Legendary Dog Trainer Reveals Her Truth, How a Service Dog Has Changed Her Life


By Steve Dale

In her 27th book, legendary dog trainer Carol Lea Benjamin
comes out of the closet.

For friends and neighbors in New York’s Greenwich Village,
it isn’t news to see Benjamin walking down the street with a service dog.

Still, some might assume Benjamin is training the dog for
someone else. In fact, for years, Benjamin has benefited from a service dog,
though she hasn’t written about it until now. Her latest book, “Do Border
Collies Dream of Sheep?” with co-author C. Denise Wall (2011; $20 only
available for online purchase: Amazon.com), is about raising her own service
dog, and co-author Wall also raising a puppy to herd sheep.

At 21, Benjamin was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a
chronic and painful intestinal disorder. “At times, I was unable to go
out, unable to work,” she recalls. Back in 1990, Benjamin was about to
make a series of TV appearances to promote a book she’d written on choosing and
raising a puppy. To do so, she sought to “borrow” a pup from the
ASPCA. At the shelter, one little dog ‘connected’ with her. Dexter wound up as
Benjamin’s pet and ultimately her first service dog.

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Today there are many dogs serving people with a variety of
so-called “invisible disabilities.”

Service dogs are today being used in record numbers for visible and invisible disabilities

Some can predict seizures or
heart irregularities, while others help the hearing-impaired. Even the federal
government is on board these days, helping returning soldiers with
post-traumatic stress disorder procure service dogs. In fact, the need is
greater than the number of available dogs.

The government has figured out what Benjamin learned years
ago. With a service dog, a person with limitations is more likely to contribute
to society, and less likely to need as much support from government services.

Benjamin trained dogs as partners; a Hall of Fame dog trainer.

However, back when Benjamin hooked up with Dexter, she had
no idea a dog could help her with Crohn’s disease. Having a service dog wasn’t
Benjamin’s idea, but the dog’s. “I don’t know how Dexter knew about my
pain, but he began to help me by pressing against my stomach,” she says.
“Over time, I learned that Dexter was clearly sensing I was in pain, and
that he really was helping me a great deal. I taught Dexter good manners so he
could go places. Dexter taught me that a dog could help.”

Carol Lea Benjamin authored the Rachel Alexander mystery series starring Dash the sleuthing dog.

As Dexter began to age, Benjamin sought another service dog.
“Clearly, having Dexter changed my life,” she says.

If anyone could train a dog to go out into world, Benjamin
could. After all, she was admitted into the International Association of Canine
Professionals Hall of Fame
(a Hall of Fame for dog trainers). But she’d never
trained Dexter to help her. How did she know her next dog would or could?

“I suppose I didn’t know,” says Benjamin. “I
decided to get a Border Collie, knowing they are smart and pay careful
attention to their people.” At first, Flash seemed uninterested in helping
Benjamin, and was far more focused on playing. The idea of having a new dog
replace her beloved Dexter seemed likely to fail. Then one day, nearly
overnight, Flash got the idea. Indeed, he grew up in a flash.

Where Dexter left off, Flash picked up. If it was possible,
Benjamin’s connection to Flash grew even more intense. When Flash began to age,
Benjamin began thinking about a second Border Collie to follow in his
four-paws. She contacted Border Collier breeder Wall in North Carolina.

In the book, Wall writes that she had become adept at
choosing just the right dog for the right family, but she’d never before picked
out a pup destined to be a service dog. When the puppies in one litter were
still very young, one named Moss became separated from the others and began to
cry. Sky instantly came over to console his littermate, curling up next to him.
Sky was chosen for Benjamin in January 2008.

The book follows Sky and another littermate named May.
Border Collies are happiest (as are most dogs) when they have a job. Sky became
Benjamin’s service dog, while May became a sheepherder. The book chronicles how
the two dogs from the same litter followed two very different career paths.

Carol Lea Benjamin and Sky (photo by Stephen Lennard)

A pioneer among dog trainers, Benjamin was also a pioneer in
utilizing dogs to help people with invisible disabilities. While today, Sky is
accepted nearly everywhere, that wasn’t always true. Or people just assumed
Benjamin was blind. After all, why else would you travel with a dog?

Sky learned the job by watching Flash, literally. (Photo by Stephen Lennard)

Once, when
Benjamin was on a plane, reading a book, a flight attendant asked the person
seated next to her if she’d help Benjamin off the plane when it landed.
“It seemed obvious I wasn’t blind since I was reading a book,” says
Benjamin, who begins to laugh. “But if I was blind, that wouldn’t have meant I couldn’t hear.
Besides, if I was blind, the dog would have led me off the plane.”

So how has Sky helped her? And do Border Collies dream of
sheep? Benjamin answered as a seasoned author who knows how to sell books:
“You have to read the book.”

Click HERE to listen to a conversation with Benjamin, my WGN Radio Petcast.