ASHLAND (AP) - When people see Anne Drake these days, they see a supremely confident, competent professional woman who works at the Disability Services Office of Indiana University's South Bend campus. At her side these days is a handsome black lab service dog named "Driver," who is her constant companion.
Some years ago, at the age of 46, Anne received the devastating news that she had an unusual form of glaucoma and would lose her sight. For many people such a loss could have been a life-destroying blow.
But not for Anne Drake. Instead of giving up, Drake went back to school and eventually took a master's degree in social work and is currently working on her doctorate.
Drake said a major reason she was able to succeed was because of her first guide dog, a German shepherd named "Tabitha," who was raised by Ashland resident Karin Grande-Pierce.
Tabitha is one of five guide dogs raised by Karin and her family in Ashland after family friend Val Standish-Beck introduced the Pierce family to socializing Leader Dog puppies.
Anne told The Daily Press of Ashland getting Tabatha was a life-changing event.
"She saved my life, both physically, emotionally and mentally as well," said Anne. "Once I got her, I realized that I had imposed all these restrictions on myself and I didn't even know it. I didn't realize that I was afraid to go out by myself. I was leery about riding the bus, didn't want to go to the store by myself, all of these things."
Even going out with aid from a sighted person was something she avoided.
"I had been totally independent all my life and now I was having to depend on everybody else, and I hated it," she said.
Once Anne had Tabby, she realized that she had been isolating herself from life.
"I didn't realize it, but I had lost a lot of myself, not only from losing my vision, but by my self-imposed restrictions. I had lost me; I was no longer that woman that I once was. Tabby found 'me' again. There is no other way to put it," she said.
For seven years, Anne and Tabby were inseparable.
Anne went to work for Indiana University, and Tabby became as much of a fixture in her office as she had been going to classes. Finally, last year, as the process of age and chronic infirmity caught up with her, Tabby retired from her duties and came back to Ashland, back to the Pierce family where she had been raised.
But although it was the end of her active career as a guide dog, it was not the end of the recognition for the outstanding service she had given.
Anne nominated her for the 2012 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards, and she was one of 359 dogs that were nominated in the categories of assistance dogs, including law enforcement/arson dogs, service dogs for people in wheelchairs or with medical issues, therapy dogs, military dogs, search and rescue dogs, hearing dogs for the deaf, and emerging hero dogs.
After more than 2 million votes were cast, Tabitha emerged as the winner in the guide dog category. In recognition, she and the other seven category winners are to be flown to Los Angeles for a star-studded gala event with VIP presenter Betty White for the "American Hero Dog" will be chosen. The event will be taped and broadcast on The Hallmark Channel in November. All of the finalist dog's chosen Charity Partners will receive $5,000 and the top American Hero Dog winner's charity will receive an additional $10,000.
Judges for the event include Whoopi Goldberg, "It's me or the Dog" star Victoria Stilwell, actress Kristin Chenoweth and many others.
Anne said she was delighted that Tabitha won in the guide dog category, particularly in light of the fact that Leader Dogs for the Blind receives the $5,000 prize.
"It takes at least $42,000 to train a single guide dog, so that money can really help," she said.
Tabitha herself is unaffected by the selection. These days she takes things easy at the Ashland Stove and Upholstery Works store owned by Steve and Karin Pierce and the family residence; the same place she was reared as a puppy.
"With Tabitha winning, we will be going to Hollywood too," said Karin, who has become a Tabitha cheerleader, urging people to go to the American Humane Association Hero Dog website and to cast their votes for Tabby.
Karin says that aside from the changes she made in Anne's life, Tabitha has affected many people.
"She has quite a following," she said, noting that Tabby has made many friends at the University.
"She has touched not only my life, but everyone around me," Anne agreed. "I work with students with disabilities, and you know, I have students come in with a wide variety of disabilities, some come in in a crisis mode, and Tabby would pick up on that and she would go and sit next to them and immediately they would begin to calm down, because they would be able to reach down and touch her, and she'd give them a little love. She was doing double duty."
Although these days, Anne works with her new dog, there will always be a special place in her heart for Tabatha.
"Tabitha was my first dog guide,"
she recalled. "She was and always will be my hero dog."
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