Hearing dogs are different from other service dogs because they don’t need to be sturdy and large. They won’t be called upon to walk people through crowds and across streets, or to help brace someone unsteady on their feet, or pull wheelchairs. They don’t have to open refrigerators or doors, switch on lights, or retrieve dropped items.
Their temperament, too, is different. Most service dogs have to learn to ignore distractions and sounds that don’t apply to their specific tasks. Sirens, alarms, honking horns, people talking, bells, light sabers, ringing phones – these only matter to most service dogs when their handler tells them to respond to them. These service dogs have to be emotionally stable, steady, and laid back. Alert and intelligent, certainly, but not hyperactive or needy.
Hearing dogs, on the other hand, need to be alert to sounds, even, and perhaps especially, unfamiliar sounds. Their training involves learning to identify sounds and learning how to alert their handler to those sounds. They need to be hyper, and attentive, and even a bit neurotic. They need to be supremely confident, friendly, and slightly aggressive. Some emotional instability is acceptable in them, and so are some psychological problems like separation anxiety and neediness, as long as the handler is seen by the dog as the pack leader and the handler remains in control. Almost any dog breed can be trained to be a hearing dog, but the small dogs seem best – schipperkes, shelties, beagles, corgis, Papillions, Pomeranians, Maltese, yorkies, miniature poodles, and Chihuahuas.
Most service dog trainers prefer to work with bigger dogs, and the most popular breeds for service dogs are labs, golden retrievers, standard poodles, bouvier, spinoni, and German shepherds. These are big, mild-mannered dogs with a high degree of working intelligence. They learn quickly, they are very obedient, and they are able to screen out distractions, being emotionally stable dogs.
Hearing dogs need a high adaptive intelligence, able to extrapolate and solve problems. They need to be alert to all kinds of distractions. The miniature poodle and Papillion are the best hearing dog breeds, followed closely by schipperkes, corgis, Pomeranians, Maltese, and yorkies. These are all breeds that are hyper-alert, and have reputations for being neurotic, yappy, and high strung. Those very qualities are what helps make them such good hearing dogs.
On intelligence scales, poodles and Papillions are very high, needing a maximum of 5 repeats to understand and learn a new command, and obeying it about 95% of the time. Chihuahuas are rated very low, presumably needing 40-80 repeats before learning a new command and then only obeying 30% of the time. They aren’t among the “dumbest” dogs – needing 80 or more repeats of a command and then only obeying about 25% of the time, but they are rated pretty low. Even the “dumbest” dogs can be trained – it just takes a lot more effort and a lot more patience because it takes so long for the payoff. Plus, I’m not too comfortable with whole breeds of dogs being classed as “dumb” when individual dogs within the breed (or entire families of dogs in the breed) are exceptions.
Chihuahuas as a breed may be very low on the intelligence list, but there are individual Chihuahuas that make outstanding hearing dogs because they tend to bond tightly with their handler and are exceedingly eager to obey. Chihuahuas are far more intelligent than many people credit them with being. Their little walnut sized brains can accomplish a lot, given the dedication and patience to train them.
I have a Chihuahua as a hearing dog. Chihuahuas are considered high-strung, nervous, and aggressive yappy little dogs – and this is true of many Chihuahuas. Personally, I think it’s because they aren’t well trained and their special needs aren’t considered. People try to treat them like bigger dogs, and that won’t work. They are high-strung and nervous – and their aggression arises from being afraid. But well-trained and protected, their special needs catered to, a Chihuahua makes an excellent hearing dog.
The good thing about hearing impaired people is that we are usually physically fit, so we can take care of the physical and psychological needs of our hearing dog while our dog provides the hearing assistance we need. Other types of service dogs need to be psychologically stable and in minimal need of pampering.
The qualities to look for in a hearing dog are: hyper-alertness, curiosity, adaptability, friendliness, and being people-oriented rather than dog-oriented. They have to be aware of and alert on sounds. They have to be curious enough to go investigate the sounds. It’s OK if some sounds scare them as long as they then creep out to investigate the sound. Dogs that are terrified of sounds make very bad hearing dogs. Hearing dogs have to be trained pretty much from puppyhood. It’s a rare adult dog that makes a good hearing dog.
