Hearing Dog Specialist
Martha loves the little ones…
About Martha Hoffman
I’ve been training dogs for 35+ years.
At first I thought if I learned the different temperament types of dogs, I would soon have it all figured out. By the time I had classified dogs into about twenty types, I realized I was going to have to subdivide. Pretty soon I gave up on this idea, because every dog was so different. Beyond their temperament traits, they had their own unique personalities and experiences that had shaped them. I went through the same thought process with trying to teach their human guardians. Nowadays, instead of categorizing people and dogs into boring niches, I approach them expectantly, waiting to see what each dog and person can teach me. Every dog owner has some insight that only their own dog could have shown them, and every dog has different reasons for behaving the way they do.
From an introverted and shy person who related better to animals than people, and had panic attacks at speaking in public or doing dog training classes, I became someone who now likes teaching people better than teaching dogs…because humans are so much smarter!
So, my constant search for better dog training techniques was replaced by interest in techniques that got through to peoples minds and engaged their interest. I now love teaching in person or online, and after a lesson, I am happy for hours. Seeing people understand dogs is so much fun. Then they want to know more, and then off they go to a new world with their dog.
I was born hard of hearing, although my parents didn’t discover this till I was three. I didn’t talk at all till I was three, but at two I started watching all animals and drawing them. Snails were my first pets, and they were easy to draw! I still draw snails all the time; I think I must have imprinted on them. Since my family moved around a lot, my parents never wanted a dog, but I had every other pet I could either catch or buy. I tried training many of them, sometimes successfully (but my parrot always out-trained me and taught me just how intelligent these birds are).
After graduating (biology and animal behavior) in college, I became a goldsmith and gem engraver in Manhattan. I finally got my first dog, a Yorkshire terrier. Niji became the focus of all the dog-desire I’d had as a kid, and he learned almost every trick that dogs can do. I had heard about a new thing called a Hearing Dog, so I tried to train him to alert me to the phone, by running myself and getting him to chase me and bark at me. As all trainers know, barking should not be encouraged in Yorkies! But it worked for me, and he learned on his own to come and get me if I didn’t hear his barking. He would jump on me, and then run to start a chase game when the phone or doorbell rang. That was the best trick he ever learned!
I moved to San Francisco and worked in a crystal giftware factory. I got bored of the production line and started making all kinds of animals with the leftover crystal pieces. Although worried I would get in trouble for wasting time on crystal fleas, suddenly I was promoted to be a designer for them! But when they had enough designs in stock for years to come, and I was laid off, I heard there was a trainer position open at the SF/SPCA Hearing Dog Program. I luckily got hired. I spent 19 years up to my ears in dogs there, and when the program was discontinued, our loyal volunteers and HD partners helped us keep the HDP going as an independent non-profit. We are still training Hearing Dogs and Service Dogs. Many of our clients have come back for their third or fourth Hearing Dog, and have become a great community of friends of ours over the years.
Trivars Planet Niji, CDX, my first self-trained Hearing Dog, did lots of magazine ads, and even won the part of “Toto” in Steve Silvers San Francisco stage production “Beach Blanket Babylon” over the 400 dogs who auditioned. His paychecks put the down payment on my first new car. I got “DOGZILA” license plates, so Niji could lounge on the back ledge and make people laugh. His main role in BBB, besides riding in a basket wearing a top hat, was to act lost, then run eagerly to Dorothy and get a piece of liver out of her white glove as she joyously picked him up. (No liver, no performance). Some nights, even with liver, he seemed put out, and refused to notice Dorothy at all; perhaps that’s why his contract was not renewed after six months.
