‘She’s my ears’: The special bond between hearing dogs and their human partners

The dogs in the room vary in age, size and breed — from mutt to Malinois. But they are Superdogs all, each trained to be on the alert for everyday sounds that many of us take for granted.

SILVERDALE — The dogs in the room vary in age, size and breed — from mutt to Malinois.

But they are Superdogs all — call them Equalizers — each trained to be on the alert for everyday sounds that many of us take for granted.

Many of their human partners have had dogs before, but the bond between human and canine here is deeper than that of owner and pet. “She’s my ears,” Katy Doyle said of her dog, Maci.

These dogs are Golden Ears dogs, specially trained to hear and alert their owners to everyday sounds that the owner can’t hear. To a person with hearing loss, his or her dog is more than a canine companion; he or she could be a lifesaver (one owner said she was in a hotel room one night and her dog alerted her when the room’s smoke alarm sounded).

The dogs make the routine tasks of daily life easier — alerting their human partner when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, when the oven timer dings, when someone knocks on the door or rings the doorbell, when there’s a call on the telephone or cell phone.

On this day, a Wednesday, Golden Ears Hearing Dog Training Center (www.goldenearsdogs.org) is conducting a class at Naturally 4 Paws in Silverdale. A separate class takes place another day of the week in Tacoma; each class is limited to no more than 10 students.

Training is just as intensive for human as it is for canine; this is a two-year training program, according to the Golden Ears website, so participants must be willing to make the commitment.

Founder and instructor Linda Lohdefinck is leading the class. Lohdefinck, who has profound hearing loss, founded Golden Ears in 1993 and named it in memory of her first hearing dog. Lohdefinck has a bachelor’s degree in counseling and worked as a nurse, two skills that come in handy here.

Lohdefinck is fluent in American Sign Language and is advising her human students to consider the sounds that occur in their lives everyday — and how many they miss. The students have to pay attention to that, to know the sounds that they need to train their dogs. It’s fairly detailed stuff. For example, get a new cellphone with a different ring tone? You have to accustom your dog to that new sound.

Each human and dog learn to work together as a team. On this day, they are working on exercises that range from sign-language commands to proper behavior in the presence of other humans and dogs (called etiquette).

There’s nary a fidget nor a yelp in the class. Each dog is well behaved, having qualified for the program by exhibiting appropriate sound response and temperament. On the human side, priority is given to those with severe to profound hearing loss. If an individual applies for the program but doesn’t have a dog, Golden Ears works with dog-rescue organizations and local animal shelters to find the right canine partner.

Tracey Vargas of Port Orchard said she’s always had dogs, but has a special bond with Abby, 4. Vargas travels a lot, and before Abby came into her life she once missed a flight because she didn’t hear the alarm.

Vargas said Abby has “made a world of difference” in the performance of routine tasks.

Doyle said Maci alerts her when her husband calls her or her children need her. Maci makes the routine “routine,” and also provides a level of comfort in knowing that if there’s an emergency, Doyle will know about it because of her canine companion’s vigilance.

Doyle said Maci and she are in their sixth year of training. As long as life is full of changes, Doyle said, the training — and the deep bond that results from it — will never end.

Richard Walker is managing editor of Kitsap News Group. Contact him at rwalker@soundpublishing.com.