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More about Keller

March 19, 2014


More about Keller:


Golden Vignettes of a Golden Guide Dog


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



            I associate the coming of spring with my meeting my first guide dog.  As I noted in last week’s post, I received my first guide dog from Leader Dog School on March 21, 1990.  In this post, I will continue to share more memories of Keller, my first of three Leader Dogs.  Having focused on three remembrances of Keller last week, I will begin this week’s writing with a fourth recollection and continue through “Golden Vignette 9.”


Golden Vignette 4


            One of the highlights of my first stay at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan) was a walk with my first guide dog at Stoney Creek Park.  As Keller and I walked independently along the path at this park in Rochester, I experienced such a rush of freedom.  I could not remember how many years had passed since I had walked at a brisk pace with confidence.  With Keller as my well-trained lead, I was thoroughly enjoying this exhilarating experience.  On that pleasant spring day, the sun beams and my golden retriever warmed my heart.  Then, I heard a jogger running toward us on the asphalt path.  Much to my surprise, Keller angled in front of me as if she felt duty-bound to protect me from the on-coming runner.  As the jogger passed by, I gave Keller the “forward” command; and she continued ahead.  With my reassurance, Keller quickly learned that she did not have to protect me from a well-meaning runner who happened to be coming our way.  While we strode farther down the path and toward an awaiting Leader Dog School bus, I realized that I was smiling broadly:  I tried to minimize my joy, but Keller was leading me up a new path—one that we would happily share for the next seven and a half years.


Golden Vignette 5


            Back home again in Indiana, Keller and I went to Honey Creek Square, a large shopping mall in Terre Haute.  As Keller and I were walking through one of the mall’s main hallways, I overheard two little girls’ conversation.  Referring to Keller (who was wearing her customary leash and harness, both of which are emblazoned with “Leader Dog”), one of the little girls said with a touch of amazement, “That’s a horse!”


            “No, that’s a dog,”  insisted the other child.


            “It is a horse.  It’s wearing a harness,” explained the first little girl. 


            From my poem in last week’s blog post, you may recall that a number of people mistook my golden retriever for an Irish Setter; however, this little girl was the only person who mistook my golden for a horse.


Golden Vignette 6


            The beautiful Keller was at my side as I embarked on some important transitions in my life.  About two months after leaving Leader Dog School, my first guide dog and I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, so that I could attend Western Michigan University to earn my second master’s degree.  If Keller had not come into my life, I would have never pursued a new career as a blind rehabilitation instructor.  In my classes at WMU, two other guide dogs joined Keller with very impressive classroom behavior.  Additionally, one of my professors had a guide dog:  Dr. Paul Ponchillia and his guide dog were great inspirations for Keller an me. 


            One day, after Keller and I had walked up the small hill to Sanguen Hall, we went up a couple flights of stairs to the Department of Blind Rehabilitation for an appointment with Dr. Ponchillia.  As my golden and I waited outside the professor’s door, a friend walked toward us and asked, “Do you know what Keller has in her mouth?”.  Of course, I thought that Keller had nothing unusual in her mouth.  Well, my guide dog had a Tootsie Roll Pop, which she must have picked up on a stair.  Although she was holding it perfectly, Keller did readily relinquish the sweet treat to me.  With the help of the friend, Keller and I found a wastebasket to toss the Tootsie Roll Pop.  Then, we returned to the professor’s office and acted as if nothing unusual had happened.


Golden Vignette 7


            During the late summer and early autumn of 1990, Keller and I enjoyed our walks from my apartment to the buildings where I had classes on the pretty campus.  One particular area where we passed at least a couple of times a day had some very tame squirrels.  (In later weeks, I found out that office staff in the nearby building had a habit of feeding these squirrels.)  These well-fed squirrels were filling Keller with excitement and were giving me my biggest challenge of working with a guide dog.  In those early days of working with a guide dog, I still had much to learn—Keller, Heather, and Zoe still had much to teach me.


            In August of 1991, Keller and I left the Michigan squirrels behind and moved to Milwaukee where I had taken a full-time teaching position at Milwaukee Area Technical College.  One day, when Keller and I were walking on Astor Street, a woman told me:  “I just have to tell you how marvelous your guide dog is.  A squirrel has been running circles around your dog, and your dog just kept going on her way—paying no attention to the squirrel.”  I thanked this stranger for this wonderful compliment to Keller.  If only this woman knew how far we had come so that Keller would not be distracted by a squirrel!  On that day, even more than usual, I was enormously proud of my Leader Dog.