The reason for this is that small dogs need to be socialized intensively as puppies, and they need to feel safe in that socialization. They need to be oriented to people and taught from a very young age that all Good Things come from people. They need to learn very young that people will protect them from the scary stuff – and when you’re teeny, everything’s scary. People aren’t very good at training small dogs because they don’t give the little dogs the safety they need. They’re all “aaaww, he’s so cute!” and they want to pet the little dog even when the dog and handler warn them the dog is stressed and needs space. Little dogs have to learn how to deal with people getting in their faces all the time, and trying to pick them up and squeeze them. It’s tough, being small and cute among big, scary, people who won’t respect your space. Big dogs don’t have to worry about their space being violated in the way little dogs do. It’s a completely different set of coping skills little dogs need to learn.
Chihuahuas generally are indifferent to other dogs except Chihuahuas. They are much more people focused and will bond strongly with their owner. Trained right, they aren’t recklessly fearless, but they are bold and curious, which is exactly what a hearing dog needs to be. They are determined to take care of their owner, and if the owner establishes themselves as the pack leader, it makes the Chihuahua calmer and less stressed – which in turn reduces the yappiness and destructive neurotic behaviors. A calm, stress-free Chihuahua learns faster and better. Small dogs need to depend upon their owner to protect them from the scary things, and to remember that they are small and need special accommodations – ramps to give them access to things, elevated car seats in cars so they aren’t tossed around the big seats and can see outside, shade, rest, and water on demand, and small dogs tire quickly. They recover quickly, but they need frequent rest breaks. They need a harness for the leash to hook to because their necks are too fragile for the forces a human can put on a collar alone. In crowds, they need to be elevated so they can see – and protected from trampling feet. They need their owners to pay attention to them because they communicate almost constantly with their owner. Touch is more important to small dogs than big dogs so they need to be touched a lot – sitting in your lap, sitting right beside you so they’re touching you, up in a sling or pouch where they can see your face. Remember, your face is incredibly high above a small dog: it’s as if you were trying to see the face of someone who towered 66 feet above you. Much of your body language is invisible to them unless you reduce it down and place it on a level where they can see it. That’s why it makes sense to train small dogs on raised platforms like table tops, counters, or desks. Once they learn their behavior, you can test them on the floor, but you still have to give them hand signals down where they can see them, which means bending down to their level or lifting them to yours.
Itzl and I have spent three years partnering together as a hearing team. On an intelligence scale, I think he rates up there with Papillions. It usually only takes 5 repeats before he recognizes a new sound; and only a little longer if I don’t have a hearing person with me to help him identify the sound. He has several alerts he uses and knows which one to deploy depending upon his situation.
Loose in the house, he will come get me and headbutt or leap onto me then run to the sound. If I follow him right away, all is well. If I don’t, he gets more insistent and forceful each time he has to alert. Outdoors, he will come to me and point in the general direction of the sound. This is where laser pointers come in handy – I can point it to various things in that direction until he gets a bit excited, and then can guess what sound set him to alert. Usually, it’s someone’s car alarm.
In crowded situations, I wear him on a pouch on my neck. His alerts then are still physical, but subdued. He’ll “chuff” – rapidly inflate and deflate his chest and “point” to the sound he wants me to notice, usually with his ears. Again, a laser pointer is often useful in locating the source of the sound.
At work, he will pace on my desk, getting up, staring at the source of the sound, lying down and chuffing. If I ignore him, he’ll headbutt my cheek, or grab a finger and tug.
If he’s in my lap, he’ll chuff and point.
He alerts on the following sounds: fire alarms, smoke alarms, ambulance sirens, police sirens, fire engine sirens, tornado sirens, lightning sirens, doorbells, the timer on the stove and microwave, car alarms, pagers and cell phones, light sabers, bicycle bells, car horns, and anyone who says my name or his.
He does not respond to “Ma’am”, “hey you”, “you there”, or “yo, lady!” Maybe he thinks it’s rude to address me that way. In any case, he’s stubborn, too, and refuses to learn to alert on those words.
He responds aggressively to dogs who jump on me or who bark (by aggressively, I mean he stares at them and rumbles – just short of a growl), people who shout at me and grab me at the same time, people or animals who make hostile moves towards either of us, and to people who snap their fingers or wear pirate hats. Since he was trained to growl “arrrr” at people in pirate hats, I fully take the blame for that bit of aggression.
He’s not aggressive, but he does rumble around people whose body chemistry is out of balance. It can be as simple as hunger or as complex as a medical condition that’s not fully under control – like seizure disorders, blood pressure, or even sunburns. He’s not discriminatory about it and can’t seem to refine his detecting skills, so he doesn’t get to be a medical alert dog. He will rumble at these people, but will let them pet him without any sign of stress or aggression other than rumbling.
