy cause, this one’s for you.

Let’s find out more about the life of a Hearing Dog trainer.

The right stuff: what it takes

LV - So, how did you become a hearing dog trainer?

LR - I came to it from an academic background. I did a degree in Zoology, then I did a Masters in Animal Behaviour and Welfare.

Generally, our trainers are expected to have an academic qualification in an animal-related subject. It can be an NVQ [National Vocational Qualification, a UK diploma for vocational subjects].

We find experience equally important though.

It can come in many forms:

  • kennel work;
  • training your own dog;
  • agility or obedience training with your own dog;
  • helping out in a puppy class;
  • working at a rescue centre; etc.

I built up my own work experience with Assistance Dogs, through a placement for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and also here at Hearing Dogs.

LV – Say I am applying for a job in your team, what sort of skills would I need to have?

LR – People skills are very important, but we’re also looking for someone:

  • who has worked with people with disabilities;
  • who is organised;
  • who is a team player;
  • with can work independently, because sometimes you have to go on the road;
  • who is adaptable, as you’d have to put your hand in many different things. You’ll be training your dog one second, and the next you’d be talking to a socialiser, or you may be asked to be doing this sort of things (interviews); and
  • who is approachable.

LV – Wow! Many large corporations would be lucky to have employees of that caliber.

I think it’s wonderful for the dog training profession in general that you set the bar so high. Because dog training does not  always enjoy an equally high status everywhere, and the more demanding we become, the more reputable the profession. So, I’d also need some specific dog-related knowledge?

LR –  Oh yes, knowing how to work with dogs is also very important, so you have to learn how to read their body language, for example. But you have to have those other skills or you’re not going to get your job done. It’s a fast-paced job. You’ll be working like mad throughout your day. So you have to be pretty motivated and organised, and able to prioritise.

LV – So what sort of specialist training would the dog trainers receive once they’ve been hired?

LR – We have a structured training phase during which they would be paired up with either myself, or an experienced trainer from the team, or the Training Manager.

They would be coached in how to train the dog in all the necessary areas. And they would be coached in how to carry out meets with the dog and the person, and how to work with that person. All areas will be covered.

They can be paired up for a good three or four months every day, shadowing them and learning to work with their own dog. To get all the skills you need to be a trainer really can take some time, so we keep people here for a long time.

We have a level system, with pay increases, to recognize our people’s successes. That way, people can progress with their skills and stay motivated.

Hearing Dogs as social facilitators

LV - With all the gadgetry that’s around, like light-activated, or vibrating alerts for doorbells or phones, what is the added value of having a hearing dog?

LR - The main answer to that is that gadgetry doesn’t help you on the emotional side. All of our dogs are obviously there to alert the owner to sounds in the home, but they’re also there to help people emotionally.

For some of our clients, hearing loss has meant loosing some of the confidence to go out and about, to meet people. Many of our clients have also lost a lot of their independence through it.

We keep hearing how much having the dog there has helped to improve their confidence, and how they feel happier to go out because they have the dog out with them.

LV – So the dogs are a positive focus for the public’s attention?

LR - Yes. In fact, it can take a while for some of our clients to get used to the attention.

LV - I am struck by the contrast between seeing eye dogs and hearing dogs. We are always told to not pet guide dogs, whereas it seems Hearing Dogs actually act as social facilitators.

LR - We advise our clients that it’s totally up to them. If they want to stop and chat to everyone who wants to talk to them, that’s absolutely fine. But if they’d rather not, then a polite “It’s lovely to speak to you, but I’ve got to get on” is fine.

So no, it’s not as vital as with a guide dog [that they’re not interrupted]. Although they have a job to do, it’s not quite so focused.

So we don’t totally dissuade people from interacting with our dogs, because they really do help break down social barriers, and help people feel more confident.

Hearing Dogs and their owners: I have collected pictures of hearing dogs and their owners from around the world. This gallery attests to the bond between owner and Hearing Dog.

[slideshow id=168]

Hearing dogs, guide dogs, assistance dogs, …

LV - Is Hearing Dogs for Deaf People related to Guide Dogs for the Blind in any way?

LR - We are loosely linked through Assistance Dogs UK, which is the umbrella organisation that all assistance dog charities have to be a member of.

We actually train dual dogs now, like for example a hearing and guiding dog for deaf and blind people, or a hearing dog and assistance dog for the disabled. Guide Dog for the Blind UK would train their part, and we would train the second part.

LV - So, do hearing dogs wear a special jacket, like guide dogs do?

LR – Yes,  they go into environments where no pet dogs are allowed, so it’s important that they are recognised. They wear a burgundy coat with “Assistance Dog” and “Hearing Dog” on it.

Hearing Dog (UK) jackets: Dogs wearing the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People (UK) jacket. If you see a dog wearing one, you’ll  know what it’s about.

[imagebrowser id=169]

The point of the jackets is to:

  1. Allow members of the public to become aware that the person has a hearing loss; and to
  2. Break down barriers - it can really open up conversations.

LV - That’s an amazing tool: with hearing loss, your clients must often worry that people think they’re being rude for not responding. The jacket gets rid of that social difficulty.

LR - That’s right, as soon as you see the Hearing Dog jacket, you’ll realize that that person is hard-of-hearing, so you’ll know to take it into account in the way you communicate, making sure you’re clear with your lip pattern, for example.

How hearing dogs are selected

LV - What are the selection criteria for candidate hearing dogs?

LR - The selection process is mainly based on temperament. So we’re looking for dogs that are:

  • biddable,
  • social with people,
  • social with dogs,
  • social with other animals,
  • willing to please,
  • motivated,
  • responsive (so they respond to the sounds), and
  • not over-reactive

We don’t want any extremes in behaviours, really. It can be a hard mix to find at times.

LV - Do you focus on particular breeds?

LR - We tend to select our dogs from four main groups:

  1. Retriever types, like Labradors;
  2. Poodle types and crosses. We do a lot of Poodle-Cocker Spaniel crosses, for example. We also use Labradoodles [Labrador-Poodle cross];
  3. Spaniels; and
  4. Some toy types, like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Hearing dogs come in all shapes and sizes:Pictures of hearing dogs from all around the world. From Chihuahua to Great Dane:

[slideshow id=167]

LV - Cavaliers are surprisingly small, as assistance dogs go. Doesn’t the dog’s size doesn’t matter for hearing dogs?

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel hearing dog

LR - We are less focused on the dog’s size than for, say, guide dogs or assistance dogs for the disabled. Hearing dogs do not have the physical task of guiding someone, or helping people get things out of the washing machine. Their role is centered around alerting their owners to sounds.

In fact, a smaller-sized dog like a Shih Tsu or a Cavalier is particularly well-suited for some of our elderly clients, or people with a smaller house, who do not necessarily want a huge dog.

LV - As socialisation is so important, I presume you would only select dogs between 10 – 16 weeks?

LR - Actually, we would consider dogs between 8 weeks and 3 years of age. So we do take on slightly older dogs, but they have to have the right temperament, obviously. They would be fully assessed to make sure that they were suitable.

LV - Where do you get the dogs from?

LR - We have a number of different sources for dogs.

  • We have a breeding scheme;
  • We get dogs donated to us from the public, which wouldn’t be used as breeding stock, but they would be trained where possible.
  • A lot of breeders would donate, maybe one from a litter.
  • We also look at shelters, if they have the breeds that we take.

Hearing Dogs: the training process

LV - So what are the steps involved in preparing a hearing dog for its work?

Stage 01 – Socialisation

LR - The socialisation phase takes about a year, so for young dogs, that’s until they’re about a year old, maybe forteen months for the larger breeds. Once the Socialisation Department are happy that they’ve reached the grade and they’ve passed the test, they come to us in training.

Stage 02 -Training

LR -They then stay with us in Training for about four months.

Hearing dog in training

At that point, they would be learning the sound work, when they:

  • Learn to to react to the sounds; and
  • Learn how to tell the clients about the sounds.

