A hearing expert at Auburn University has adapted human technology to dogs and is fitting the canines with hearing aids.
'Jumping,' a 12-year-old mixed breed owned by April Agee of Litchfield, Conn., has a hearing aid.
'She does have some hearing without it,' said Agee, a nurse. 'She has much better hearing with it.'
Jump, as the mixed German shepherd and husky is called, is a sort of guinea pig for veterinarian and human audiology researchers at Auburn and Texas A&M in the new field. And several hearing aids have been delivered to Tufts University in Massachusetts for independent research.
'Most vets occasionally get inquiries from clients who want to know what to do about household pets who lose their hearing,' said Dr. Arvil Marshall, an assistant professor at Auburn's veterinary college who specializes in anatomy. 'Some dogs are very dear to them and they perceive that their quality of life is dropping.'
The inventor of the hearing aid for dogs, Curtis Smith, says the idea grew from a casual conversation.
'I took my dog to my vet to get shots and since my business is audiology I asked him do you ever have people who bring dogs in here with hearing problems,' said Smith, an audiologist in the communication disorder school at Auburn.
'He said they do but there wasn't anything you can do to treat it,' Smith said. 'I told him I believe I can do something so I got to work on it and I'm down to the third generation, so to speak, of hearing aids for dogs.'
The aids are made by Unitron in Port Huron, Mich., said Smith.
Jump was chosen for an aid because of her availability and good health, which is important, said Sandra Clark-Lewis, who is Smith's colleague at Auburn and Agee's cousin.
Agee said she decided to get Jump a hearing aid after a walk in the woods.
'She got distracted and I saw her fall behind and she started running because she couldn't find me and was scared,' Agee said. 'I was screaming for her and she couldn't hear me.'
Jump was fitted with the hearing aid at Texas A&M and had to be trained to accept it. The hearing aid is a device made for humans but wrapped with foam rubber instead of the molded plastic used in human ear canals. The foam rubber expands in the hearing canal to hold the aid in place.
The hearing test is about $100 and the aids cost $300-$500, said Dr. Patricia Luttgen, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Texas A&M's small animal medicine and surgery school. A human hearing aid can cost as much as $800.
'One aid works in all dogs so they can be mass produced,' said Luttgen.
An electrodiagnostic machine that detects brain waves is used to test the dogs' hearing.
'We put a headphone on the dog and attach electrodes to the skin and click a sound,' Marshall said. 'We can see the response and our assumption is if there's a nerve response the dog heard it.'
'The main problem is dogs get old, just like humans,' said Smith. 'They've got ears like ours.'
Luttgen stressed that some deaf dogs can't be helped with a hearing aid and that not all dogs are candidates.
'This may be more of a service to the owner rather than the dog,' said Marshall.
'The thing that got me interested is a dog psychologist said that with hearing impairment dogs become withdrawn, just like people,' Smith said. 'I wanted to know if dogs would come out of their shell after being able to hear.'
After a dog is trained to accept the foreign object, the aids must be removed at night and daily cleaning of the aid and of the dog's ear are important, the vets said.
'It takes a commitment from the owner and the dog during training before the dog will accept it,' Agee said. 'You have to use a lot of positive reassurance in training the dog.'
'We're at the stage where it works,' Smith said. 'Within two years it will be just as common as humans with hearing aids.'