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The Ultimate Guide to Hearing Dogs

Hearing Dog Service Dog Training

Hearing Dogs alert their hard of hearing or deaf handlers to important sounds in the environment. Commonly trained sounds include approaching cars, fire alarms, sirens, dropped keys, and the handler’s name. Read on to learn all about Hearing Dogs, where they come from, what they do, and how they’re trained!

Bonus: Read our step-by-step training guide at the end of this post to learn how to introduce new sounds to a Hearing Dog in Training. 

Hearing Dog Basics

Hearing Dogs, also known as Hearing Alert Dogs, Hearing Ear Dogs, or Signal Dogs, partner with D/deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages. These specialized Service Dogs undergo countless hours of task training, during which they learn to recognize a variety of sounds and how to notify their handler of the sound. Before being accepted for Hearing Dog training, trainers test the canine candidate for sound temperament, good physical structure, and a keen, curious, social personality.

Upon passing their initial temperament and aptitude evaluation, new Hearing Dogs in Training formally begin their Service Dog foundation training. They learn manners, basic and advanced obedience, and public access skills. They work on focusing through distractions and on building impulse control. After these special dogs master the basics, they begin their advanced training. For Hearing Dogs, this consists of “soundwork,” or the process of learning sounds and the associated alert behaviors.

Hearing Dog Wellie working in public

Hearing Dog Wellie, partnered with Jennifer Hampton, demonstrates his public access training.

Some Hearing Dogs work for people with multiple disabilities. These multi-purpose Service Dogs may be cross-trained for other Service Dog jobs and undergo additional task training. Good Hearing Dogs undergo hundreds of hours of specialized training and socialization before ever entering the field. Once teams graduate from training, they continue building their skills and bonding as a pair.

Who Trains Hearing Dogs?

In the United States, Hearing Dogs can be trained by a professional organization or program, or their future handler can train them. If the handler self-trains their own Service Dog, it’s called “owner training.” U.S. Federal law protects the public access rights of professionally trained Service Dogs and owner trained Service Dogs the same way — there are no differences. Both types of Service Dogs enjoy the same level of protection.

Several organizations in the United States train and place Hearing Dogs. Each has their own set of requirements and guidelines for receiving a Hearing Dog. These are a few of the most well-known programs:

  1. International Hearing Dog, Inc. – They’ve trained over 1,300 Hearing Dogs and have been in business since 1979. They are a non-profit organization.
  2. NEADS World Class Service Dogs – Formally known as National Education For Assistance Dog Services and Dogs For Deaf and Disabled Americans. They’ve trained over 1,800 Service Dogs and have been in business since 1976. They are a non-profit organization.
  3. Dogs For Better Lives – Formally Hearing Dogs for the Deaf. They’ve been training and placing Hearing Dogs since 1977. They are a non-profit organization.

If someone wishes to receive a Hearing Dog from one of the established Hearing Dog training programs, they should check with each organization for their application requirements. Some programs mandate a 65 decibel hearing loss or more, whereas others require specific testing or medical documentation. Most programs have age requirements or require documented use of other assistive devices. Some provide fully trained Hearing Dogs free of charge, but others require fundraising. Program requirements are readily available online.

What Do Hearing Dogs Actually Do?

A fully trained Hearing Dog monitors the environment for the specific sounds they’re trained to respond to. Some Hearing Dogs recognize 3 or 4 sounds, and others know a dozen or more. A Hearing Dog can learn to alert to any sound the handler or trainer deems important, but these are a few of the more common ones:

  • Doorbell / Knocking on the Door
  • Overhead PA Announcements
  • Phone Ringing / Text Chime
  • Printers / Fax Machine
  • Alarm Clocks / Timers
  • Handler’s Name
  • Smoke Alarm
  • Baby Crying
  • Sirens

When the Hearing Dog hears one of their sounds, they immediately alert their handler via a trained alert behavior. Most Hearing Dogs use a nose, body, or paw nudge as their alert since the physical contact instantly gets their handler’s attention.

Hearing Dogs Have Trained Alert Behaviors

After a Hearing Dog hears and locates an important sound, they alert their handler.

Some Hearing Dogs are trained to “sit” or to stare intently at the handler until acknowledged. This isn’t ideal for most teams since it requires the handler to visually see the alert. It’s easy to miss alerts that way, especially if the D/deaf or hard of hearing handler is deeply engrossed in their activity! After the alert, the Hearing Dog leads the handler to the source of the sound, and the handler rewards the dog.

While working in public with their handler, most Hearing Dogs don’t respond to ambient street noises or office sounds unless their training dictates it. However, since Hearing Dogs closely monitor their surroundings, their body language and interaction with the environment provide their handler with plenty of feedback about the team’s surroundings. By watching their dog’s cues, the handler can know when someone comes up behind them or a car approaches from out of sight.

