Oregon group trains shelter dogs to help the hearing impaired

Shelter dogs are capable of great things, besides the joy they bring as family pets.

Take Jojo, for example, who became a hearing dog for Linda Brown of Kennewick last week.

The 2-year-old female terrier mix was rescued in Oregon by the Dogs for the Deaf organization, whose mission is to rescue homeless dogs and professionally train them to help deaf people live safer lives.

"All the dogs we train have been rescued from shelters," said Emily Minah, an instructor with the nonprofit agency based in Oregon.

The program looks for confidence in rescued canines, as well as social behavior, friendliness and the ability to easily adapt to new environments, Minah said.

Smaller dogs are better suited for the hearing-impaired because they don't knock people down as easily as the larger dogs, she said.

Minah and fellow instructor Jenny Nickelson brought Jojo to the Tri-Cities last week and introduced Brown to her new companion.

"Jojo seemed a good match for Linda," Minah added.

Brown couldn't agree more.

"Jojo and I have already bonded," Brown said. "She's awesome. Her personality is much like mine. I'm a character and so is she."

Jojo is trained to watch and listen for sounds that Brown is unable to hear and alert her by bumping her nose against her master's leg.

Jojo is not Brown's first hearing dog from Dogs for the Deaf. Toby, a basenji breed, was with her for 16 years before his death in September.

"I miss Toby; he was a wonderful dog," Brown said. "But Jojo and I are already great friends."

During the past three months that Brown has been without a hearing dog, she had at least one close call, when she didn't hear her teapot whistling.

"Thankfully, I had a friend visiting who heard it and turned it off," Brown said. "I'm so happy to have Jojo here now."

Brown, 63, retired last year from teaching special education in the Pasco and Kennewick school districts. She has had serious hearing loss since childhood.

"I am deaf as far as not being able to hear fire alarms, sirens, what people say to me unless I read their lips," Brown said. "Before the hearing dogs, I had to connect things to (blinking) lights when a fire alarm went off. I would put my alarm clock on a light timer to wake me, and once I slept through a police raid on an apartment in the complex I lived in. I didn't hear the sirens, loudspeakers or noise of the raid. Deafness is sometimes nice for the quietness."

When she drives she constantly watches her mirrors for police, fire and ambulances, she added.

Brown has always taken her hearing dog on outings and to pet stores. She's not allowed, however, to bring her dog into grocery stores or other businesses, as seeing-eye dogs are allowed to do, she said.

"I've had hearing dogs for 25 years and it's always been that way," Brown said. "But I'm all right with that."

Her home is equipped with other hearing aids. When the phone rings, for example, her table lamp in the living room flashes. But Jojo still runs to her master and pokes her nose on her leg as a reminder.

Any hearing-impaired person can apply for a hearing dog with Dogs for the Deaf Inc. through the agency's website at www.dogs forthedeaf.org.

Qualified applicants must have significant hearing loss, be able to care for a dog, and undergo a screening process and in-home interview, Minah said.

There is no cost to applicants. The organization is supported by private donations, and Jojo's adoption was made possible by a $5,000 donation from the Benevolent Patriotic Order of Does.

"Every dog we rescue and train is unique, and we always try to find the right dog for each client," Minah said.