The dogs that change lives #4 – Hearing Dogs for Deaf People

The penultimate piece of my 2011 dissertation on the dogs that change lives was the story of three incredible canines:

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People

Nearly nine million people in the UK suffer from an invisible disability, which can leave them feeling isolated and lonely – its name? Deafness.

One in seven adults will experience some form of hearing loss, and learning to live with this disability can have a devastating effect on a person’s life.

Many sufferers say they lost their sense of security, confidence and independence when they lost their hearing, often becoming withdrawn, as they find it increasingly hard to communicate.

But there is hope in the form of organisation, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Launched at Crufts in 1982, the charity trains dogs to alert deaf people to everyday household sounds, and danger signals in the home, workplace and in public buildings.

Since its launch, it has created more than 1,600 partnerships between deaf people and hearing dogs in the UK with 750 currently working today.

Don Sharpe & Mitchell - Hearing Dogs

Don Sharpe, aged 60, from Sutton-in-Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire, discovered he was losing his hearing 12 years ago, and his world fell apart.

As a qualified music teacher, he played the organ six days a week, and his hearing loss meant he struggled to adjust to his world of virtual silence.

He says: “I found myself withdrawing into my shell and became fearful of the ever increasing busy world. I tried to involve myself in charity work, but on one occasion, I was staying overnight at a university campus when there was a fire in a nearby building.

“Everybody was evacuated on the signal of the smoke alarm but I slept through it, not realising it was sounding.

“It was then that I decided to apply for a hearing dog, who would not only alert me to danger signals such as smoke alarms, but also to everyday household sounds like the doorbell.”

Three years ago, Don was matched to Mitchell, a five-year-old fox-terrier border collie cross, and life has reverted back to much of what it was before.

“Sadly there can never be music again,” says Don, “but having Mitchell by my side has allowed me to avoid much of the stresses of deafness and what was becoming a dangerous world for me.

“He is my best friend, my dearest trusted companion. I couldn’t be without him and he is a big part of who I am now.”

Hearing dogs alert their deaf owners to sounds by touching them with a paw or nudging with their nose to gain attention. By asking ‘what is it?’ via voice or hand command, the dog will then lead the owner to the source of the sound.

For danger signals like a smoke alarm, the hearing dog will alert the owner in the same way until asked ‘what is it?’ when they will then lie down to indicate the danger.

There are around 50,000 people who have been profoundly deaf since birth or early infancy, and Ken James from Brighton, is one of those people, having been deaf since the age of two.

Ken James & Zoe - Hearing Dogs

He says: “I grew up in an orphanage, feeling isolated and alone. This had an effect on my adult life and even though I am happily married with two grown-up children, I still won’t go to the shops on my own due to my lack of confidence.”

Things improved for Ken when his medical consultant suggested he find out about applying for a hearing dog.

“I got Drake when I was studying for my university degree and he made such a difference to my life. I eventually graduated and became a qualified social worker.

“Drake was beside me every step of the way and I was devastated when he passed away. I started to become a bit of a recluse again, missing callers at the door because my companion wasn’t there to let me know when the doorbell had rang,” says Ken.

“Then in December 2009, Zoe came into my life and everything changed for better. We went Christmas shopping together, which was something I would never have done without her.”

Hearing dogs, like two-year-old flat-coat retriever labrador cross, Zoe, wear distinctive burgundy jackets and leads slip, which helps to identify their owner’s otherwise invisible disability to passers-by.

Ken says: “Zoe was really calm with the crowds and I felt at ease in a way that I just couldn’t have on my own. She loves what she does and she gives so much, even teaching herself new sounds to alert me to.

“Hearing Dogs is a wonderful organisation and Zoe is a wonderful friend. I’ll be saying thank you for the rest of my years.”

As well as bringing increased peace of mind to their deaf owner, hearing dogs are also a practical alternative to technical equipment.

Nina, a five-year-old Lhasa Apso, opened up a whole new world to owner Sheila Aston, from Lancashire, who had become deaf due to an accident at work in 1966.

Sheila Aston & Nina - Hearing Dogs

Sheila, now 70, was in her 20s with a young family when she was involved in the accident, which buried her under six feet of iron racks.

She says: “The poles had gone over like skittles, with me underneath – it took a group of men to get me out. Not only did I lose my hearing but I also suffered with tinnitus, head pain, facial paralysis and even a white streak in my hair.”

A blood clot, as a result of the accident, travelled through Sheila’s body and settled in her brain, triggering the paralysis and hearing loss. Although the tinnitus eventually subsided, her hearing never returned.

“When I was working, I hid my deafness from my bosses as I knew I would be sacked if found out,” she says. “I could never go out with a group of people because I wouldn’t be able to lip read everyone well enough.”

Six years ago, when visiting the audiology department at her local hospital, Sheila was told that she needed help to cope with everyday life and the use of a hearing dog was suggested – two years later, she was partnered with Nina.

Shelia says: “I loved Nina from the moment I met her, she is such a character and is my best friend – a constant companion. She has given me back my freedom and I feel safer with her.

“I feel better with her by my side and I can sleep better at night because I know that she will alert me if the smoke alarm goes off.

“Who would have thought that one little dog could make such a big difference to my life?”