He also “purrs”. He grew up with cats, so when he’s happy, he rumbles. It’s hard to tell the difference between his different rumbles if you don’t know him, but I do know him. He rumbles when he’s unsure of someone (usually a dog), when he meets someone whose body chemistry is out of balance, and when he’s happy.
He’s cautious around other dogs until he knows them, then he gets along fine with them – unless he gets mad at them for bad behavior. He will remember he dislikes a specific dog for years, but he doesn’t apply that dislike to all dogs of the same breed. He’s the same way about people. If a person angers or – worse – offends him, he will dislike that person forever.
There’s a dog near where I work that is a boisterous, yappy, exuberant dog – not mean, but she jumps on people and barks in their faces. Her owner thinks it’s “cute”. She’s a big dog, probably around 50 or 60 pounds, so you always have to brace when she races up to greet you. Itzl detests her intensely because she offends his sense of decorum. He will pull away from her and if she gets too bouncy, will start rumbling and pull as far away as he can. As soon as she settles down, so does he.
As for people, he usually forgives them if they misbehave, but he punishes them first. If they misbehave in my office at work, he will first stare at them with his head down. If they don’t behave right away, he will raise a paw and maybe take a step towards them. If they still ignore him, he will go to the far end of my desk and turn his back on them, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see if they’ve noticed their punishment. Most of them don’t notice they are being punished right then, but if they return to my office later and don’t apologize, he will get up and go to the far end of my desk and studiously ignore them again. He will keep this up until they apologize. It has to be a verbal apology and has to include the word “sorry” in it.
There’s only one person he detests with a passion, and that person thinks it’s funny. He offended Itzl to the very depths of his little doggie soul by grabbing Itzl and blowing a raspberry right beneath his tail. Up until that moment, Itzl liked him and would be happy to see him. From that moment on, it was “Die, worthless scum!” Itzl only needs to hear him to suddenly transform from a sweet little dog to Cujo Incarnate. Since we only see him once a year at an arts festival, it’s not a big issue. But – when Itzl hears him anywhere on the grounds (and Itzl has big, sensitive ears), he used to leap from my arms or out of his dawgie bag or jerk the leash out of my hands and take off after him – and there would be no obstacle too great to stop him. As soon as he located this poor man, he’d set up a ferocious barking and block him from going anywhere. I have managed to temper his reaction down to a full teeth-showing growl while he stays with me. He no longer runs off and barks at him. In another year or two, I may have him down to a mere indifferent rumble. But I doubt Itzl will ever accept his apology.
As with any living animal, he has his quirks and he has his moments when he flat out doesn’t want to work. He also has sneaky moments when he pretends he did something he was supposed to, and when he doesn’t alert me like he should.
For instance, our city sets off the tornado alarm at noon every day. Itzl stopped alerting me on that siren because he learned nothing ever happens from it. I had to re-teach him to alert on it by paying close attention to the time, having a hearing friend IM me when the siren started, and then giving him the alert command and step down, just as we do when he’s trained to a new sound. But still, if I’m not paying attention to the time, he’ll sometimes skip alerting on that particular siren. He does alert on it when it sounds at any time other than noon, but I’ve recently learned he only alerts on it the first time it goes off in a day, and not subsequent sirens. So, if it sounds for a tornado, and stops, then 5 minutes later, 10 minutes later, an hour later, sounds again, he only alerts on the first siren. With tornado season coming up again, I’ll be able to re-train him on that with a hearing friend.
He isn’t a food–oriented dog. That made training him challenging until I realized he preferred cuddles and praise to food for doing a good job. When he’s feeling insecure, he’ll sometimes alert on a sound that isn’t there, just to get cuddles and praise. Unless someone who hears is with me, I have no way of knowing when he alerts on a real sound or just wants cuddles and praise. I don’t consider this a major issue. If he was a food-oriented dog and was cadging extra treats with false alarms, I’d be much more concerned. I’ve heard of dogs who alert on phone rings and doorbells for extra treats, and the handler is puzzled at the number of prank calls and doorbell ringing.
Sometimes, I think he gives false alerts just because he thinks it’s funny. He’ll alert as if someone called my name, and when I look around for them, I can’t find them. I don’t cuddle or praise him if I can’t find the source of the sound, just give him his step down word (for us, that’s “Thank you, Itzl”). He always looks so smug and I swear he’s laughing at me when he gives a false alert. I think he does it so I’ll turn around and let him look around more. Or if we’re in a lecture or panel, and he gets bored, he’ll give alerts in the hope I will take the hint and go do something more interesting. I neither praise him nor give him the step down word for those. Instead, I give him the command to sit or lie down. He’ll do it, but not happily. Sometimes, I’ll give in and play with him, letting him chew on a small toy or chase my fingers because I know he’s bored and there’s nothing for him to do. In that regard, he’s very like a toddler.
