Hear to Serve — Bridge multimedia

Lance (bottom) and Pepsi are two trainees at Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota.

Photo by courtesy of Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota

Seward organization trains dogs to be much more than pets

To see a video of hearing and service dogs in training (including one with a very floppy ear) click here

Cindy Peterson and Traeh are as smooth as a beginner’s ballroom dance pair as they take instructions to circle a set of orange cones.

The commands are still a bit foreign to Peterson, and Traeh (pronounced “Trey”) just seems plain distracted since he spots his new partner’s pocketful of doggie treats.
“Traeh, heel,” says Peterson.

The two-year-old German shepherd lines up at Peterson’s left side, and they continue their waltz to the other end of the training room.

At Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota, 2537 25th Ave. S., Peterson is learning to work with the canine aide that will help her with a variety of tasks as her hearing fades and symptoms of multiple sclerosis set in.

The Hanover woman is one of a couple dozen or more people with hearing impairments or physical disabilities who will be paired with helpers this year by Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota.

For 20 years, the Seward nonprofit has trained dogs to perform a variety of specialized tasks. The dogs do things like alert deaf or hard-of-hearing owners to the sounds of doorbells or smoke detectors, and they help owners with physical disabilities by opening doors and retrieving objects. Its most recent “class” of dogs graduated during a ceremony on May 6.

Now, the organization is looking to expand its network of volunteer puppy raisers and foster homes so it can help even more people gain a degree of independence they might not otherwise have without a dog.

The dogs are recruited for the program from shelters and breeders who donate puppies. Alan Peters, founder and executive director of the center, said they look for different traits for hearing versus service dogs.

Hearing dogs are typically small- or medium-sized and can be virtually any breed. Most important is their alertness to sound, which they first measure with a “squeak test” at the shelter.

“How do they react when they hear a squeaky toy? Does that get all their attention, or are they really more interested in food?” said Peters. “We’re looking for a dog that’s so interested in sound that they almost can’t resist it.”

Service dogs are usually larger because they help owners with physical tasks. A good service dog should be less reactive to distractions and not overly protective, Peters said.

With all the dogs the organization works with, it helps to know what drives them. They like “food-motivated” dogs, Peters said, because it makes training easier. Other dogs are motivated by play, praise or toys.

“It’s just like people sometimes, finding out what really motivates them and then using that as a tool to positively reinforce behavior,” said Peters.

Adult dogs are placed in foster homes for about a month, during which volunteers continue screening the dogs for temperament. Puppies are placed in homes for about 15 months until they’re ready for more intense preparation at the training center.

Traeh was housebroken and socialized in the care of a puppy raiser near Byron, Minn., west of Rochester. After watching the puppy grow up over the course of a year, it wasn’t easy to drop Traeh off at Hearing and Service Dogs last September, said Julie Carlblom, who volunteered to raise the puppy from three months until it was ready for more advanced training classes. As difficult as the experience was, she hopes to do it again with another dog.

“I would liken it to having a child go off to college,” said Carlblom. “When you drop them off at school, you’re losing a big part of what you’ve been doing for about a year. As they go through school, you get this satisfaction like, hey, my kid is graduating from college. And not only are they graduating from college, they’re getting married, too, because they now have a new partner in life.”

For Peterson, it’s a partnership she’s looking forward to, but it is bittersweet. She tears up describing her slowly deteriorating condition. On this day, the 44-year-old appears perfectly fit, and her hearing aids are unnoticeable. Her hereditary hearing loss will continue to worsen, though, compounded by the multiple sclerosis, a disease that progressively affects the nervous system. She already has difficulty hearing high frequencies or when she’s tired.

When her symptoms caused her to stop working recently, she read about service dogs and came across Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota.

“The initial interview (with Traeh), my two boys said, ‘Mom, can we buy him?’” said Peterson.

Traeh will soon be a new set of ears at her side. The dog is training to be alert for sounds like the doorbell, alarm clock, smoke alarm and her kids calling her. He’ll also double as a service dog, helping her with balance as needed.

Knowing what Traeh will be doing was enough to help Carlblom let go, she said.
“Just like with a kid, you know you’re raising them to let them go off somewhere else,” said Carlblom. “When they do, it’s a very rewarding thing because you know that they’re helping somebody. You know that they’re making a difference.”

If you are interested in donating or volunteering, contact Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota at 612-729-5986, 612-729-5914 (TTY) or visit www.hsdm.org.

last revised: June 4, 2007