SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — When Anne Drake discovered she was losing her sight 12 years ago, she believed her life as she knew it was over.
"I thought I was never going to be able to do anything again," she said. "In the process of losing my sight, I lost who I was. I was no longer Anne, but I became somebody I didn't know."
Enter Tabitha, a guide dog who partnered with Drake about one year after she began to lose her sight. Drake and Tabitha were paired together through Leader Dogs for the Blind, an organization in Rochester Hills, Mich., that provides free guide dogs to the blind and visually impaired.
The improvement, Drake said, was unbelievable.
"Tabby, she led me into it," Drake, of South Bend, said. "She led me into the blindness and she led me into my new life. Her main job is to help me find things and keep me safe from things like moving cars. But she found me. She found who I was and helped me find myself again."
Tabitha's incredible work as Drake's guide dog for almost seven years was to be recognized during Thursday's television broadcast of the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards on the Hallmark Channel, the South Bend Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/T5fDBt ).
The German shepherd received more nationwide votes than 40 other dogs to earn the honor of Hero Dog in the Guide Dog category.
Jody Frisch, AHA's national director of public affairs, said the awards program was "created to celebrate the powerful relationship between dogs and people and to recognize extraordinary acts of heroism performed by ordinary dogs."
The second annual awards show was filmed on Oct. 6 at the Beverly Hills Hilton in Los Angeles. Other Hero Dog categories include search and rescue dog, hearing dog and service dog.
The program was hosted by actress Kristin Chenoweth, and Betty White appears as well.
Drake said she immediately nominated Tabitha after she learned of the awards because of her uncanny abilities as a guide dog.
"We could step out of my house ... and I could say, 'Let's go to work,' and that's all I'd tell her, and she would know where to turn, where to stop, which direction to go in," Drake said. "I could tell her let's go see a certain professor on campus, and she would take me right to their office. That's a smart dog."
The pair's extraordinary connection made it all the more painful for Drake when she decided to retire Tabitha after nearly seven years together. The 9-year-old dog was developing arthritis, Drake said, and she needed to stop working in order to remain in good health.
As a result, Drake decided it would be best for Tabitha to return to Wisconsin and live with the family who raised her as a puppy.
"It was really tough ... We were such a great working team and I love her madly so I didn't want her out of my life," Drake said. "But at that point it was all about her. I had to be the person for her like she was the dog for me. I had to step up and take care of her now."
Drake and her new guide dog, a 2-year-old black Labrador named Driver, have been together for almost a year. While the two are still learning each other's habits and needs, Drake imagines they will be a solid team in the near future.
Driver and Tabitha both accompanied Drake to Los Angeles for the filming of the awards show last month. When Tabitha became ill, Driver represented the former guide dog on stage and accepted the award on her behalf with Drake.
Tabitha and Drake's $5,000 prize will benefit the organization that united them, Leader Dogs for the Blind.
Despite the German shepherd's illness, the trip ended on a happy note.
"At that time, I just decided that I wanted her back with me," Drake said. "It was agreed (between herself and the family Tabitha had been living with) that she would come back and live with me. And now she's back in my home and it's a great thing."
Tabitha now lives with Drake and Driver, along with a small schnauzer Drake rescued.
Drake said Tabitha's accomplishment solidified what she was already aware of: Tabby truly is an extraordinary dog.
"She obviously did her job of guiding me, helping me to move about and regain my independence and confidence, all the things a guide dog is supposed to do," Drake said. "But it was her skills that enabled me to feel like nothing had really changed. My life was still the same. I was still the same person, and she helped me find that."
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com