Of all the things animals do for us, there is perhaps nothing as wonderful as the work of a service dog, trained to assist a disabled person. These amazing canines are able to learn and to understand when a command should be obeyed and when it should be ignored for their human partner's safety.
The programs that breed and train these intelligent animals do not lack for media attention, but little is written about the experiences and feelings of the people who take service dogs into their lives.
Paul Ogden wants to break that silence. A professor of deaf education at California State University, Fresno, Mr. Ogden is the author of a warm and witty book about his experiences with a beautiful Belgian sheepdog, a tale told in "Chelsea: The Story of a Signal Dog" ($18.95, Little, Brown and Co.).
Chelsea has been trained to alert Mr. Ogden and his hearing-impaired wife, Anne, a nurse, to sounds many people take for granted -- a baby's cry, a smoke detector, a doorbell. The Ogdens and their helper are graduates of Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif. The non-profit group trains not only signal dogs, but also dogs to assist wheelchair-users and to serve as positive influences in institutional settings such as nursing homes.
Chelsea's tale is a delightful read for any animal lover, but those who pick it up won't put it down without learning a great deal about deaf culture.
"There are many people who are interested in a dog book," said Mr. Ogden, speaking in American Sign Language during a recent interview. "And that was one of the reasons I wrote 'Chelsea' -- to help them understand the importance of the relationship between man and dog.
"But I also want to know that when they're done reading, they'll know something about the deaf and hearing-impaired."
As Mr. Ogden signed, Chelsea rested silently next to his chair, relaxed but vigilant, her large, upright ears scanning the surroundings. Dogs have been aiding blind people for decades, but the idea of a signal dog is relatively new, said Mr. Ogden, even to other deaf people.
"I think a lot of deaf people were impressed by the things that Chelsea could do for us," Mr. Ogden said. "They knew that she alerted us to sounds, but there's a lot more.
"They were impressed, for example, when they found out that one of us will write a note to the other and send her to deliver it, letting her be our own Federal Express."
Chelsea is the first formally trained signal dog with whom the
Ogdens have shared their lives, but not the first dog to help them find their way in a sound-filled world. When he was in college, Paul Ogden rescued a dog from a shelter and trained him to react to sounds and to follow command signals. The dog's training wasn't as advanced as Chelsea's, though, and when the mixed-breed died, the couple decided to get a CCI dog.
The beautiful black sheepdog is 9 years old now, with more than a hint of white on her muzzle. Most working dogs are retired when they can no longer do their jobs. They are placed in new homes while the people they served learn to work with new dogs.
Anne and Paul Ogden already have decided that's not the way it will be with Chelsea.
"She's going to stay with us when she can no longer work," said Mr. Ogden, although noting immediately that the dog was nowhere near retirement. "We'll go back to signal lights if we have to, but Chelsea will stay with us.
"She has served us well, and it's the least we can do to thank her for what she's done."
That feeling of love and devotion -- the Ogdens for Chelsea and she for them -- comes though on every page of Paul Ogden's book. It makes "Chelsea" one of the most enjoyable "dog books" I've ever read.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.