Golden Vignette 8


            While I worked as a blind rehabilitation instructor in the Visually Impaired Persons’ Program at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Keller was a truly remarkable guide around the campus and in our classroom areas.  In the large classroom with four cubicles on one side of the open teaching area and office space in the rear of the large room, I told Keller to find a certain student by name; and she would guide me to the particular student.  I was amazed how quickly Keller learned the names of my students.  During the six years when I taught in this department (before transferring to the Department of English), a number of students came to the program with their guide dogs.  One semester, a total of seven guide dogs were on campus.  As expected, the guide dogs got along well; and I was always proud of my Keller.  On command, from a sitting position, my golden would “wave” her paw at a particular person and would often greet another guide dog in this friendly way of a wave.  (I think Keller must have been taught this “wave” trick by her puppy raiser.  While I have been able to communicate with and thank the puppy raisers of my subsequent two guide dogs, I regret that I was never able to know the puppy raiser of my first Leader Dog.) 


            Another memory of those days of teaching in the VIP Program is how my students were impressed with Keller’s ability to find an object on the floor.  If one of us dropped something, I would give Keller the command to find it.  Although finding such an object is not part of the customary list of commands which a guide dog learns, Keller showed me both at home and at school her ability to find an object.  She would lie down on the floor beside the object, point her right paw toward the object, and flap her paw down on the floor a couple of times to grab my attention to the found item.  Even though Keller had guided me through some of the worst winters of my life—over drifts of snow on sidewalks and stacks of snow at curbs—her finding a small object was also appreciated by my students and me. 


Golden Vignette 9


            Shortly after I returned home from Leader Dog School with Keller (in 1990), my mother was hospitalized and had to have back surgery.  Visiting my mother at the hospital each day, Keller and I were never discouraged from entering the hospital nor my mother’s room.  Actually, the nurses and doctors seemed genuinely happy to see my extremely well-behaved guide dog. 


            Almost seven and a half years later, at another hospital in Terre Haute, Keller and I were even allowed to visit my dad in the Intensive Care Unit.  A few days later, my dad, who was trying to recover from a cerebral hemorrhage, reached from his hospital bed to pet Keller, who loved my dad so much.  Of course, everybody loved Keller; and everybody loved my dad—they were the golden pair in my life.  For reasons beyond my grasp both then and now, their deaths came exactly two weeks apart. 


            In a lifetime, we wish so many things.  When more memories were clearer and precise in my mind, I wish I had been able to write a book about Keller:  she deserved to have a book written about her.  However, after those two losses within exactly two weeks, I spent too much time trying to move forward with my life.  In a sea of tears, I could not write about Keller nor my dad—I could only remember them, honor them by my being able to move on.  After all these years, this passage cannot be written without tears because I still miss them, miss them so much.


            On a happier note, this post is to remember and honor Keller on the anniversary of our first meeting—March 21, 1990.  For my three Leader Dogs—Keller, Heather, and Zoe—I am forever grateful to Leader Dog School, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.  Can you imagine how much joy and independence Leader Dog School and its trainers have given to all the graduates in 75 years?



Happy Spring!

With still more golden tales to tell,

Alice and Leader Dog Zoe


March 19, 2014, Wednesday



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  1. God bless all the dogs that have graced our lives. None any more than Keller did with you. What an amazing animal, companion, friend you had. Love and trust between us and our dogs is an incredible gift that we should never take for granted. Thanks so much for another inspiring post. These chapters in your life would fit nicely in a binder. Hint. Hint. Thanks Alice. dp

  2. Carole permalink

    I never tire of hearing stories about these beautiful girls. All of these sweethearts have been remarkable, and extraordinary memories and moments continue. Love them all!

    • I remember with enormous and forever thanks the time you and Tim came to Kalamazoo to take Keller and me through all the snowdrifts as Tim drove back to Indiana so that Keller and I could visit Dad after one of his surgeries. Another time of special giving was when you came right after your Christmas celebration to be with me at the Animal Emergency Center when Keller had her surgery and was a patient there until you and I took her home on New Year’s Eve. How can one thank a cousin enough for these generous and very kind acts? Love, Alice and Zoe

      • Carole permalink

        No need to thank me “enough,” as we are family. Love,

  3. With smiles and tears, I thank you for sharing your golden memories, Alice. They are truly priceless!
    Love, Mary

  4. Thank you, Alice, for sharing more memories of Keller. What a wonderful dog you had.

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