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Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:53 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Candace Birkelbach

Killeen Daily Herald

Watching Colleen Saffron and her dog Gretchen work together, it is hard to believe Saffron is hard of hearing and needs Gretchen to assist her.

Saffron, a Harker Heights resident, and Gretchen, a Texas Hearing and Service dog,

gave a charismatic presentation to a group of first-graders at Peebles Elementary School on Wednesday.

Saffron came to tell students in Nicole Pinkett's first-grade Talented and Gifted class about how to behave properly around someone with a service dog. The presentation tied in with a unit Pinkett was teaching about empathy for people with disabilities.

Saffron said her hearing slowly declined throughout her life and she does not know how it happened.

Saffron said she did not get her first pair of hearing aids until she was 30 years old; they still do not allow her to hear all sounds fully.

Eventually, Saffron's doctor told her how to get a service dog to assist her with daily activities.

Texas Hearing and Service Dogs take canines from animal shelters and train them for several years before they are ready to be service dogs, Saffron said.

Saffron said her dog Gretchen, a Brittany spaniel, pokes her leg when she hears a loud noise.

The dog notifies Saffron when her phone is ringing, when the doorbell rings or when someone approaches, Saffron told the class.

Saffron told the students how important it is not to distract a service dog from taking care of its owner in public.

"You have to understand that disabled people aren't mean and the (service) dogs need to do their job," Saffron told the students.

Dogs with jobs to focus on tend to live longer, be happier and have fewer health problems, Saffron said.

Saffron said Gretchen plays fetch and rolls on her belly when they are at home, but knows when she has to do her job.

"I don't know how, but Gretchen knows she's working when her vest is on," Saffron said.

Saffron said service dogs are trained for several years on public behavior and interaction. She said she had to wait about 18 months before Gretchen could stay at her home.

Dogs can hear up to 400 times better than humans and smell 600 times better than humans, Saffron said.

She said she was able to get the dog, which costs about $10,000 to train and feed, at no cost to her. Gretchen was sponsored by the Harley Owner's Group out of Denton and was given to Saffron in September 2003.

Pinkett said her students expand upon the basic first-grade curriculum because they are in the TAG program.

Students learned about the senses and what it's like to lose them, she said.

They learned about Louis Braille and Helen Keller and their contributions to the blind and deaf.

Classmates also had an empathy day where they each took on a different disability, Pinkett said. Some students found out what it was like to be mute, blind or to lose a limb.

"I wanted them to understand how it feels to be disabled," Pinkett said. "We need to help solve problems for people with disabilities."

Pinkett said she heard about Saffron's story from the mother of one of her students.

Cassy Hillow, 6, of Killeen, taught her fellow classmates a phrase in sign language she knew. She showed the students how to sign "What is your name?" and "My name is ... "

Saffron also taught students how to sign basic phrases. She answered questions from students in the class by reading their lips and piecing together sounds.

"No one ever knows I'm deaf unless I tell them," Saffron said.

Saffron said she was amazed at the things she has now to assist her hearing because doctors told her there was no hope as a child.

Texas Hearing and Service Dogs asks people who are comfortable with their dogs to be ambassadors, Saffron said.

"Gretchen has been such a gift to me, and I lose independence if I don't have her," Saffron said after talking to the students.

Contact Candace Birkelbach at candaceb@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7553

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