Dogs for the Deaf: The Most Touching Tour
in Southern Oregon
By Kathy Chin Leong
In Gresham, Oregon, Nacho, a mixed Chihuahua was killed in the line of duty while alerting its sleeping owners of intruders. In Missouri, a dog pushed his owner out of the way of an oncoming car. In fact, all canines in the Dogs for the Deaf program are hailed as heroes in their roles as "Hearing Dogs."
Here on the plains of Central Point, inside these tan, undramatic buildings, the thirty dogs being trained to recognize household sounds will be dramatically changing the lives of their recipients. To date, over 1,000 dogs have been matched with hearing-impaired individuals.
Dogs for the Deaf, a non-profit organization, is the oldest and largest facility of its kind in the United States. It’s mission is two-pronged: to rescue dogs from animal shelters and humane societies and secondly, to provide the deaf with a thoroughly trained dog able to assist in managing day-to-day tasks and to keep their owners safe. While it costs approximately $25,000 to train each one, DFD places free of charge after an extensive application and interview process.
While DFD may be new to many, it has garnered a stellar reputation. President Bush came to visit one of its volunteers in 2004. Former Miss America Heather Whitestone, who is deaf, is the organization’s national spokesperson.
HOW IT STARTED
DFD was launched in 1977 when Roy Kabat, a former Hollywood animal trainer, purchased property in the Applegate region, turning an old dairy barn into a training facility for dogs from shelters. Although he was not hearing impaired, he believed these discarded creatures could be trained to help the deaf. According to his daughter Robin Dickson, now the president and CEO, Kabat realized that there were many deaf individuals who were alone and could use a dog that would alert them when people knocked to the door or when the phone rang. A dog would be especially helpful if an emergency alarm or smoke detector went off in the middle of the night.
At the beginning, he started with a $25,000 grant to open the first facility, and worked with a handful of dogs. As word got out, donations accumulated, Kabat hired staff. Volunteers soon got on board, sharing the vision.
Today, the operation runs on a budget of a little over $1 million annually, and maintains a staff of 23 paid workers and some 40 volunteers. It receives no government funding and is kept thriving through private donations. It makes about 30 to 40 matches a year, and all owners stay in touch with the organization, sending Christmas cards and emails to update progress.
Life saving stories and tales of newfound freedom and independence are plentiful. According to Dickson, one family from Washington recently adopted a dog to assist the deaf father. One night, the dog, Jamie, alerted the dad who followed Jamie into his daughter’s bedroom where a dresser drawer was almost about to fall on her. "The daughter called out to the dog to get help, and she realized that she could depend on her father to protect her," says Dickson. "When the father wrote to us, he said the look on her face was worth a billion dollars."
Another recipient is a woman from Arizona, cites Dickson. "She told us the best thing about having one of our dogs is that you can relax. When people are deaf, they are on guard all the time. They are busy trying to "hear" their environment, and have no time to think. Now with a dog, they can relax, and I find that profound."
Currently applicants must wait three to four years. "This is not an exact science," she says. "I would like to do it faster, but you cannot rush it. We have to work with each dog and each applicant. We cannot just take a dog and match it with the next person in line. It has to be the right match. If people want the rewards and benefits of a highly qualified and trained dog, this is what has to happen."
According to Dickson, DFD selects dogs from animal shelters in Oregon, California, and Washington. Then it evaluates each one according to temperament, friendliness, teach ability and confidence. Weighing been 25 to 45 pounds, these pets are usually between 10 months to 3 years old.
Trained in a special apartment complex with four rooms to recreate a home, over the course of four to six months dogs learn to recognize sounds such as fire and smoke alarms, the telephone, timers, a doorbell or knock, and even the cry of a child. The dogs are also taught manners in public. Recipients have reported that they feel more confident when going out with their dog and feel a stronger sense of security.
On the average, only one in four passes the rigorous training. What happens to students who cannot graduate to Hearing Dog status? They go to other ‘careers.’ No animal returns to the shelter. Dickson estimates over 4,000 of its DFD canines have been delivered to qualifying seniors, families, and those with special needs.
DFD Hearing Dogs, however, are paired with owners all over the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. To become an eligible, a person must love dogs, be hearing impaired, and have a fenced yard to give the dog an opportunity to exercise.
Potential matches must also understand what a Hearing Dog can and cannot do and have the patience to work through the problems that will occur. The owner must be disciplined enough to practice sound training daily and to reward her Hearing Dog with a treat with every act of obedience.
To ensure that there is no abuse of the system, applicants must promise they won’t resell the dog for profit. If the owner is unsatisfied, the dog must be returned to DFD so that a suitable owner can be found.
When a DFD staffer flies out the dog, he will stay for a week to help the new team get acquainted with each other and teach the owner how to make this partnership successful. DFD requires that owners keep in touch with progress reports for an entire year.
Today, the organization gives free tours to share its mission with the public. Donors who have never been to DFD are delighted when they see the dogs first hand. From Florida to Japan to Europe and Australia, Dickson estimates she hosts as many as 3,000 visitors a year.
The tour lasts about one hour, and people should call before they arrive. It begins with a 15-minute a video which gives an overview of DFD’s history and current operations. Next comes a facility walk-through that features the kennel, a training apartment, a demonstration, and the outside grounds where there is also a small pet cemetery.
Visitors are inevitably moved. Jean Osterman, a vacationer from Kent, Washington, found the visit inspiring. "It was an interesting tour to the world of very special dogs. It’s nice to know they can use their special talents to help people do everyday activities we hearing people take for granted. It was totally amazing."
"We hope that after people go on the tour, they understand the service we provide to helping the dogs and the people," says Dickson. "We hope they support this work and tell others about it."
Dickson is proud of her facility, her dogs, staff and volunteers. On the docket are tentative plans to triple the size of the center which would includes adding apartments, opening new kennels, and creating more room for training and socialization. Once plans are approved, DFD will launch a capital campaign.
While work is difficult, seeing the outcome of placements is thoroughly rewarding, says Dickson. E-mails, calls, cards, letters of praise and gratitude pour in daily from recipients and donors. "One older man who suffered a stroke told us he would not be alive today without his (DFD) dog because he has a reason to wake up, and go out, and get exercise. For seniors, people with special needs or people with depression or whatever the reason, dogs are great companions."
Dickson adds that even she gets attached to the dogs when they arrive, but reminds herself that "they are only here temporarily and are going on to do what we are training them for."
Dogs for the Deaf
10175 Wheeler Road
Central Point, OR 97502
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