Hearing Dog users often cite increased peace of mind, security, and independence as a few of the biggest benefits of their partnership. Many handlers go on to note that no other type of assistance or device replicates the real-time, real-world interaction they get from their canine teammates.

What Kinds of Dogs Make Good Hearing Dogs?

Continuously sifting through the thousands of sounds present in everyday life requires vast amounts of focus and attention. A good Hearing Dog is keenly alert, active, inquisitive, and always ready to jump into high gear. They must discern important noises from background noises at all hours of the day and night. They must recognize and pinpoint the location of any given sound quickly and accurately. Additionally, they must reliably complete a complex series of trained behaviors without guidance or prompting.

Hearing Dogs Can Be Any Breed

Terriers and terrier mixes often showcase the unique mix of traits necessary for Hearing Dogs to succeed.

Hearing Dog candidates showcase a rare balance of independence and socialability, inquisitiveness and focus, drive and impulse control. These special dogs must have the energy, both mental and physical, to analyze and prioritize constant sensory input. They must be independent enough to make decisions about what to do with the information they’re sorting. They must be curious enough to enjoy investigating the environment day in and day out, for years on end.

However, as with all things, a flip side exists. They need high energy levels, but they must be able to relax quietly while the handler works. They must be independent, but they cannot be aloof. A social, friendly nature and desire for interaction matter in all Service Dogs. This is especially true for Hearing Dogs since their task work requires constant check-ins with the handler. They must be curious, but Hearing Dog candidates cannot be distractable or spazzy. They have a job to do and they must remember it at all times.

How Can Someone Identify a Hearing Dog?

The short answer is “you can’t.” Unless you speak to the handler or the Hearing Dog sports a snazzy identification vest, you probably won’t know a Service Dog is a Hearing Dog. D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals often don’t “look disabled.” You can’t usually “see” deafness or hearing loss, and so, they fall among the so-called “invisible disabilities.” This often leads to frequent access challenges or lots of questions from the public.

Service Dog Access Questions

Businesses may only ask two specific questions in order to determine whether a dog is a trained Service Dog or a pet.

Every Service Dog team, including Hearing Dogs, is unique. Hearing Dogs can be any breed or mix of breeds. They can be any size, although most programs, trainers, and handlers prefer small and medium-sized dogs. The smaller breeds tend to be less obtrusive while working. Incidentally, the breeds that most commonly have the necessary Hearing Dog traits tend towards small or medium sizes. Terriers, poodles, spaniels, Papillions, and various mixes of these breeds, as well as retrievers and shepherds, regularly work as Hearing Dogs.

What Kind of Gear Do Hearing Dogs Wear?

In the United States, Hearing Dogs and Hearing Dogs in Training do not need any special identification or gear while working in public. Many Hearing Dogs, especially those who graduated from a professional training organization, wear bright orange vests or jackets. The bright orange equipment stands out from the surrounding environment, which keeps the Hearing Dog team safer. Drivers can more easily see the Hearing Dog, and thus the handler, which is vital, since the handler may not always see them!

Hearing Dogs may also have bright orange collars and leashes, in addition to or in replacement of, their orange vest. Some states, like Connecticut and Mississippi, offer additional legal protection for Hearing Dogs wearing blaze orange gear. That being said, Hearing Dogs may wear any color or style of harness or vest or even none at all! Always remember the gear doesn’t make a Service Dog — the training does.

Hearing Dog Wellie In Orange Vest

Hearing Dog Wellie, partnered with Jennifer Hampton, shows off his blaze orange vest.

Hearing Dog Training

At its most basic level, Hearing Dog training appears relatively simple: link environmental cue A (the sound) to behavior chain B (the alert). Easy-peasy. However, Hearing Dog task work actually consists of some very complex behavior chains, and imprinting sounds requires dedicated time and energy. The trained Hearing Dog performs a specific, set sequence of 3 to 5+ individual behaviors in response to multiple variable environmental cues, all while calculating the appropriate adjustments for various distractions, distances, and behavior durations.

Beyond that, the Hearing Dog must do this without any cueing from the handler, as the handler cannot hear the sound. They are fully reliant on the dog to perform as expected on its own. So, the sound itself must become the trigger for the alert, and both the sound and the alert require extensive proofing and testing.

Additionally, the dog must continue to perform their trained alert until the handler acknowledges and rewards them. Training sustained duration of a behavior without input, prompting, or additional cueing from the handler requires patience and persistence on the part of the trainer. All of these components form the basis for Hearing Dog training.

