Friday, January 11, 2013

Dogs for the Deaf: Helping More Than the Hearing Impaired

I recently learned (thanks to my grandmother, a former social worker who still has a mind for helping people) about an organization based in southern Oregon called Dogs for the Deaf (DFD). Now, I know I've written about animal therapy, but I feel this is distinctly different. This is not so much animal therapy as it is animal assistance. Plus I want to write about it because it's a specific, local example of an organization that brings humans and furry companions together in a way that is beneficial for both. Who doesn't love that?

Initially, I assumed that the Dogs for the Deaf's goal was to provide the deaf and hard of hearing with hearing dogs to assist them with daily activities. DFD does do this, of course, but the organization goes beyond simply providing canine helpers for the hearing impaired. A quick trip to their website revealed that DFD not only trains hearing dogs, but also provides autism assistance dogs, program assistance dogs, and “career change” dogs. I'll get into the specifics of each type of canine in a bit. The other wonderful aspect of this organization is that not only does it help people with specific needs, but it helps the dogs, too. All of the dogs trained to become animal assistants are rescued from shelters throughout the west coast. DFD's website maintains that every dog has value, and every person should have the opportunity to feel safe and independent. Dogs and applicants are matched up based on the characteristics, needs, and abilities of both the animal and the person to make sure the relationship is as mutually beneficial as possible. Interspecies matchmaking!

Now, a bit about the dogs and their training:

Hearing dogs are trained to essentially be a replacement set of ears for their humans. At home, hearing dogs alert people to various sounds, a doorbell for example, and lead them to the source of the noise. In public, they provide an increased awareness of their humans' surroundings, but no matter where they are, hearing dogs provide companionship.

Autism assistance dogs are trained to increase the safety of children with autism by “acting as anchors”. I think that is meant to be taken literally in that the dogs can keep children away from unsafe environments like traffic. As mentioned in the animal therapy post, dogs can also have a calming effect on children and may improve communication skills and personal relationships.

Program assistance dogs go to work with and assist professionals like physicians, teachers, counselors, and court room advocates and their clients. Here's a little story about a program assistance dog named Nelson:
“Nelson is a two-year-old Black Labrador who came to us from Guide Dogs for the Blind. He had a sensitive trachea and could not become a Guide Dog. Upon arriving at DFD, he rapidly became one of the favorite dogs of everyone with his loving, happy-go-lucky attitude and his desire to please. Nelson entered our Program Assistance Dog training and was matched with Janet V., a teacher of students with special needs. Dogs going into this training must be totally "unflappable" and able to remain totally calm regardless of what is happening around them. That was Nelson! Obviously, Nelson also had to LOVE children, and he did. Janet has nine middle school age students, all of whom have special needs. Nelson accompanies her to school every day. Among other things, Nelson's trainer taught him to "go touch." When he is with the students and one of them is upset or distracted, Nelson goes to the child and touches him/her with his nose to comfort and help refocus the child, enabling the student to continue with the assignment. Janet incorporates Nelson into her lessons, and he helps motivate the students to read, do their assignments, and focus. Nelson is also used as a reward; when a student has done something well, that student is able to spend a few minutes petting and playing with Nelson. Each morning Nelson greets each student, and he is helping to motivate the students to communicate. Nelson will be benefitting students in Janet's classes for many years to come, helping these children to learn, grow, and develop in spite of their special needs.”

Pretty awesome, right? The last category, “career change” dogs, are dogs who are not suited for any of the aforementioned careers, but are happy, healthy, and looking for love. They are dogs who have chosen fun and leisure pet as their career. They just need human companions.

It sounds like a great organization. So great, in fact, that Kiwanis International donated to Dogs for the Deaf, requesting that the donation be used for autism assistance dog training. So what do you think? Canine campers at MHKC? Sounds good to me!


  1. Shelley - all of us at DFD want to thank you for this excellent, well written article! We've shared it on our website, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. We really appreciate all that the Kiwanis do for people in need, and for DFD. And... Canine Campers at MHKC sounds great to us, also.
    Kris - Web & Social Networking Administrator
    Dogs for the Deaf

    1. Thank you so much for sharing and for the kind comments! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)