As in any budding relationship, it was a little too soon for hearing-impaired Cristina Saint-Blancard to sleep with her new service dog, Tatiana. Some time should pass, trainers said, for the black Labrador mix to adjust to Saint-Blancard as her new mistress.
But one night last August, Saint-Blancard’s mom bent the rules: Tatiana and her owner of two months could snuggle up together.
The decision would prove fortuitous. Early the next morning, Saint-Blancard, then 27 and a lifelong asthma sufferer, was stricken with an attack that left her breathless and in distinct danger of asphyxiation.
Tatiana tried to rouse her, said Saint-Blancard, but to no avail. “She knew right away there was something wrong,” she said. “I was already purplish. I was not breathing.”
The dog navigated the darkened Plantation house to the bedroom where Saint-Blancard’s mother, Teresa, was sleeping. She insistently nudged the woman awake. Paramedics were called. Saint-Blancard was brought back from the brink.
“You should have found your daughter dead in the morning,” rescuers later told Teresa Saint-Blancard. “The dog saved your daughter’s life.”
Tatiana became the floppy-eared focus of her new family’s affection, as well as the recipient of a special college degree. Now the 3-year-old mutt is one of eight dogs, culled from 359 nationwide, vying for the Hero Dog Award in the American Humane Association’s second annual competition.
Tatiana won the nonprofit association’s Hearing Dog category in a contest which saw 2.5 million voters casting online ballots. The honor comes with a $5,000 cash prize, which winners donate to a favorite charity. For Saint-Blancard, it’s Dogs for the Deaf.
Tatiana and seven other finalists, winners in categories such as Military Dog, Guide Dog and Therapy Dog, will compete in an Oct. 6 contest in Beverly Hills, where celebrity judges and online voters will select one canine as Hero Dog of the year. The winner will receive an additional $10,000 for charity.
The contest will be broadcast Nov. 2 by the Hallmark Channel in a 90-minute special featuring skits, musical acts and tributes to each finalist.
“I have the opportunity to be an advocate and share my story,” Saint-Blancard said.
The Puerto Rico native was afflicted with an ear disease at an early age, but through hearing aids can understand and speak clearly. Besides asthma, she also suffers from periodic ear infections. Still, she earned a degree from Iowa State University in 2006 and was working on her master’s degree there when she fell ill and returned to her Plantation home.
Tatiana, meanwhile, was bred by the Orlando-based Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit group that breeds, trains and places service dogs for the handicapped. The product of a golden retriever and black Labrador, Tatiana showed traits befitting a hearing dog and underwent nearly two years of training in California. She learned how, through nudges, to alert her owner to household sounds such as clocks, doorbells or microwave ovens.
After a year on a waiting list, Saint-Blancard was matched with Tatiana. “I was especially attracted to Tatiana; I saw something in her eyes,” she said. “She looks at you very intensely; she can read you as much as you can read her.”
Tatiana kept Saint-Blancard company as she earned an online biomedical engineering degree from Purdue University. The dog, sporting a mortarboard, accompanied her to the stage when she graduated in December. “The school awarded her a special degree,” Saint-Blancard said. “They gave her a master’s of friendship and guidance.”
But degrees and awards are secondary to Tatiana’s everyday influence.
“Tatiana not only changed my life in every sense of the word, she has changed my entire family; she’s the light of the family,” Saint-Blancard said.
“All our dogs are heroes; they do amazing things,” said Martha Johnson, spokeswoman for Canine Companions. “But we’re thrilled that Tatiana could be recognized for what she’s done for Cristina.”
Saint-Blancard’s mother, never a dog lover, also fell under the spell of her daughter’s furry helper.
“I feel a kind of love that I wasn’t able to feel before,” Teresa Saint-Blancard said. “For me, she’s already won. She’s already won my heart.”