Don’t be discouraged, though! Like any dog training, Hearing Dog training builds on simple foundation behaviors and gradually becomes more complex. Once the basic building blocks of a Hearing Dog’s skills separate out, the training process looks much clearer.

Hearing Dog Training Has Many Parts

By now, you know there are two major pieces to a Hearing Dog’s soundwork: the environmental cue and the following cascade of alert behaviors. The environmental cue consists of each individual sound the dog knows. The trainer introduces every sound to the dog, one by one, and gives the sound significance. This process is known as “imprinting.” By imprinting the sound, the dog learns that some sounds matter more than other sounds. The dog quickly learns to pay attention to the imprinted sounds, because they carry significance and yummy things usually follow them.

Hearing Dogs Must Be Focused

Hearing Dogs must learn which sounds matter out of the thousands of sounds they hear every day as background noise. This requires a lot of focus.

The Hearing Dog in Training learns each individual behavior in the alert completely separately from the sounds. First, these feisty little dogs learn to nudge or touch the trainer. The nose or paw touch uses the targeting foundation behavior of Service Dog task training. Next, they learn some distance behaviors like running to a mat or a cone placed across the room. This helps prepare them for the task of leaving the handler to go back to the sound.

Training Games Help Hearing Dogs Build Skills

Hide and seek and other games are common at this level of training. They encourage the dog to get creative about problem solving and decision making. The games also build the young dog’s frustration tolerance and ability to “shape,” or puzzle through increasingly complex behaviors with the trainer’s guidance.

After the Hearing Dog in Training has a thorough understanding of the individual pieces of the alert behaviors, the trainer links the alert behaviors to the imprinted sounds, one by one. Eventually, each individual sound acts as a cue that triggers the alert. The cues (sounds) all differ, but the end behavior (alert) remains the same.

Hearing Dogs Must Learn to Generalize Sounds (AKA The Curse of Ringtones)

Finally, the trainer works on helping the dog generalize the sounds. Sounds vary in different environments. A phone ringing outdoors varies wildly from the racket of a phone ringing in a small, enclosed space. Phones have different ringtones. The office phone might as well belong to a different family when it’s compared to a mobile phone. Hotel alarm clocks don’t beep like the ones at home. Sirens in one city use a totally distinct pattern from the ones encountered at home. Keys dropped on concrete don’t sound like keys dropped in sand or grass.

Hearing Dogs Alert To Fire Alarms

This fire alarm sounds different than the one in most homes. Hearing Dogs must learn to alert to both.

Oftentimes, different sound sources can differ enough that the dog doesn’t recognize them as the same thing. A common example is an industrial fire alarm versus the fire alarm at home. The intermediate Hearing Dog is exposed to all kinds of variations and types of the sounds so that they learn how to group and prioritize sounds. The dog learns that small differences are probably worth paying attention to just the same.

Finally, the trainer thoroughly distraction proofs the Hearing Dog’s skills and builds duration and distance into the behaviors. The Hearing Dog learns to alert to sounds in any environment and to remain focused on their task. The alert behavior becomes strong and reliable. They’re taught that distance and duration don’t change their alert — the behavior chain remains the same. If a Hearing Dog doesn’t receive this final step of training, their alert behavior falls apart under pressure or in real world conditions.

Imprinting New Sounds

Imprinting new sounds is straightforward. First, determine which sounds you’d like to teach. You’ll introduce one at a time to your Hearing Dog in Training. Once you’ve got a list, you’ll need access to the sound for training purposes. You’ll need a lot of access, so plan ahead. Some sounds, like door knocking or dropped keys, don’t require anything special. You can absolutely drop your keys dozens of times, as long as you’re willing to pick them up. Bonus points if your dog does this for you!

Other sounds, like sirens, fire alarms, or a crying baby, require some creativity. YouTube is an excellent resource — you can find highly creative, hours long videos of nothing but random fire alarms or a compilation of babies crying. Just search for the name of your sound plus “compilation.” Soundbanks also help with this portion of training. Sound Bible and Sound Snap both offer an excellent selection of high-quality sound bites for just about anything you can imagine.

Give the Sounds Meaning

Prepare a pile of high value treats. Diced hot dogs, tiny cheese cubes, and other small, smelly tidbits work well for this. If you’ve ever clicker conditioned a dog, this process will be familiar. Clicker conditiong is also known as “charging the clicker.” Click – treat. Click – treat. Rinse, lather, repeat. The dog quickly realizes the clicker has meaning and starts to look for the treat every time it hears the click.

You’re going to mimic that process for sound imprinting. Trigger the sound, reward the dog. Don’t worry about any kind of indication the dog has heard the sound, like ear twitches or looking for the source. Just play the sound and reward the dog, over and over and over again. Once you’ve done this a couple dozen times, take a break.

