Hearing Dogs, based in New Plymouth, New Zealand, is a registered charitable trust that works to train assistance dogs for deaf people and to offer them ongoing support. The trained dogs are gifted to their recipients at no charge for the rest of their lives, although the teams do need to be assessed annually to maintain their registered status.
I was lucky enough to visit with Caroline Boyce and her hearing dog, Tyra, recently. Caroline and Tyra live in Kaiapoi (Canterbury). Caroline says there is a big difference in her quality of life when considering life before Tyra and after. Tyra, a Shih Tzu, is a small dog. Many people don’t realise that a hearing dog can be any shape or size and most breeds of dogs are acceptable for admittance into the programme. You will notice a hearing dog because they wear a distinctive yellow coat.
Caroline has been hearing impaired for all of her life. She has an implanted hearing aid that allows her to pick up some low level sound in her left ear only. Growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t easy for Caroline. She says:
I’ve spent most of my life in a near silent world. I am the only one in my family who is hearing impaired which makes things very difficult at times. People don’t have much patience when they are dealing with people who are deaf or hearing impaired.
I didn’t like going anywhere much. Although there may have been plenty going on around you, you felt as though you were looking down on yourself. If you asked what was being said, you were often told ‘oh don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.’
When I went to school, I was always made to feel as though I wasn’t normal (whatever that is). If I went for an interview and told people I was hearing impaired, they would ask me if I could read and write. So I just tended to stay out of everything, including family birthday parties and barbeques, and spent a lot of time on my own in my room.
Despite these setbacks, Caroline went overseas for work experience and met her husband (they have now been married for 38 years). She raised two children, a time she said was very hard because she never got much sleep. She was always worried that she wouldn’t pick up on whether her babies were crying or needed attention.
Eight years ago, things changed for Caroline. I mustered the courage to attend a talk about Hearing Dogs and I put my name down for one. Tyra is her second hearing dog; her first dog developed behavioural issues and had to be retired after only two years.
Having a hearing dog has made a huge difference to me. It’s given me courage to do things on my own and go out, and people actually treat me like a normal person. They talk to me and ask about the dog and when I explain what she does and how she goes everywhere with me, they then have a bit more understanding about what life’s like for me and others like me. I don’t hide away any more. If I’m a bit nervous going somewhere for the first time I just talk to Tyra and she gives me the courage to do it. I take her to my work (as a caregiver) every day and my grandson adores her.
There are 50 registered hearing dogs working in New Zealand today and another six are in training. 40% of dogs successfully make it through the training programme. Those dogs that don’t make it often end up re-homed with their weekend socialisers or offered through the National Dog Forum for another type of training as an assistance dog.
Hearing Dogs is happy to accept enquiries about re-homing of dogs that do not pass their training because, for busy people and seniors, adopting a dog who has been trained in the basics makes for an easier transition into dog ownership than trying to train a puppy.
To learn more about Hearing Dogs, visit their website: www.hearingdogs.org.nz