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June 6, 2009–Meeting Leader Dog Zoe

June 6, 2013

June 6, 2009—Meeting Leader Dog Zoe

by Alice Jane-Marie Massa

At the end of the spring semester of 2008, when my second guide dog, Heather, had worked as my guide dog for ten years, my cream-colored yellow labrador retriever became “semi-retired.” After being at my side for so many years at the technical college where I taught, Heather was ready for a well-deserved semi-retirement. During the last few months of her work at the technical college, we changed some of our routines. For example, instead of walking up and down many flights of stairs, we more and more frequently took the talking elevators. Rather than enjoying our long walk home together, we more and more often took a cab home.

Although I was ready for a new, young Leader Dog in my life, I very much wanted and needed to care for the semi-retired Leader Dog who had cared for me so very well for ten years. During the fall semester of 2008, I took time away from my full-time teaching career to stay at home with Heather. She became content to be a happily
semi-retired guide dog, and my yellow lab continued to be so good about taking a number of medications. Eventually, Heather became quite hesitant about exiting our back door: making a turn directly to the left before going down two steps to the sidewalk and then her relief area was her challenge. I purchased a very nice and sturdy ramp to assist her in going outside. My once strong lab must have been thinking: “I am a Leader Dog—not a circus dog! I don’t do ramps.” My very gentle and encouraging training to convince her to try the ramp took forty-five minutes, the first time. After that major success, the second descent down the somewhat narrow ramp took only about five minutes. Then, she trusted the ramp and me. I felt that teaching my old dog this new trick was one of my greatest accomplishments: determination, positive thinking, and her trust in me were the keys. Heather’s willingness to go down this ramp allowed her to continue living more comfortably at our home until her passing on July 1, 2010.

As Heather’s health further deteriorated, I had to use a white cane more frequently. In January of 2009, my sister came from Colorado to Milwaukee in order to live with us temporarily so that she could care for Heather during the daytime while I resumed my full-time teaching. How I missed Heather at my side while I was walking around the campus with a white cane! I could never be as independent, comfortable, nor happy when walking with a white cane. What a different period in my life! This semester was a long one and a very prayerful time because my sister’s younger son was in the midst of serving eleven months in Iraq, with an Army Airborne/Sniper Unit.

All the paperwork and planning had been set so that at the close of the spring semester of 2009, I could return to Leader Dog School for my third guide dog. When my sister returned to Colorado to be with her son Eric during his two-week (mid-deployment) leave, my cousin Carole came to Milwaukee from Indiana to stay with my Heather so that I could return to Leader Dog School for three weeks of training with a new guide dog.

Somehow, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together; all the many prayers were answered. As I flew to Detroit and then took the van ride to Rochester, Michigan, my Leader Dog Heather, at age eleven and a half years (people years), became officially retired. Both she and my first wonderful Leader Dog, Keller, taught me so much about mobility, guidework, confidence, trust, and independence; they taught all these magnificent lessons with love and devotion. I was very ready for my third Leader Dog. I knew that Heather was ready to relinquish her harness and welcome another dog into our home and lives.

On June 6, 2009, my trainer (and team leader) Jessica told me that I could meet my new Leader Dog—a black labrador retriever/golden retriever mix, named Zoe. While I was fluttering with the excitement and joy of meeting my new Leader Dog, Zoe was full of wiggles and happy enthusiasm to greet me. I thought, “Oh, she is full of energy!” Nevertheless, as soon as I placed the harness on her, Zoe became a totally different personality: she became instantly calm and professional. I could hardly believe the change. When we started our first walk in downtown Rochester, I was half laughing and half crying with the joy of working with such a superior guide. How impressed I was with her first time as my guide! How wonderful to feel this freedom again of walking with a guide dog!

As Zoe and I celebrate today the fourth anniversary of our meeting and beginning our lives together, Zoe still impresses me with her amazing behavior and work. She has been and continues to be everything that any guide dog handler could ever hope for and wish for. Each day, Zoe makes my life easier and much more enjoyable. She is my third golden gift for which I am forever grateful.

Paw-script: For more tales about my Leader Dogs, please continue to read this blog. Also, on June 3, I received copies of the spring issue of the quarterly publication Dialogue, in which is an article that I wrote about my three guide dogs—Keller, Heather, and Zoe.

With special thanks to all who made possible Zoe’s coming into my life,


June 6, 2013, Thursday


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  1. I built a ramp in our garage back in 1996 for our first family dog, Barkley, a husky mix. He was getting on in years, and was unable to get up the steps into the house. Since his passing into doggie heaven, the ramp has been graced by several more dogs, more recently Coco and Deena, both husky mixes. Our love and commitment for our animals tells all around us who we are.

    May your past wearers of the harness rest in peace, and may your present and future tail waggers hold your love forever in the pads of their paws.

    Great post, and please have a doggie of a day.


    Deon Lyons Author of Sully Street Now Available in Paperback @ The Children’s Book Cellar, Downtown Waterville

    Also Available in Paperback and Digital at the Following Link: email Personal Website Personal Blog “The happiest of people don’t have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything they have.” Unknown Author


  2. carol lyons permalink

    loved it……thanks for the wonderful story…….dogs are truly our dearest,truest friends.

  3. Your remarkable little girls have been the best, with each one holding a special place in our hearts and our memories. Thank heavens for Leader Dog and for Keller, Heather, and Zoe!

    • Carole–Many more thanks right back to the very special you and Tim! Always, Alice and Zoe

  4. This is a wonderful story. I hope you and Zoe have many happy years together.

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