This is where hearing impaired people are disadvantaged in keeping up the training of their dogs, and sometimes in training the dogs at all. If we can’t hear the sound, we can’t easily teach the dog to alert on it, and we can’t tell when the dog gives us a false alert. A hearing family member or friend is very useful in these cases.
He hates noisy venues with a passion. Whenever I have to do something that involves large crowds with lots of noise – like the big New Year’s Eve party downtown, loud parties at conventions or even at friends’ houses, bars, pep rallies, or concerts – he does his best to convince me I don’t want to be there. I usually keep him in his dawgie bag when we’re in large crowds because he is small (7 inches at the shoulder and only 4 pounds) and the people usually aren’t paying attention to what is at their feet. He’s fast, but not fast enough to dodge hundreds of stomping feet. So he stays up high and safe in his dawgie bag. That doesn’t make him like noisy places any better.
I know why he hates the noise – it obstructs his hearing. He takes his job very seriously, and he does not approve of anything that prevents him from carrying out his duties as he thinks it should be done. He’s very anal that way.
When I attend noisy events, he will start by hunkering down in his dawgie bag and tucking his ears in – just to let me know he’s refusing to work. If I stay anyway, he’ll come out and start chuffing – not at any particular noise, just generally chuffing to get my attention to try to make me leave. If I keep staying, he’ll turn around in his dawgie bag and stare at me. The next step is to stand up in his bag, place his paws on my shoulders and block my view with his head – all while staring at me. If that doesn’t work, he’ll start moaning and pawing at his ears. If I stay until I decide to leave (or the event is over), when we leave, he’ll give me the cold shoulder for a couple of days. He’ll do his job, but he wants me to clearly know that he is a superior being, who will work under the most adverse conditions, and will never, ever shirk his duties, because he has pride and honor. He won’t look at me until he forgives me. He’ll sit as far from me as he can. At night, he’ll drag his little bed to the foot of the bed and sleep there instead of at the head of the bed. He won’t sit in my lap, but he will deign to ride in the dawgie bag because that’s his job and he’ll always do his job no matter how hard I make it for him or how wrong I am.
If I apologize to him and cook his meals and hand feed them to him, he will get over it faster. He doesn’t cold shoulder me as long as he used to, not after last year, when he was in the middle of one of his “I don’t love you” moments and I had to leave him overnight while I sat vigil at my mother’s deathbed. Since my mother is allergic to dog dander, I couldn’t bring him with me. Usually, I made arrangements to bring him to the hospital and leave him at the nursing station with a volunteer or a friend, but this one time, it was late at night and no time to make arrangements. Retelling it sounds rather insensitive, but after Mother was declared dead and the essential arrangements had been made, I went back to get Itzl. I’d been gone 18 hours – the longest we’d ever been separated since we were partnered. When I saw him again, he’d completely forgotten he was mad at me and it was months before he tried to snub me again.
The last time he was mad at me was at SoonerCon, when I went to the SinnerCon part of the convention. It was loud in there and not just from the crowd of people. They had the volume cranked up so high the walls trembled and the air vibrated. Since I didn’t stay long, he didn’t get too mad at me and forgave me practically as soon as we were down the hall and away from the noise.
I didn’t go anywhere noisy at Conestoga.
The next potential for “noisy” is FenCon next October because the company picnic is a tame affair and so are the Labor Day events, Founder’s Day, Oktoberfest, and the fall equinox parties. In spite of the oompah bands, Oktoberfest is not noisy, and no more crowded than MedFaire. Being outdoors makes the difference I think, because the sounds have room to expand and he can hear all the sounds without getting echoes and vibrations that disorient him.
Probably the hardest part of having a very small dog as a service dog is people.
