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Service Animals

Service Animals - Not Just for the Blind

Everybody is familiar with Seeing Eye dogs, those wonderful, dedicated animals which allow the blind to lead independent lives. Less well known are the dogs trained to help people with other disabilities. These dogs help open up opportunities to thousands of disabled people.

Dogs can offer assistance both inside and outside the home. They can help people with physical impairments in such tasks as opening and closing doors, pulling a wheelchair, and getting objects that are out of reach. They can also provide balance and guidance to people who are having difficulty walking.

Another type of service animal is the “social dog”. This type of dog provides the therapeutic benefits of dog ownership to a child or adult who cannot completely care for a dog by themselves. A third party, usually a parent or social worker, will help care for the dog.

There are also dogs trained for special purposes such as classroom assistance. These dogs can help teachers or therapists working with physically or emotionally handicapped children. The dog provides motivation to the children and can also be a calming influence in the classroom.


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Common Causes of Hearing Impairment in Children
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Service Animals - Just not for the blind


There are also dogs that can help people with hearing impairments. Hearing dogs are specially trained to respond to common household sounds like the doorbell, the telephone, a smoke alarm, or a knock at the door. When the dog hears one of these sounds (or any others it has been trained for) it responds by gently touching its master who can ask the dog to show them where the sound is coming from.

Hearing dogs have been well trained and respond to all the usual obedience commands such as “sit” and “come”. If the dog is to be assigned to a person who uses sign language, the dog will also be trained to respond to sign language. The dog also receives special training designed to help hearing disabled people.

Hearing dogs are usually selected from animal shelters. Trainers are looking for friendly, intelligent young dogs or pups. These otherwise unwanted dogs are given the opportunity to lead happy, productive lives by becoming a hearing dog. Hearing dogs can be any size, but are most often small or medium.

After the initial selection, the dog has a medical examination to make sure it’s in good health. If everything is OK they will proceed to training, and after successful training, the dogs will be spayed or neutered before placement.

Training can last anywhere from four to eight months. Aside from basic obedience skills, the dog has to be socially trained not to be aggressive, not to beg, and to avoid unnecessary barking and jumping up on people. In addition, the dog has to be trained to respond to various sounds.

The dog will be trained to respond to common sounds such as the phone ringing or a knock on the door. When the dog hears the sound it will gently touch its master and lead him or her to the source of the sound. For an alarm signal, the dog reacts a little bit differently. Again it will touch its master, but this time it will drop to the floor to indicate that it’s dangerous to go towards the sound signal.

After obedience training and sound training the dog has to go through a final stage of training in the recipient’s home. This part of the training can take about three months. The trainer supervises the dog’s adjustment to his new home and teaches the recipient how to care for his dog.

On successful completion of the training program, the dog can wear a special orange vest and collar. The dog will also have an ID card showing his picture and briefly explaining the special rights that a hearing dog has. These rights include access to public facilities such as restaurants and shopping centers.


Dogs of been trained to help hearing disabled people since 1974. Agnes McGrath, a dog trainer in Minnesota, was asked by a hearing impaired woman to train a dog for her. She had had a dog that helped her previously, but the dog had died of old age.

Ms. McGrath agreed to do it, and received funding from the local Lions Clubs chapter to train six dogs. Afterwards, the project was taken over by the American Humane Association. They received a grant for a four-year pilot project conducted in Colorado. As a result of that project, the International Hearing Dog organization was formed.

On the East Coast, a similar organization called National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) has been operating since 1976. NEADS trains service dogs for all purposes except sight. There are many other hearing dog organizations throughout the world.

Hearing dogs are typically reserved for people with severe or profound bilateral hearing loss. For these people, a hearing dog can make all the difference in the world. The dog gives them increased mobility and more independence.

The dogs also benefit. By being chosen from animal shelters, the dogs are saved from almost certain death. They are also given a chance to lead an active, useful life. All in all, a winning solution for everyone involved.

For more information, visit these web sites:

International Hearing Dog, Inc.

Palo Alto Office
1900 University Avenue Suite 101
E. Palo Alto, CA 94303
Phone: (650) 494-1000
Fax: (650) 322-8228
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California Ear Institute