LV - Wouldn’t the specific sounds vary a lot per person? Someone might have their doorbell set to ring the National Anthem, for example.

LR - We have some general sounds that most people need, like alarm clocks, doorbells, smoke alarms, telephones. We would generally request to the customer that they use the same sounds we have trained the dogs to for these appliances.

Alerting to the telephone ringing

LV - Do the dogs get trained to alert the client of traffic dangers?

LR - No. The only sounds that they will alert to outside of the home is the fire siren. Imagine that you’re deaf and you’re in the changing room in a shop when the fire alarm goes off.

But no, the dog would not alert you to traffic, like an oncoming truck or a beeping car. This is for safety reasons, because you would not want want your dog to stop in the middle of the road to alert you of a traffic sound. He can’t do anything about it, and it’s quite stressful for the dog. So we don’t train that, out of safety and out of practicality, really.

Milestone – Foundation Assessment

LR - About halfway through the training, the Standards Department holds the Foundation Assessment. The test measures if the dog is on target for the training, and looks at its temperament.

If the dog gets a ‘stamp of approval’, it is a green light to start looking for a particular client for that dog.

Step 3 – Matching the right dog with its owner

LV - This is so extremely well organised! And with good reason. I can imagine the heartache if a client get told that the dog isn’t suitable after all, eventhough there’s been a match.

LR - That’s why we introduced the Foundation Assessment. We wanted to be 100% sure we were happy with the dog before we got the client to meet the dog.

At that stage, the client would either come to the centre to meet the dog, or we would bring the dog to their house. They would normally then spend a couple of days with the dog and the trainer, so they can get used to the dog’s ways.

LV - Is it important that your clients are experienced dog owners, or are first time dog owners also considered?

LR - When the clients apply for a dog, there is an assessment process so we can judge whether they will be suitable. We look at things like whether they shall be able to retain information, whether they can understand about caring for a dog, … But once we’ve assessed that, we would go on to the matching process, which we invariably do.

So having owned dogs in the past is not a selection criterion to get a hearing dog, no. Clients certainly don’t have to be dog trainers. That’s our role.

They just have to care for the dog, and to understand the mechanics of the sound work, because the clients have to be involved in the work, it doesn’t just happen.

LV - Roughly speaking, how long is the waiting list for a trained hearing dog?

LR - At the moment, it’s about two years. One of our main priorities is to reduce that wait.

Step 4 – Training client-specific needs

LV - So, once a dog is matched and you have a potential candidate, what happens?

LR - The dog would then go into the final stages of training. At that point, everything is worked even more specifically towards that person. The trainer would start thinking of specific lifestyle requirements for that person and train the dog towards that. For example, if the person uses a mobility scooter, we would have to think of the little dog riding on the scooter, or walking slowly to the side if it was a big Labrador. We would consider the need for things like walking beside a cane.

But also where they might go in terms of locations that the client might frequently visit, like, Bingo. We’d want to make sure the dog is comfortable with that sort of environment.

So we cover all the bases, really.

And obviously, we’d train the dog to respond to any sounds that are specific to that person’s home.

LV - Are there really specific sounds where you think: “In my wildest dream, I’d have never thought I’d train a dog to do that“?

LR - We train dogs to respond to baby cries, so the dog has to go to the baby monitor when it hears the sound. That can be quite amusing when the trainer is having to cry through the baby monitor.

LV – Why don’t you use one of those pre-recorded CD’s of baby cries that expecting parents play to their dog to get them used to the sound of a crying baby. Oh, wait, you’d miss out on all the fun!

We have an 18-month-old (human) boy at home, and he is so incredibly… manipulative! He drags the dog in his schemes to get our attention. So, I imagine that the children in a household with a Hearing Dog would use and abuse the dog’s signalling abilities, no?

LR – We do train a sound which we refer to as ‘the call’. It is used when the child needs his mother’s urgent attention, say if the child fell over. So the dog would act as a go-between if it heard that sound. It would alert the Mom, who would say: “What is it?”, then the dog would bring her to the child.