Scotswood Sly Jinx CDX, TD, was my great pal, a Border Collie. I never saw her happier than when I lived by a vineyard in Napa with sheep nearby. She only spent six months of her life taking herding lessons, but I tried to make it up to her by letting her do tricks, television ads, tracking, pretending to be a Schutzhund IPO dog, and doing Hearing Dog Demos. She preferred demos to actual HD alerting. In real life, she spent her time jealously preventing my other HD, Snap, from alerting me. Jinx was so great in Agility. Most dogs take a wrong obstacle if the handler gets lost or distracted, but Jinx would always notice my indecision and wait, staring at me till I got my wits together. Her great teamwork saved me many times! That was how we won the 1990 USDA National Championship. Afterwards, I got a call. David Letterman wanted the 2 top dogs to go on “Late Night With David Letterman” and run an agility course set up through the audience and studio. Jinx was intimidated at first in the studio, but all the cameramen were dog nuts, and played ball with her until she was comfortable with the lights, giant cameras, and very brassy band. During the days we were there, she chased squirrels in NYC’s Central Park, but at night, we stayed far outside the park, since the night shift of “squirrels” had bare naked tails…
Amok ot Vitosha, IPO lll (“Jekyll”) was my Belgian Malinois, a Schutzhund dog. His motto was “Too Much Is Not Enough!” If he were a person, he would have been hurling himself against every challenge he could find. His courage, endless energy and determination were an inspiration to me, because I lack those traits. Living with him was like having an IV of adrenaline permanently attached to my arm, and I got addicted! I don’t know how such a dog could exist without spontaneously combusting. No Hearing Dog role in public for him! His flip side was his intensely focused companionship with me, and his tolerance for all the weird things and people we encountered together. We traveled five times to Europe on the US Team to various world championship IPO competitions, and he always joyously passed all three phases in the tough conditions in the trials there. I learned that no public appearance would ever be as intimidating as having hundreds of the worlds top dog trainers watching as I desperately yelled “DOWN!!” ten times in a row. After that, no stage fright for me!
I had to have another Malinois, this time to be my Hearing Dog. Gotcha Ot Vitosha had a “good buddy” personality and was a relaxing contrast to Jekyll’s energy and aggression. I selected her as a pup because her temperament seemed to be a good combination of her friendly and tolerant parents. She loved public access situations, kids, and being my practice dog for lots of Service Dog training techniques. She participated in a cancer detection study, and learned narcotic detection for fun. Her HDP demos were always surprising, picking up “lost” keys but flinging them at me, or flinging my money and credit cards into the audience when she picked up my dropped wallet and gave it a big shake. She passed away recently at 17. I miss her deep thoughtfulness, intelligence, and the way she would bully me to sounds with increasingly hard muzzle punches if I got lazy and ignored her alerts.
It’s A Snap, AD, was my American Eskimo Hearing Dog from a shelter: almost psychically connected, always aware, and if her alerts were ignored, she would back up and launch into my lap from 6 feet away. She loved Agility, once she found that doing the obstacles was more fun than zooming in uncontrollably wild circles around them. Luring other dogs into chasing her, zigzagging like a bunny until the dogs lost their minds and yanked out pieces of her fluffy tail fur, was her most exciting and dangerous pastime. Sometimes she almost didn’t get back to my side in time to save her life. She made up for that by chasing and bullying all dogs smaller than her; I had lots of work to do to teach her to enjoy a safer and saner lifestyle!
Our current Demo Dog for HDP is an Eskie mix, with an equal zest for life. Spinning with excitement at any praise, she yanks her own tail plumes if not given lots of sounds to alert to.
My current HD is Garou-Loup of Left Coast, another Malinois. He was selected from parents who are great K9 workers, but both can calm when bored, and love children. He’s 2 and ½ at last, and I think the worst is over: less destructive, and loving me and life a bit more calmly. I trained him to nudge me for alarm clock alerts, but he invented his own better and much more effective alert…to slowly lower himself down to sit on my head. That gets me up immediately!!!! I trained him on bedbug detection, and he had great talent, but the bugs disgusted me so much that I gave up. He needs a new sport, so now we are trying Nosework, which is more sanitary than bloodsucking bedbugs.
My French Bulldog, Scarlet, is Garous’ tireless wrestling partner. She has not yet chosen a career, although she shows talent at Deep Pressure Therapy. That is a fancy term for lying on the chest of an anxious person until they calm. Which apparently Frenchies seem bred for.
Which one taught me most? I’d say “Everydog”: all of my own, the twenty thousand shelter dogs I tested, and the hundreds of Hearing Dogs we adopted and trained for HDP, who failed or succeeded at their Hearing Dog roles, but showed me how every dog is so unique and unusual, and that we need to find out each ones hidden talents.
Looking back, I realize that Niji, my first dog, had a talent that can’t be trained: if I cried, he would fling himself at me over and over again, rolling under my face, and doing a werewolf dog-smile with tiny teeth flashing. I always laughed. If I was depressed, he would spend hours bringing every toy onto my bed, pushing them at me until I got up to play with him. His determination to change me never failed, and I owe him so much. He got me through some very hard times.
And have any of my other dogs reacted with such emotional intensity if I cry, or refuse to get out of bed? Unfortunately, no. What I thought were just Nijis funny quirks, nowadays would be valued as great SD or ESA or PTSD-SD traits for helping with depression or anxiety. It’s great to see the field of Service Dog training advance every year, showing us that we should never take dogs for granted. They are amazing and very complicated creatures.