Hearing Dog Training With Classical Conditioning

This graphic by VeryWell shows how classical conditioning links a meaningless sound with meaningful reward. That link allows the sound to have meaning to the dog.

Work Towards Recognition of the Sound

Over the next couple of sessions, look for signs the dog recognizes the sound. If you don’t get any, continue the imprinting process until the dog visibly reacts to the sound and looks around for a treat. Just as a side note, if your dog is a toy driven dog, you can substitute a brief game of tug for the treats, but only if they really love tug!

Once the dog recognizes the sound and understands it means a reward is coming, you have succeeded in the basic imprinting of the sound. The process of linking the sound to the alert behavior and then building reliability comes next. You should only move on if your dog has shown a visible reaction to the sound by looking for the reward, without cueing or prompting, 10 or more times in a row.

Make sure you link this first sound to the alert behavior before continuing the imprinting process with subsequent sounds.

Training the Basic Alert Behavior

The first behavior in the alert involves some kind of touch from the dog — nose nudge, paw touch, shoulder bump. Determine what you’d like this initial alert behavior to look like and then stick with it. Dozens of methods exist to teach basic targeting, but the easiest starts with a nose bump to your closed fist.

Place a single high value treat in your palm, show it to the dog, and close your fingers around it. When the dog sniffs your fist, open your fingers and let them eat the treat. As soon as you can, offer your dog a closed fist without a treat in it. If the dog immediately noses your hand, reward them from the other hand or a treat pouch. This prevents dependence on smelling the treat to perform the behavior.

Service Dog Targeting Hand

A basic nose bump to your hand provides a good starting point for training a Hearing Dog alert.

Build this behavior bit by bit by requiring your dog to move to touch your closed fist, or stand on their hind legs, or go around an obstacle to reach it, or whatever you can dream of. You want your dog face punching your hand with gusto the instant a closed fist appears, even if they have to take several steps to get to it, or even if you’re holding it behind you, or even if people are walking around across the room, or even if ___________.

Once you’ve built an enthusiastic nose target, you’re either done with the first part of the alert, or you’re just getting started. If you want a behavior other than a nose target to your closed hand, like a nose bump to your leg, a paw touch or a shoulder bump, you can easily shape it bit by bit. Gradually requiring your dog to make microsteps towards the finished behavior, and reward each tiny step of progress.

Do Not Use Any Kind of Cues or Prompts!

Once you’ve built the final behavior, you want to work on it until you can predict, 10 times out 10, that your dog will perform the behavior. It is VITAL that you not use any kind of verbal cue or that you “help” the dog in any way. Shaping allows the dog to self-discover the behavior, and you must allow them to do so.

If you introduce a reliance on any kind of cue or prompt, you’ll be stuck with it. It will be difficult for your Hearing Dog to perform independently if you give them a crutch during the entry level training. Do not help them. Do not cue them. Let them figure it out, and reward progress. Of course, set your dog up for success — you should know what your dog is capable of and build from there. If you’re struggling with the shaping process, there are some excellent YouTube videos available to help.

You’ll know your dog understands the behavior when they will perform it enthusiastically, without hesitation, in a variety of places. Once that happens, you’re ready to link an imprinted sound to the alert behavior.

Putting It All Together

To start the linking session, start with several repetitions of your dog’s alert behavior. We’ll assume it’s a nose bump, but use yours throughout the training process. Once your dog is happily offering their trained touch behavior, play the sound one time and stop.

Hearing Dog Learning New Sounds

Look for signs of clear recognition from your Hearing Dog in Training.

Your dog should immediately start looking for a treat. Wait it out, without cueing or prompting or helping, and, if you’ve built enough foundation with your alert behavior, your dog will offer the alert behavior. Jackpot your dog with several treats in a row and lots of praise. Make a big deal out of it. Repeat this a few more times and then take a break.

Continue this process until your dog enthusiastically performs the basic alert behavior in response to hearing the imprinted sound. At this point, the chain looks like this:

Sound < Nose Bump < Treat

True Understanding Takes Time and Practice

Your dog’s understanding of the sequence will solidify with time, practice, and experience. Reward your dog for success and ignore hesitation, uncertainty, or lack of engagement. When your dog opts to engage after leaving a session, reward them copiously and continue where you left off. If your dog suddenly seems to forget the alert or loses enthusiasm, take a few steps back and build more skill with the foundation behaviors.

With time and training, Hearing Dogs can grow their “sound vocabulary” to dozens of sounds. Don’t move too quickly. Take the time to introduce new sounds slowly and thoroughly, and to individually link them to the alert behavior. Spending time on these foundation skills provides you with an excellent platform from which to train the remaining, and more complex, pieces of the alert behavior chain.

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