According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one in three people ages 65 to 74 and half of people older than 75 have age-related hearing loss. When you consider these numbers in addition to people who are deaf or hard of hearing from other causes, you’ll realize just how large and also how diverse this population is. Whether you are training hearing dogs or just working with pets, it is to every professional dog trainer’s advantage to be prepared to modify your instructional strategies to meet the needs of clients who are deaf or have hearing loss.
Just as with other disabilities, people can be impacted in different ways. Some individuals use American Sign Language (ASL), and some may read lips or use hearing aids. There are a variety of techniques you can use to help clients who are deaf or hard of hearing in a dog training class:
- Consider seating arrangements in a group class; having the student closer to you, the instructor, may help. Also make sure the student can see your face while you are speaking.
- Sufficient lighting is important to facilitate lip reading.
- Trainers tend to speak while they demonstrate. Be aware that your client may not be able to hear you or lip read while you are looking down at the dog. Describe what you will do before you show the class, and then comment after your demonstration.
- Use handouts, whiteboards, email and text to facilitate communication.
- Make use of technology. There are phone apps that offer speech-to-text functionality, and now there’s an app that will caption live conversation.
- Learn a few words (or more!) in ASL.
- When you demonstrate clicker training, use a brightly colored clicker and hold your hand so the owner can see it.
- Give clients information they may not be aware of, for instance: “There is another dog barking in the distance. That is why your dog is distracted.”
- Use meaningful gestures and rephrase rather than repeat to facilitate understanding.
- To make sure clients understood your instruction, check in with more than just “yes” or “no” questions. For example, ask “How will you keep your puppy busy in her crate?” rather than “Did you understand how to crate train your puppy?”
Great news! Most of these small modifications will help your students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and also make things easier for everyone in your class. Make these practices your new normal, and all of your students will benefit.