People don’t initially believe he’s a service dog. It truly doesn’t matter how many patches and IDs and special tags we put on him, they dismiss him as a pet. As a hearing dog, he wears an orange collar and harness (American Kennel Club now makes them in his size – he wears a 6″ collar). He has a collar tag identifying him as a service dog, a photo ID card identifying him as a hearing dog, assorted vests (not all of them are orange) with patches identifying him as a service or hearing dog, business cards identifying him as a hearing dog (and me as his partner/handler), and his dawgie bags (none of which are currently orange) all bear patches identifying him as a service/hearing dog. That’s still not enough for a surprisingly large number of people. Places that are negative about us entering their premises are rare, and if they refuse access, I usually go someplace else. I’m not big on pushing it because while I’m hearing impaired, I’m not totally deaf. I could get by without Itzl; it’s just that people may perceive me as rude without him there telling me they’re talking to me, and if a siren or alarm were to trigger, I might never know it if I don’t see someone else responding to it. He’s useful and gives me the security to go places by myself.
Even when people do believe he’s a service dog, they violate his space and try to pet him or move in ways he perceives as threatening. He’s been trained not to be aggressive, so he doesn’t bite, snap, or bark (although I might – I’m not near as well trained as he is), but he will yip, duck, and rumble when he feels threatened by people. If I can stop the person from making a threatening move (and moving fast towards him, especially if the hands are above his head, holding something, or come from behind him on the sides, is a threatening move), he will allow them to pet him. Heck, I might even allow them to pet him.
Again, unlike most other types of service dogs, petting or playing with a hearing dog usually doesn’t interfere with their job duties. Itzl will alert even in the midst of being petted and admired. If he’s playing fetch, and hears a sound he needs to alert me about, he’ll stop his play to come tell me I need to hear something. He’ll even wake from a sound sleep to alert me. All he needs to do is keep his ears open and to be able to reach me, and he can do his job. Eating, being petted, playing, even when he’s out peeing, he’ll stop to alert me. Pooping is pretty much the only activity he won’t stop doing to come and alert me, and he’ll still come tell me I need to hear something after he’s done pooping. He’s always on duty, even when he doesn’t look like it.
Several months ago, we had a small scare with his health – his back legs suddenly became paralyzed. Turns out it was just indigestion. He’s so small his gassiness pressed on his spine and numbed his legs. A little bit of Pepcid AC took care of it. But even while he was panicked about not being able to walk, he was still alerting me to the alarms and beeps in the vet’s office. He’s always on duty.
Small dogs are very determined to do the job right, and they are convinced no one else can do it as well as they can. They are very jealous of their duties, too.
See, I don’t have just the one dog. I also have my son’s dogs living with me while he’s deployed to Iraq (and after his deployment while he’s stationed in Germany and however long after that it takes him to get settled somewhere where he can have his dogs back), and the little Chihuahua Itzl rescued from the streets last September. The big dogs out back are not a concern for Itzl, he knows one of them is gunshy and terrified of loud noises. But the little Chihuahua he rescued is picking up on his duties and doing her best to emulate him. She lacks the right temperament to be a hearing dog – crowds stress her out, breaking routine stresses her out, travel stresses her out, and when she gets stressed, she forgets to alert. She’s fine at home. There, she’ll happily alert on the stove timer, the doorbell, the tornado sirens, the smoke alarm, and any strange noises. Take her away from the house, and she freaks. Itzl vies with her to alert me at home. They’ll both come running to me together to alert me on a sound. Sometimes, they’ll alert just on the hint of a possible noise, just so the other one won’t alert me first. They both get cuddles and praise when they do that and apparently they both think I have only a limited number of cuddles and they each want more than their fair share.
But Itzl, because he’s had the training and the socialization and has the right temperament, gets to wear the patches and tags and clothes and have the ID that grants him access to wherever I go so he can do his job.
Itzl and I have been partnered for so long and we bonded so well that my reactions to his alerts are so seamless I can pass for fully hearing. That, too, causes problems with people not believing he’s a service dog. I don’t look handicapped, I don’t act handicapped with him, therefore I’m not handicapped, he’s not a service dog, and we can’t enter the premises. Most of the time, they feel obligated to interrogate me even after seeing his ID. That’s why I buy packets of the ADA laws and regulations about service dogs.
Medical alert dogs, social dogs, minister dogs, class dogs, autism dogs, companion dogs for panic disorder, PTSD, and depression, and hearing dogs all share the same problems – the owner/handler doesn’t look handicapped and the dog may not be a standard breed recognized as a service dog (labs, golden retrievers, german shepherds). Mobility and seeing eye dogs are the ones who are granted access without any hassles at all. The rest of us have to prove our dogs have access. Imagine, if we have problems, just how much harder it is for those who don’t have service dogs, but service animals, like monkeys, macaws, cats, ferrets, miniature horses, goats, or other animals.