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May 18, 2004

Dogs trained to be all ears for deaf

From: Denver Post - Denver,CO,USA - May 18, 2004

By John Ingold
Denver Post Staff Writer

Westminster - The lawn aerator hammers away loudly just outside Joe and Julia Motylinski's open kitchen window, but neither notices.

Joe is holding proudly in his arms the newest addition to the Motylinski family, a bouncy little terrier named Eggo. As Joe rubs his hand across the dog's back, Eggo hears the commotion and peers curiously outside. Soon, Joe and Julia also look out the window.

Eggo is more than just a pet for Joe and Julia. Eggo is their ears.

The couple is deaf. They can't hear the doorbell or the phone ring. More importantly, they couldn't hear the smoke alarm beep or the burglar at their door if such dangers arose.

Eggo is a "hearing dog" trained by Henderson-based International Hearing Dog Inc. to alert them to those important sounds. But the couple say she also has opened other worlds for them.

Before they got her just a few weeks ago, they hardly ever noticed the birds that chirp in their backyard or the kids who play on the field behind their home.

"I was never aware before there were people back there," Julia said, using sign language and doing her best to speak the words.

Eggo is the 940th hearing dog given to someone by International Hearing Dog, which was the first place in the world to start training dogs to help deaf people. It started in 1979 with four people trying to figure out if the concept was even doable.

Now, the group takes in 50 new dogs a year, trains them and sends them across the country to people who need them. The organization has placed dogs in homes from Alaska to Florida and has trained people from as far away as Japan and Norway to start their own hearing dog programs.

Martha Foss, one of the founders of the program, still takes many of the dogs to their new homes and helps retrain the dogs to their new environment.

"The interest is growing now," Foss said of the program. "We have more applications than ever before."

All the dogs in the program are from local animal shelters. Eggo was a stray that ended up at the Adams County shelter.

"A lot of dogs are underweight or unhealthy when we pick them up," said Valerie Foss-Brugger, Foss' daughter and the executive director of the organization.

When choosing a prospective hearing dog, breed doesn't matter, Foss said. Instead, the trainers look for a dog that is curious, friendly and eager.

Training usually lasts four to eight months and costs about $5,000 per dog. It involves teaching the dogs what sounds to pay attention to - smoke alarm, phone, doorbell, baby's cry - and what sounds to ignore. The dogs are taught to jump on their owner, then run toward where the sound is coming from.

At International Hearing Dog, the dogs often work with the trainers in a practice apartment, which has a smoke alarm, a doorbell and a phone. Trainers reward the dogs for doing the right thing with a scratch on the head or sometimes a treat.

Many deaf people already have phones that light up when ringing, but if the people aren't standing right there looking at it, the ringing often goes unnoticed.

International Hearing Dog never charges the people who receive the animals. Instead, it covers its operating costs with donations and fundraisers.

For Joe and Julia, Eggo has gotten them out of the house a little more. They take her for walks several times a day. And they already know that she loves going on car rides.

"She makes me happy," Joe beamed. "She brings me up."

Staff writer John Ingold can be reached at 303-655-7735 or .

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