Bringing a new assistance dog to heel in Harpenden supermarket as part of training programme
- Credit: Archant
Ever wondered how assistance dogs are trained? Laura Bill went along to to see a hearing dog going through the ropes with Hearing Dogs For Deaf People in the St Albans district.
Trudi Waterhouse is a volunteer for the charity and as I arrive at her home in Harpenden I am greeted by an excitable black labrador called Cypus - or 'Pru' for short. She has a glossy coat and seems pleased to meet me.
Puppy training instructor of Hearing Dogs For Deaf People, Caroline Ayres, has come along to catch-up with Trudi and Pru to see how things are going. Caroline has worked for the charity for the last 12 years.
I am a little surprised that neither Caroline nor Trudi are deaf or hard of hearing but they explain to me that before Pru goes to live with a deaf person, she has to be fully ready. Hearing dogs spend just under a year with a fully-supported volunteer.
In that time they learn socialisation, obedience, some commands and later on a sequence called SoundWork which enables them to be able to alert deaf people to noises such as an oven timer, a smoke alarm or a doorbell. Much of the early training is done in Trudi's home. Throughout the whole time, Caroline is in regular touch and visits Trudi and Cyprus. They go out into town, practice being off the lead in the park, get used to being in supermarkets and shops which they tell me is daunting for a dog at first due to the lights and shiny floor.
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I had not really considered that the hearing dog puppies are regular puppies who have all the behaviour of young, excitable dogs which needs to be unlearned.
As we go into Sainsbury's in Harpenden, I can see that Cyprus has been trained to wait patiently while Trudi shops, to not pay too much interest to other shoppers or food in the aisles, which might be a natural trait for a puppy.
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SoundWork is the more advanced stage of the training and can only be done once the basics are in place.
Pru has lived with Trudi since she was eight weeks old and I can tell they get along well. She just seems like a regular pet but there are some distinct differences. In a few months, Pru will be homed permanently with a deaf person so initial training includes some factors to help the dog to be most useful to its future owner.
Trudi must not allow Pru on the furniture or bed, give her scraps or permit begging at mealtimes.
The dog is good at sitting down, standing up and lying down when asked to in sign language and is rewarded for doing so. I ask Trudi if it is hard to see the dogs go to their new homes, having invested so much in the relationship. She said: "It is sad but you have to keep saying to yourself that the dog is going to do a great job - an amazing job. I always know the dogs will be safe as they are always under the protection of Hearing Dogs For Deaf People."
Caroline said: "Deafness can be isolating for some. People tell us that having a hearing dog helps break down barriers and gives them independence. When people see the dog in the street, it alerts them that the person accompanying the dog is hard of hearing.
Trudi said she finds the role a rewarding one. She said: "It is a fantastic thing to do and a lovely way of bringing a dog into the home. My children are always so excited when they arrive and happy to see them go off and help to improve a person's quality of life."
To be a volunteer, candidates must be at home during the week. All expenses such as food, vets bills and training classes are covered by the charity, Hearing Dogs For Deaf People. The cost of a hearing dog is £45,000 from birth to retirement.
To support this charity visit www.hearingdogs.org.uk/start