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Lending an ear

Local shelter dogs help provide assistance to those with hearing disabilities

fire alarm, a tornado siren, a crying baby – they’re all important audible cues that help people keep themselves and others safe. But for those with a hearing disability, navigating such sounds can be a challenge. To help, many turn to man’s best friend. Assistance dogs can alert an individual with hearing loss to important notifications in the home, workplace and out in the community. Headquartered in Adams County, Colo.,  International Hearing Dog, Inc. (IHDI) helps provide specially trained hearing dogs to individuals across the United States and Canada. We caught up with Ryan Thibodeau, director of marketing and development for IHDI, to find out more about the organization and its four-legged employees. 

Q: Tell us a little about International Hearing Dog, Inc. 

Ryan Thibodeau: International Hearing Dog, Inc. (IHDI) was founded in 1979 in Henderson, Colo. IHDI’s mission is to place hearing dogs with deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals at no cost to the recipient. All of our dogs come from local animal shelters and are trained in sound response in the home, work and community. IHDI works with individuals throughout the United States and Canada. In the 36 years of operation, IHDI has placed over 1,200 hearing dogs to individuals in all 50 states and most of Canada.

Q: How do you determine whether or not a dog will be a good fit for training? 

RT: Our trainers walk through animal shelters about once a week. They are looking for very energetic dogs that are more focused on them than the other dogs in the units. Our head trainer, Andrea Paul, has been working with IHDI for over 17 years and has a keen sense of which dogs will work best.

Q: Are there specific breeds or ages that tend to make the best guide dogs? 

RT: We are not a breed-specific organization. IHDI has never used a breeding program and receives all dogs from the shelters. Most of the dogs we train are mixed breeds. We do see a lot of terrier mixes, poodle mixes and bichon mixes in our kennels since those dogs have been popular in the shelters. We do want dogs that are under 50 pounds since the dogs work by physically touching their recipients. We don’t want a larger dog to knock over the recipient.

Q: What kinds of things must a dog learn in order to become a successful hearing dog? 

RT: Our dogs are trained individually once a day. Each dog’s training takes about five to 10 minutes. We want to make the training fun for the dogs so they enjoy the work they do. Each dog is different but, on average, it takes about eight months to a year to successfully train for placement. All dogs are trained to respond to the door-knock/bell, the phone and to smoke alarms. We custom train the dog to any sounds a recipient needs – for example, a baby’s cry, apartment buzzer or oven timer.

Q: Is there a process for matching a dog with a person? 

RT: Once the dogs complete their training, they are placed with the person we have selected for them. A deaf or hard-of-hearing person first applies to receive a dog from our company. We require that they are over 18 years old, have 65 decibals of (unaided) hearing loss or greater, have no dogs in their home and are physically and financially capable of caring for a dog. Once they are accepted, we place them on our waiting list. In the application, the applicant tells us which breeds they like and dislike. They also tell us what size of dog they are looking for. Our executive director, Valerie Foss-Brugger, goes through each application and assigns the individual to a dog we have in the kennel.

Q: Do you have any success stories to share? 

RT: We recently placed hearing dog Harmony with a deaf individual in Thornton, Colo. Chad is an active-duty National Guard service member and also a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom II and Operation Enduring Freedom. His hearing loss is attributed to military combat and training operations while serving his country. Once Chad’s tours finished, he returned home and found difficulties adjusting with his hearing loss. “I always worry that something is happening, and I won’t hear it or be able to respond in time,” Chad told us in an email. “I have difficulties expressing the struggles I have with my disability, and Valerie and the rest of the team created an environment where I could share and not feel lesser for it.” His hearing dog, Harmony, has been helping him by alerting him to sounds in his home, workplace and community. Harmony has provided Chad with comfort, confidence and love. We are very excited to see what the future has in store for them!