A Job for Eager Shelter Dogs

The country’s first hearing dog training program turns 30.
By Lisa Wogan, July 2009, Updated February 2015

We’ve become so accustomed to service dogs, it’s almost hard to imagine a time before dogs vetted crosswalks, retrieved phones and listened for doorbells. But in many arenas, the phenomenon of the furry helper in a harness has been around for less than a generation.

In the 1960s, Elva Janke of Minnesota lived with a pup who alerted her to sounds—alarms, bells, that sort of thing—she could not hear. He hadn’t been trained (there was no established training program at the time); he just figured out that she needed help. When that dog died, Janke realized how much she had relied on his special gift. Through the intervention of the Minnesota Humane Society, she found a dog trainer named Agnes McGrath to teach a new dog these same skills.

Like most good ideas, this one gathered steam—with more dogs trained to help people who are deaf and hard of hearing, followed by a four year pilot program. By 1979, Hearing Dog, Inc. (now International Hearing Dog, Inc. or IHDI) was established in Henderson, Colo., becoming the first program of its kind in the country. By the end of the year, IHDI will have trained and placed 1,100 shelter dogs throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Here’s one of the things I love about the group: They train shelter dogs. And it’s not some new PR move; it’s in the charter. Bob Cooley, IHDI assistant director and field representative, explained to me that they don’t breed, in part, because they aren’t looking for a breed but a personality. And that personality—energetic, curious, going a little crazy when someone knocks on the door—is the sort of personality that drives some folks to surrender young dogs to a shelter. In other words, one family’s pain in the neck is another family’s eager, helpful assistance dog.

Join the folks at IHDI in celebrating three decades of making a difference on Saturday, July 25, at their headquarters north of Denver (directions & contact information). There will be tours, a chance to meet some dogs-in-training, an Italian supper, a silent auction, live music and a magic show. Tickets can be purchased by phone (303-287-3277) or email (ihdi@aol.com). IHDI provides dogs free-of-charge to qualified applicants, and pays for its efforts through private contributions, individual donations and grants. Learn how you can help.

Photo from International Hearing Dog, Inc.

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of several books including Dog Park Wisdom.