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Hearing Assistance Dogs Come In All Sizes, Including Chihuahuas

Leah isn’t your typical assistance dog.

When the 4-year-old Chihuahua hears a knock at the door, her ears perk up and she runs toward the sound. Then she races to Anne Proffit, her owner, and places both of her paws on Proffit’s knees.
This cues Proffit to stand, and Leah leads her to the door, signaling that someone has been knocking.

As the first purebred Chihuahua certified hearing dog placed in a home by the Sam Simon Foundation in Malibu, Leah is the right size for someone with a hearing disability who lives in an apartment, like Proffit. And more importantly, Leah is the right size, weighing in at five pounds, for someone with Proffit’s always-on-the-go lifestyle as an automotive and performance racing journalist (she writes a monthly auto review for the Gazette).

On Monday, Nov. 16, Sam Simon Foundation animal instructor and Assistance Dog Program Director Barb Velasquez brought Leah to Proffit’s downtown Long Beach apartment for the dog’s “orientation period” of four to five days. Velasquez has been training Leah (and living with her) for the past five months since Leah was rescued by the foundation from the County of Los Angeles Animal Care & Control Center in Agoura Hills.

A television writer, producer and director, Sam Simon formed his namesake foundation in 2003 as an assistance dog program that rescues dogs from animal shelters and humane societies to become certified hearing dogs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Dogs who do not qualify as hearing assistance dogs are called “career change dogs” and adopted out into lifelong homes, Velasquez said. Approximately 30% of the rescued dogs make the grade to become certified hearing dogs because of their sensitivity to sounds, attentiveness and sociability.

“Hearing dogs come in all shapes and sizes versus guide dogs (for the visually impaired) that are usually Labrador (Retrievers), German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers,” Velasquez said. “A hearing dog can be any dog, but we usually work with ones that are between 10 and 70 pounds. Leah is definitely unique.”

Proffit said her hearing disability began as a child when she contracted the mumps. The disease deadened the nerve endings in her ears, and her hearing has grown progressively worse ever since. Although Proffit currently can hear sufficiently wearing hearing aids in both ears, she said she removes the aids at night and cannot hear anything before she gets up in the morning.

“I haven’t had a dog (as a pet) in a while and this is my first certified hearing dog,” Proffit said. “I didn’t even know they existed until six years ago.”

After remaining on a waiting list with another certified hearing dog placement program for a few years, Proffit found the Sam Simon Foundation on the Internet last year and applied.

Velasquez said the foundation trains less than 10 dogs at any one time and there are three trainers on staff. When a dog is placed, a trainer will rescue another from a shelter in Ventura or Los Angeles County.

“We set up an interview and assess if the person has enough need,” Velasquez said of the foundation’s application process. “Once we determine that, we try and get them a hearing dog as quickly as we can, ideally within 6 months. Our waiting list time is a year and a half maximum.”

While adjusting to Leah in her home, Proffit and Velasquez worked together to teach Leah how to respond to her new owner. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, Proffit said she ate lunch at bouchees bistro with Leah.

“Everyone wanted to talk to her and say hello,” Proffit said. “She is very attentive, loving and social. My goal is for us to work well together.”

Leah’s “professional” debut with Proffit on the job will be at the LA Auto Show next month at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Leah also will travel with Proffit to Orlando next month when Proffit covers the Performance Racing Industry Show 2009.

“My lifestyle is so different from most people with hearing disabilities,” Proffit said. “Barb said it’s one of the most difficult placements she’s had in a while. But I don’t think Leah and I have been separated for more than 30 minutes in the past three days. We’re definitely bonding.”

By Darcy Leigh Richardson, Gazette Newspapers , November 2009,

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