So, I am sure that has been used for non emergencies such as: “I need a drink” or something like that [laughs].

But on a serious note, it could be quite worrying if you have children that might need you and you can’t hear them. So the dog plays a big role there.

How the dogs alert the owner of a sound

LV - So how do they alert the owner that they’ve heard a relevant sound?

LR - That very much depends on the size of the dog:

  • Very small dogs like Shih Tsu’s, would jump up and gently squabble at your leg;
  • Medium-sized dogs like Spaniel-types or a Cocker-Poodle crosses would sit to tell you about a sound;
  • Bigger dogs like Labradors could sit and put one paw on you;
  • Bigger dogs could also do a nose nudge, so the nose would be pushing against whichever part of your body is most accessible.

Alerting with the paw

The next step is that the client would ask the dog: “What is it?” with their voice and with the BSL [British Sign Language] hand gesture. The dog would then walk towards the source of the sound.

Using sign language with your dog

LV - Walking towards the source of a sound isn’t necessarily recommended for a fire alarm, though, is it?

LR - No, we call those sounds ‘danger sounds‘. On that occasion, the dog would lie flat down on the floor when the owner asks “What is it”. It’s a very clear response, and it is very obvious to the person needs to get out immediately (or check what is burning!).

If the dog doesn’t pass one of the tests

LV - What happens to the dogs who don’t pass all the selection tests?

LR - It depends where in the system they don’t make it.

If they don’t pass the Socialisation test, there are several options. The socialiser may continue to home them until they can be re-homed, or they may keep them. Experienced socialisers may be allowed to re-home the dog themselves.

LV - In the eyes of the law, the dog remains the property of Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, doesn’t it?

LR - Yes, they stay our dogs.

So if the socialisation isn’t successful, our Re-homing Department would look into a list of people that are looking to take in a dog, and would match them with a suitable dog from the list of clients looking to re-home the dogs.

LV - I presume they get whisked away. What a wonderful pet dog to have. Pre-selected for temperamental balance, from excellent stock, socialised diligently….

LR - Oh absolutely, overall, as a pet dog, they are absolutely lovely. So people would be getting a good dog there.

The majority of our dogs who don’t quite make the grade don’t make it because perhaps they’re not adaptable enough, or not responsive enough. Not through what would be considered anywhere near an extreme fault in a pet dog.

As an assistance dog, they have to work in lots of different situations socially and environmentally throughout their lives. So the reason the test is stringent is also becuase we have to make sure that the dog will be able to cope with that, and even enjoy it.

LV -  Clearly you take the dog’s welfare very seriously.  It’s not just about the human side of things.

How big of a percentage of the candidate dogs don’t actually become hearing dogs?

LR - At the moment, it’s approximately 50%. We are always aiming to improve that with our breeding scheme, but we have to keep a really high standard.

Hearing dog retirement

LV – I presume that the hearing abilities of ageing hearing dogs goes at some stage, so I was wondering:

  1. What happens to a retired dog?
  2. Do they tend to retire earlier than, say, guide dogs? and
  3. How regularly are they assessed once they’ve started working?

LR – The  Partnership Department visits the dog’s home at least once a year to assess how the dog is working.

There’s no standard age for retirement for the dog. It very much comes down to:

  1. The results of the assessment by the Partnership Instructor.
  2. Discussions with the client to assess how the dog is working, if it’s starting to maybe not work as much, or if an issue with the dog’s own hearing starts to develop.

The assessment is a standard test.

LV – So what happens to the dogs whose working standards has deteriorated below the test criteria?

LR – There are three options:

  • The owners may want to keep their retired hearing dog, which is what mostly happens; or
  • They can keep their retired hearing dog and get a replacement one. I’ve been involved in a number of them and it does work as long as you get the match right and the dog is ready to hand over its work; or
  • Re-homing the dog and getting a replacement. That doesn’t happen so much because the dogs work so hard for their owners that a huge bond develops. Not many people tend to re-home them, but it’s very important that the dog can work for them.

LV – Oh that’s good to hear. Because obviously there’s the utilitarian side of things, and it’s good to hear that the relationship is taken into account.

