Dogs for the Deaf leader set to retire

Robin Dickson is retiring after more than three decades at the helm of the national nonprofit Dogs for the Deaf Inc.

"I want to spend time with my family, kids and grandkids," said Dickson.

Dogs for the Deaf was started in 1977 by Dickson's father, Roy Kabat, who worked with animals in movies and television for many years before moving to Southern Oregon to semi-retire.

Kabat saw the success of Guide Dogs for the Blind and believed dogs could be trained in other service capacities, Dickson said. Kabat used his experience in training animals to rescue shelter dogs and provide service to the deaf, she said.

"He saw a need and a way to help," Dickson said. "We've been nationwide from day one. And we've rescued thousands of dogs. Nobody ever goes back to the shelter."

The oldest Hearing Dog training center in the world, Dogs for the Deaf was started on Kabat's property in the Applegate Valley. Dickson joined Dogs for the Deaf in 1981 because of her father's declining health, she said.

"He knew his time was limited and he wanted Dogs for the Deaf to continue," Dickson said, adding her father died in 1986 at age 66.

Dickson has led the organization since that time, taking the small, "mom and pop" organization and developing it into an internationally recognized Assistance Dog training facility with a solid financial foundation that places a variety of assistance dogs throughout the United States.

Dickson said the best things about her years leading Dogs for the Deaf have been the generous donors and witnessing the connection between the rescued dogs and their new owners.

"Getting to know the wonderful people we have placed dogs with and watch their lives miraculously improve ... watching countless numbers of unwanted dogs become highly trained professionals who go on to enhance and save lives," she said.

Karen Brockett, 58, suffered a slow but steady hearing loss because of a genetic issue passed on from her mother's side of the family.

"By the time I was in my 20s, I had gone from having a mild hearing loss to a moderate loss and received my first pair of hearing aids," Brockett said in an email interview.

Twenty years later, Brockett's moderate hearing loss was severe.

"Working became a challenge and using the phone almost impossible. I decided to withdraw from the workforce," Brockett said.

The loss of Brockett's beloved Australian shepherd in 2005 made her realize that she had used him as her ears, she said.

"Shortly after I applied for my first hearing dog from Dogs for the Deaf. Two years later, on April 19, 2007, I was handed the leash with a beautiful 2-year-old golden Lab named Cherelle. My life changed for the better," she said.

No more missing someone at the door because she didn't hear the knock or the doorbell. No more getting startled by someone or something coming from outside her field of vision, she said.

"My husband and myself did not have to worry when he was gone that I would not be aware when the smoke detector or CO2 detector went off," Brockett said, adding even with hearing aids she cannot hear most alarms.

"He can now call my cell and know I will get the message. Cherelle lets me know about all of these sounds and more," she added.

Brockett ultimately became a volunteer ambassador for Dogs for the Deaf and last year traveled to Central Point.

"I was able to meet this amazing woman in person," Brockett said. "I was able to see (Dickson) in action, enthusiastically and passionately promoting (Dogs for the Deaf)."

Dickson found property and developed the current facility in Sams Valley after her father's death. Dickson said Dogs for the Deaf has "stayed true to its mission of rescuing dogs and training them to help people with disabilities."

In addition to training dogs for people with hearing loss, Dogs for the Deaf is also training autism assistance dogs for families with children on the autism spectrum and program assistance dogs for professionals who work with people with disabilities.

"The program assistance dogs accompany professionals to work and help in the treatment or education of their patients/students," Dickson said, adding there is no charge for these specially trained dogs other than a $50 application fee.

Janice Justice suddenly lost her hearing completely one night in 1993 because of complications from medications.

Justice, an associate professor at the peak of her career, said she became a 34-year-old "unemployed reclusive (living) in a friend's basement apartment totally cut off from my previous life."

Justice heard about Dogs for the Deaf through its outreach programs, and was ultimately given a "wonderful hearing dog named Cajun."

For 15 years, Justice and Cajun "traveled the world together helping educate others about service dogs and disability," she said.

"Four years ago they guided me through the grief of losing my companion, Cajun," she said. "Then finding another partner for me, Scooter, and helping me transition with a new service dog."

"It's hard to believe it's been 23 years since I first became connected to (Dogs for the Deaf) and Robin," Justice said. "Under Robin's vision and heart, she and her staff have alleviated fear and isolation and given so many a hope for a fulfilling life."

Dickson is one of the founders of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition group of Assistance Dog training organizations worldwide. The group sets the standards and guidelines for the Assistance Dog industry, developing certification tests for both trainers and dogs and overseeing the accreditation program for all member organizations. Dickson has also served on its board as president and secretary, and has chaired the committee that wrote the certification tests for trainers and dogs.

Dickson has "devoted her life to rescuing dogs and improving the lives of people with disabilities. In the process, she has built a unique bond with donors that goes beyond amazing," said Marvin Rhodes, board chairman for Dogs for the Deaf.

Rhodes said Dogs for the Deaf will likely conduct a nationwide search for Dickson's successor.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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