Help Create a New San Francisco Hearing Dog Program

NOVEMBER 8 UPDATE: GOOD NEWS! The Hearing Dog Program  has received official IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit status! The HDP will continue its good work independent from the SF SPCA but with the same wonderful staff and volunteers. For more information, please contact Tom Oliver, Program Coordinator, at

Thanks for all your support!  For more info, visit

Blog for HDP supporters:

BACKGROUND: The SFSPCA closure story...

On Monday, April 21, 2008, without prior notice, the San Francisco SPCA terminated its 30-year-old Hearing Dog Program. The director, the lead trainer, and a staff animal caretaker were immediately fired and given 1-hour notice to collect their belongings. They were then escorted off the premises.
Founded in 1978, the Hearing Dog Program (HDP) has trained hundreds of rescued shelter dogs to be the ears of over 800 men and women who are either deaf or hard of hearing. The dogs are taught to alert their guardians to ringing phones and doorbells, alarms and other sounds. The program has been funded partly by the SF SPCA and partly through large donations and bequests from charitable organizations, individuals, and grateful recipients. It is a nationally recognized model program.

The day after the closure, SF SPCA President, Jan McHugh-Smith, sent an e-mail statement to the program volunteers. However, there was no explanation as to why the closing was so sudden and secretive, without allowing staff to and volunteers the time to tie up loose ends, inform the deaf and hard of hearing people already scheduled to graduate with their dogs in June, and join as a community to say goodbye.

Ms. McHugh-Smith stated that other service groups can better serve the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Animal activist and HDP volunteer Gillian Ladd refuted this comment. 'The cost of training each dog in the HD program is comparable to that of other service dog groups.'  says Ladd. 'Furthermore, our annual ratio of graduated hearing dogs to program trainers meets, if not exceeds the ratios of other service dog training programs. I believe the SPCA decision to close the HDP punishes disabled people because the resulting reduction in the pool of trained hearing dogs significantly increases the waiting time for dogs trained by other groups. As a 5-year volunteer for the HDP, I have witnessed the profound effect a hearing dog has on a recipient's life, providing safety, independence, and freedom in a life-altering and often life-saving way.'

The timing and management of the closure, one day after the 140th SF SPCA anniversary party was callous and wasteful. Staff members, with almost half a century of service between them, were given no notice at all. Seven trained dogs who had been assigned to hearing impaired individuals were instead put up for adoption through the Maddie's Adoption Center, along with six other dogs in various stages of training. Given that the society claims to spend $30,000 on the training of each dog , this decision cost the organization well over $210,000 in lost training costs. People in the deaf and hard of hearing communities who have been on a waiting list for months for their dogs will not get them. These dogs will be adopted into homes but they will not be making use of their skills.

While deafness can create a great communication chasm, the SF SPCA Hearing Dog Program has helped many people bridge this divide. With its decision to close the HDP, the SF SPCA severs a vital service to the deaf community and jeopardizes the support historically given it by a broad base of San Franciscans. This decision will have severe repercussions for the deaf community in years to come and will endanger the good will and generosity the HDP has continuously inspired.

We the undersigned are concerned about the closure of the SF SPCA Hearing Dog Program. The manner in which the closure of this national model program took place was unprofessional, and counter to the philosophy, best practices, and core mission of a non-profit organization committed to the 'enhancement of humane values in the community.'
Because your decision has such profound and negative consequences, we strongly urge you to reevaluate your position and to support the Hearing Dog Program.

To close the program without significant preparation and transparency is unacceptable. While it is a tragedy to have lost the Hearing Dog Program after more than three decades of providing a significant contribution to the lives of both the disabled and the dogs who are rescued and trained to assist guardians, the manner of the closure adds insult to injury.

The SF SPCA claims financial hardship as the reason for the closure. Is it a fiscally sound decision to abandon a program of 30 years, to lose all of the personnel, expertise, experience, and community support? Many other questions remain: Why were the budget issues and the impending closure not discussed with the program staff? Why was there no collaboration with staff to develop other sources of income and an outreach to ongoing contributors for funding to preserve the program? Why was a methodical transition plan not implemented? What will become of large donations made to the program?

Lack of appropriate kennel space was cited a reason to abandon the program; however, the SPCA is constructing a new 60,000 square-foot facility that will offer the most advanced and comprehensive medical services. In planning for the construction, was the Hearing Dog Program excluded, as your letter implies? Or has the space dedicated to the HD Program been reallocated?

Did the SF SPCA do any research to evaluate the hearing dog programs that you direct people to? Are these programs comparable to the SF SPCA HDP comprehensive service of training, educating recipients, and follow-up support? How long are the waiting lists at these programs? What research was done in term of the location of these programs and accessibility for the population who needs hearing dogs? What research was done in terms of the impact of the loss of the SF SPCA program on the population who needs hearing dogs?

Were the alternative resources given any lead time so they could prepare for increased demand? If yes, how much lead time? How and when were those who currently have hearing dogs and those on the waiting list for hearing dogs informed of the closure of the program?

We ask for specific, honest answers to these questions. Furthermore, we demand that you hold the management staff, Jan McHugh-Smith and Dori Villalon, accountable for their egregious implementation of this unfortunate decision.

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