Interview with Hearing Dogs Director: Angie Platten

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People – helping deaf people to stop feeling isolated and alone.

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People believes that nobody with deafness should feel alone. This is why the charity trains dogs that help deaf people reconnect with life. The dogs provide love, companionship, and emotional support, giving deaf people confidence to reconnect with their family, friends, and community, and embrace the life they want to lead. As importantly, our dogs help by alerting deaf people to life-saving sounds like the smoke alarm and intruder alarm, and other important sounds such as the oven timer and baby monitor. Their burgundy coats also signal to the public that their partners are deaf, which can help to reduce communication barriers. This combination of practical assistance and emotional support is life changing.

Here, Angie Platten, Director of Service for Hearing Dogs, tells us more about their important work…

Can you tell me a bit about your role at Hearing Dogs? 

I’m the Director of Services for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. I’ve been working with deaf people and dogs for over 20 years and started my career and interest from a foundation of animal behaviour and psychology. 

When did the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People charity first start? 

Our charity was launched in 1982, meaning it is our big 40 next year. We launched at the world-famous dog show – Crufts with the support of our founders Lady Beatrice Wright (former vice president of the RNID) and Dr Bruce Fogle (author and vet, father to Ben Fogle) 

How is a deaf person matched with a hearing dog?

A great deal of work goes into our relationship with the client before they are partnered with a hearing dog. We want to make sure that, not only does the person with hearing loss meet the criteria for a hearing dog; but most importantly, they understand what to expect and understand the commitment they are making. 

We take time to make sure our clients are fully prepared for the day when a dog is found that matches their needs. Before we introduce them, we make sure everyone is happy to proceed. Then the person and the dog meet. 

The first meeting sets the foundations for creating a strong partnership. Our experienced staff are experts at recognising the signs and work with the client and hearing dog to make the getting-to-know-you process as easy and smooth as possible. 

From here our clients and the dogs usually spend time together at one of our training sites over the course of a week; learning all that is involved in life with a hearing dog, and then its home to begin their new partnership. 

We support them throughout their entire partnership through our community staff in person, online, and in groups. 

How are hearing dogs cared for and trained?

All our pups are cared for in volunteer homes throughout the UK. This helps them to learn about growing up in the home environment and many of our dogs are trained with that same volunteer. 

Our volunteers do an amazing job looking after these dogs from around eight weeks of age until they leave to start their new lives as a hearing dog. 

Training happens both in the home and at our training sites in Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire. It involves positive reward-based learning, which uses games, food and praise as the way to encourage and reinforce understanding for the dog. 

Most dogs will respond to important sounds, but we shape that natural interest into a behaviour which results in our dogs alerting their owners to the sounds. 

Equally as important is learning how to behave in public and interact socially. It’s important that hearing dogs are well behaved and well adapted to different lifestyles; therefore our volunteers and trainers spend time teaching our new recruits how to be calm with children, meet other animals, feel relaxed around traffic and many other stimuli.

All our dogs are qualified when they are partnered with a deaf person. We have robust internal assessments at every stage of their training journey to ensure they are meeting our high standards and are happy and healthy in their roles. 

We work to international assistance dog standards which allows us to provide accreditation to our dogs and partners. 

Who is eligible for a hearing dog?

We have different types of dogs matched to different people’s lifestyles. The criteria varies for each of these roles, however we find those with severe to profound hearing loss gain the greatest benefit from our hearing dogs in working jackets. We need our applicants to ensure they can provide for the welfare needs of a hearing dog. Therefore, they need to be able to provide enough exercise and also have no other dogs in the home as our experience is that this can cause a bit too much of a distraction to a hearing dog. 

What benefits does a hearing dog give to a deaf person?

It is hard to simply list the benefits because there are so many, and they vary greatly between partnerships. 

Overall, hearing dogs provide companionship and give independence back to people who may have felt quite isolated and alone. 

The response the dogs provide to household sounds removes the reliance on technology and gives piece of mind knowing they’ll never miss the doorbell, alarm clock or smoke alarm again. 

The dogs also give awareness to an invisible disability, helping to create positive connections with people socially using the ever-attractive feature of a dog as a conduit and leading into better understanding of the person needs. People say hello to dogs, not people, and hearing dogs in their burgundy Hearing Dog jackets signal to people that the person on the other end of the lead may have certain communication needs. 

The benefits are far-reaching, and many of our partners refer to their partnerships as life-changing. It gives them the confidence to enter their workplace, make new friends and start to reengage with life again when they may have not had the confidence to do this before. 

What access rights does a hearing dog have? 

Under the Equality Act 2010, disabled people are afforded special protection from discrimination. Officially, a hearing dog is considered an auxiliary aid and therefore is needed to support a person with a disability… so the easiest answer is that they can go everywhere their deaf partners go. 

There are a small number of exceptions, but there some amazing examples of where our dogs are providing support to their deaf partners. We have dogs in hospitals working with their partners who are radiologists, dentists, GP’s, in large and small offices, and even on the shop floor at some of our major retailers. 

What’s your most special memory of working with hearing dogs and their deaf partners?

It’s so hard to pick one as there are so many over the last 20 years of my career with Hearing Dogs. I never stop learning about hearing loss and the impact a dog has, as well as other forms of support, and how it can transform people. 

We’ve had dogs save our clients from fires as they respond to the smoke alarm, and a dog pave the way for a client to meet his future wife. We also have dogs who have transformed not only a person’s life, but those around them in their place of work and in the home as they all better understand and appreciate hearing loss and the joy a dog can bring. 

I have learnt that the dogs don’t have to perform amazing tasks to change lives, they sometimes just have to be there for people when they had no one else. Sadly, depression and anxiety can go hand and hand with hearing loss, and we have seen how our clients have managed to come through this with the companionship of the dog and drive to make it work. 
To find out more about the work of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People visit www.hearingdogs.org.uk.