LR – Oh yes, hugely. It’s a very upsetting time for our clients when the dog does have to retire.

So the client would be further assessed to find out what they would need from their next dog, because their lifestyle could have changed in the 9 to 10 years that would have elapsed since their previous hearing dog was trained.

Generally, the average age of retirement is probably around 8 or 10 years old. Obviously the larger breeds probably sooner than the smaller ones.

Working at the Hearing Dogs for the Deaf

LV - How many people are there on-staff at HDftD currently?

LR - We have around 150 staff in two centres: one in Buckinghamshire, and one in Yorkshire (in Bilby).

LV - What is a typical day like for you?

LR - I am Training Team Leader, so I work in the Training Department, and I lead a team of ten trainers.

My day involves:

  • some admin, paperwork, and e-mails, but mainly;
  • support the trainers.

This might involve:

  • Going off-site with one of the trainers to assess a dog in a social environment if they have any concerns with that; or
  • Generally assessing progress, to help determine how things are going along. So we’d go in a town environment, to shops, etc. to assess the dog.
  • I might also be helping the trainers with their sound work, giving tips on how to help the dogs respond to sounds.
  • I am also there to support my Line Manager, so I might be attending some meetings or writing reports about the dogs.

LV - Line Manager, Partnership Department, writing reports,… This is so extremely well-managed!

LR - We are working to provide a service to people, so we have to make sure that things are organised, on-time, that people’s expectations are met. Also, as we grow, we have to be more organised, or nothing would happen.

LV - And the organisation’s reputation is hugely important, naturally.

LR - Yes, we are not government-funded, we rely on donations. So we have to make sure that that money is well-spent.

LV - Oh it sounds like it’s put to good use, absolutely.

LR – Yes, I really think so.

LV – What’s the funniest aspect of your job at the moment?

LR – I don’t know if it’s funny, but it’s quite sweet, really. We have a trainee dog, he’s called Alfie. He’s a Flat-Coated Retriever. He’s adorable.

He is someone’s own pet dog, and we’re training him up for his deaf owner. So he’s a little bit older than what we would normally take (he’s 4 years old), so he’s taking a little while, shall we say, to grasp the concept.

He’s going to have to be able to work with a lot of distractions in his work environment, so the trainer is currently working him in the house with:

  • Two children
  • another dog
  • a cat
  • a Budgie [Budgerigar]…

We had to get all of those to the Training Centre, so that’s been quite amusing. His little face, bless him, when he’s working around the children running around, and the Budgie, and the cat…! But he’s doing very well with it.

He’s quite a laid back old boy too, but he’s doing very well.

LV – I feel sorry for the trainer who got the assignment.

LR – I think she’s taking it as a challenge.

LV – It would be!

LV – What’s a touching  anecdote that happened to you recently in the course of your work?

LR – Every year, we have a ceremony which we call Hearing Dog of the Year. This year, I was at the ceremony down in London, to keep an eye on the welfare of the dogs and the welfare of the clients. I heard the client’s speeches at the ceremony, and it was amazing. To have the client explain what the dog means to their lives, that the dog had changed their life. You never get bored of hearing that. It always reminds you of why you’re doing what you’re doing. It really gives you a buzz.

We had one client who was talking about this particular dog and how it made him come out of his shell and how he’s become more sociable and has found new friends. And so you think: “We did that” (and the dog of course).

LV – Well I think it is a really meaningful job, and I for one will be spreading the word!

Contact Details

Click on the logos in this section to go to the webpage of the respective (UK-based) organisations.

To get to the donation page of Hearing Dogs for Dead People, click on ‘Donate’ the button below.

Any comments?

I really value your comments, so don’t be shy and share your thoughts.

I would particularly like to hear from you if you are an assistance dog trainer or owner (guide dog, hearing dog, assistance dog for the disabled, diabetes alerting dog, etc.):

  • How has the dog helped you?
  • How does the training process differ from Hearing Dogs’
  • Were there any funny, or particularly touching moments?

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