Dog Ears

Locally Trained Dogs Aid the Hearing Impaired
To say a dog is man’s best friend is an understatement when referring to a “hearing-ear” dog trained through the Dog Ears program. These special service dogs are helpful and extraordinary companions for individuals with hearing challenges.

When Rebbecca White’s dog, Prissy, hears the doorbell, she immediately goes to Rebbeca, gently nudges her with her nose and then walks to the door to indicate the source of the sound. If Rebbeca’s smoke detector went off, her dog would instantly lead Rebecca outside. Prissy is just one of many dogs trained locally at Dog Ears. Operating much like a seeing-eye dog for the visually impaired, a hearing-ear dog makes a great furry assistant for someone with a hearing disability.

Dog Ears is a non-profit agency that trains carefully selected dogs to alert their hard-of-hearing owners to daily sounds such as a phone/TDD, alarm clock and doorbell. The agency is east of Interstate 35 on Britton Road and is located at Anne’s Country Club for Pets. Melanie Blackburn, one of the kennel owners, initiated the program in 1988 after finding out her son was hard of hearing. She had become involved with the hearing-impaired community and began understanding their needs. Her love of dogs, combined with concern for her son, motivated her to start the Dog Ears program.

The primary trainer at Dog Ears is TJ Radle, who says that all breeds and mixes can be trained as hearing-ear dogs. However, about 50 dogs are tested before a single dog is found to be a worthy candidate. The first test is to determine if the dog is friendly, submissive and tolerant. Next, the dog has to demonstrate a keen awareness to sounds and be willing to go look for the sound.

Prior to any special training, Prissy was already Rebecca White’s dog. Fortunately for Rebecca, Prissy was able to pass the testing and be trained as her hearing-ear dog. The need for such assistance came about several years ago when Rebecca’s small son was stuck between his bed and the bedroom wall. He yelled for his mother but she could not hear him, nor could she see him. Now Rebecca says she and her family are safer with Prissy around.

The cost for training a hearing-ear dog is between $1,000 and $1,500. However, the recipients are not charged — they are merely asked to contribute what they can. Private donations and grants cover most of the expenses. Various groups help make Dog Ears possible, including the local Jaycees, Lions Clubs, Boy and Girl Scout troops, churches and other civic organizations. The building for the center was donated and wired by Southwestern Bell. Other valuable donations have included time given by volunteers to help with office and grounds upkeep, as well as exercising or playing with the dogs.

The length of time required for training a dog is three months to a year. Only four to 10 dogs are trained each year and fewer actually make it to the “fully certified” level.

Training also extends to the recipient, who is carefully matched with the dog. The individual must be taught to consistently respond to the dog’s action of alert, for if the dog’s efforts are ignored, his reliability and performance will diminish. Therefore, home training is necessary. In this arena of instruction, specific goals are determined for each person. For example, a young mother would need a dog particularly trained to respond to the cry of her baby.

Another part of instruction is taking the dog into the community to various public places to make sure the dog behaves well and is a good “people” dog. During this socialization phase of training, the dog is exposed to as many different people, places and experiences as possible. This is important for the dog’s ability to blend into public life. According to the American Disabilities Act, service dogs are allowed to go anywhere the general public can go. This law enables dogs to enter restaurants, shops, government buildings, churches, buses, taxis, trains and planes. The state of Oklahoma requires the dog to wear an orange collar for easy identification of its service status.

Near the end of the schooling period, the dog also has been taught basic house manners such as asking to go outside and not chewing on things like shoes or electrical cords. The dog is even taught to not drink water out of the toilet. By the time the dog is placed, it is a canine scholar.

The hearing-ear dog has gained popularity after a season of the TV show “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye.” The main character is a deaf detective who reads lips for the FBI. She has a beautiful and friendly golden retriever that serves as her hearing-ear dog. The show, based on the true story of Sue Thomas and her job in Washington, D.C., has increased the public awareness of these specially trained dogs.

At Dog Ears, the staff says companionship and independence are the most beneficial reasons for having a hearing-ear dog. Call 405-478-2303 (voice or via relay) to contact the Dog Ears program.

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