Hearing Dogs: Interview with Sheri Soltes, Founder and President of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs
Douglas L. Beck, AuD, speak with Soltes about service dogs, hearing dogs and child advocacy dogs.
Academy: Hi, Sheri. Thanks so much for your time today.
Soltes: Hi, Doug. Thanks for your interest.
Academy: Sheri, I recall we met at the Texas Academy of Audiology Meeting in the fall of 2009 and I was so impressed with your dogs and your organization. Can you please tell me, how you came to get involved with training hearing dogs?
Soltes: Sure. I started out as an attorney. In fact, I earned my law degree at the University of Texas School of Law and in 1984 and by 1988, I had had enough of law. It just was not fulfilling and it is sort of a stressful and combative profession. One day, I just happened to be at the eye doctor and picked up a magazine with a story about service dogs. I was so intrigued and so interested in the story that I pretty much decided to start Texas Hearing and Service Dogs right then.
Academy: That's fabulous. So what was the first thing you did to get this rolling?
Soltes: Well, I recall sitting on the floor at home in Houston with the phone book open and looking up “Hearing Dogs.” I started doing searches and demographic studies and sending out surveys to groups that might be interested in having a hearing dog organization in the community. The response was about 75 percent in favor of the idea, so I pushed forward. I recalled an important lesson from law school--it's very important to make sure the people you are trying to help actually want your help! Therefore, with a 75 percent “favorable” rating, I took that as a green light and pushed forward.
Academy: Did you have previous experience training dogs?
Soltes: Well, not really—I'm actually more of a cat person. Therefore, I went back to the phone book and started to look up “dog trainers.” Of course, this was the pre-Internet days and back then, phone books were the best resources available. Anyway, I did find a trainer that I hit it off with and so the next obstacle was to get funding.
Academy: That's always an uphill battle!
Soltes: Well, yes. I was lucky though. One of the women in my exercise class heard me talking about the Hearing Dog Program and she said she was part of a group that runs an arts festival and that they raise money and pick a charity to give it to. She said she thought she could put my organization in the pool of potential recepients and get some funding for us, and that's what happened, they gave us a $3,000 grant from the gate receipts.
Academy: And that was enough to get it going?
Soltes: Yes. We went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in January of 1989. We ate at truck stops and spent a week with “Paws with a Cause” and we got the whole thing in gear.
Academy: Excellent. And what can you tell me about your current facility?
Soltes: We have a six-acre campus in Dripping Springs, Texas, just outside of Austin. We serve the entire state of Texas and this is our 22nd year. We have about 13 people on staff and we are likely to hire more in 2010.
Academy: How many dogs do you place per year?
Soltes: Currently we place about a dozen, and we hope to triple that according to our five-year plan.
Academy: Is there a preferred breed? Perhaps a particular dog that makes a great hearing or service dog?
Soltes: No, we actually try to not be breed-centric. We look at each animal and his or her individual characteristics and temperament and we don't care too much about the wrapping!
Academy: What is it you look for?
Soltes: We look for age, size, and again, temperament. For a hearing dog, we need dogs that have good hearing and that are very reactive to sound. In addition, of course, that means “reactive” in a good way--such that the dog might cock his head, or go to the noise and investigate it. However, if the dog is fearful of noises, or goes to attack the noise source, it probably isn't going to work out!
Academy: But you tend to get smaller dogs?
Soltes: Right. Well that's because in the beginning, we trained the dogs to alert people by lightly jumping on them. If we used a larger dog, it could have knocked someone over or at least put them off balance. Later on, we changed it to touching you with their paw, but that can get your clothes dirty and they might even snag the fabric or your skin with their nails. So then, we trained dogs to lie down at your feet and place their paw on your foot, but again, dog nails can mess up a shoe, sock, hosiery, etc., and so now, we have the dogs nudge you gently with their nose.
Academy: Well, of course in retrospect, that makes sense. The dog you demonstrated with at the meeting was a black lab and they can get to be 100 pounds, maybe more…so a wet nose may be the best signal!
Soltes: Right. That is the signal of choice. Again, we do tend to work with smaller dogs. Occasionally, a recipient requests a larger dog and we try to accommodate when we can.
Academy: And most of the dogs you train are between a year and two years old?
Soltes: Yes, for hearing dogs. Although for other service dogs, such as dogs that might work with people in wheelchairs, the dogs might be up to three years old.
Academy: How long does the training take?
Soltes: The training is typically one year--and that includes four months of training the person to work with the dog.
Academy: And when you get to the stage of training the dog and the person as a team, where does that occur?
Soltes: We start with one week of training here at the training center so the person learns the fundamentals of working with and taking care of the dog. After that , we send a trainer to the house once a week for 13 weeks or so. Therefore, the in-home training gets the dog used to working in a new environment, the new home, and places where the recipient typically goes—work, the grocery store, stores, restaurants, etc.
Academy: And so you have hearing dogs for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and then you have training dogs for people with other physical disabilities and then you have a third program, too?
Soltes: Right, we have a new program called the “Child Advocacy Dogs.” These dogs work at the child protective protection agencies and similar advocacy centers where they have forensic interviewers who interview work with children regarding sexual abuse or violence, whether they are a victim or a witness.
Academy: And so the dogs help the child relax, feel safe and get comfortable so they can be a better advocate for themselves.
Soltes: Right. That is the idea. In fact, if the child has to be in court, and if the judge agrees, we have the dog accompany the child in court. As one mother said, the dog helped her child “find her words.”
Academy: Sheri, this is just amazing. I am so impressed with what you have accomplished. Can you tell us the Web site address so people can follow up with you?
Soltes: Sure, the Web site is www.servicedogs.org and they can phone us at 512-891-9090.
Academy: And lastly, how are you funded?
Soltes: We are funded through donations and we are always happy, honored, and pleased to find new donors. In fact, the dogs are free for the people who get the dogs, but it costs about $18,000 to $20,000 per dog to get them ready.
Academy: I recall from your Web site you even sell plush dog-dolls, which make great gifts and provide some income for your organization, and I suspect donations to your group are tax deductible?
Soltes: Yes, we are a 501(c)3 organization.
Academy: And I want to be sure to mention you have a dog-program for military personnel who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Soltes: Thanks for mentioning that. Yes. Doug, you know better than I do, but the number one injury to our service members is significant hearing loss and related issues like tinnitus, from all the weaponry and explosions. Of course many service personnel have traumatic brain injury, too. Therefore, if the dogs can help, we try our best to pitch in and provide dogs to them when we can. The hearing dogs not only help them become aware of sounds again, it takes the edge off Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by making them feel safer and by being a friend.
Academy: Thanks, Sheri. It is an honor to speak with you, and thanks so much for all you do.
Soltes: Thank you, too, Doug. I am delighted to have the American Academy of Audiology members and other readers visit the Web site and let us know if they have questions or if we can be of assistance.
Academy: Thanks, Sheri.
Sheri Soltes is the founder and president of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs in Dripping Springs, Texas.
Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified in Audiology, is the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology.