A few miles from us, in the heart of the Chilterns, are the offices of a charity which makes a vital difference to the lives of thousands of people across the UK. In its own words, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People has “train[ed] clever dogs to help deaf people” since 1982. It relies heavily on donations, sponsorship, legacies and fundraising, as well as the efforts of many volunteers – some of whom help to train the dogs and get them used to the big wide world outside.
The charity’s Chilterns Centre, also known as The Grange, runs weekly pre-bookable tours between March and November. Perhaps the most affecting part of these events isn’t, funnily enough, seeing the dogs themselves, but hearing from the people whose lives they change, and sometimes save.
The benefits of having a hearing dog are, broadly, twofold. Firstly there is the vital practical assistance they offer, alerting their deaf human partners to sounds – the phone, the doorbell, the oven timer, even the sound of a baby crying. Secondly, hearing dogs offer love, companionship and emotional support. Often, by dint of the burgundy coats they wear, they act as a signal to other humans (for example, in a busy supermarket) of their human’s invisible disability.
As well as hearing from a beneficiary of the charity’s work, tour visitors get to see round the dogs’ kennels (which are very smart), to view a demonstration of their skills and, of course, to say hello to the furry heroes themselves. On our visit we met two exuberant labradors and several cocker spaniels; the charity trains these breeds as well as miniature poodles and cockapoos. You’d have to have a heart of stone (or a dog allergy!) not to enjoy meeting them and to admire the skill and dedication of their trainers.