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A Puppy’s Tale of 18 Years Ago

October 22, 2014


A Puppy’s Tale of Eighteen Years Ago–October 22, 1996


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



Eighteen years ago, on October 22, 1996, a little, sweet yellow lab puppy was born–destined, with at least two of her littermates–to become a Leader Dog.  That darling lab puppy was also destined to “fill the paws” of the amazing guide dog Keller and become my second Leader Dog–only a short seventeen months later.  Volunteering for Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan), Nancy and Jeff Sever became the little lab’s “puppy-raisers.  They named the puppy “Heather.”  Although they had experience with raising other puppies for Leader Dog School and knew that they would have to return Heather to the school in about one year, I cannot imagine how emotional this parting must have been for the Severs and for Heather.


Back at Leader Dog School, Heather was set to embark on a new life of working with a professional trainer (Tom Hill) to become–if she passed through all the stages of training and medical examinations successfully–a guide dog.  After three months of training, I, in a most unusual way {Please refer to my blog post of April 14, 2013–The High-flying Tales of April 12, 1998–for this part of the story.}, finally arrived at Leader Dog School for the second time in my life.  With seven years of working with Keller (my golden retriever who died of cancer) somewhat behind me, I was trying to start over and open my heart to a new guide.  Three days after arriving at the school, trainer Tom Hill came to the door of my dormitory room and told me that he would bring to me a yellow lab, a female, weighing 62 pounds.  When Tom returned, he told me to call my dog.  I did.  Over the tile floor, Heather came running to me, paused for a brief sniff of me, and then wanted to check out the spacious room.  No, she was nothing at all like the demeanor of my first guide dog; but I was determined that she and I would become handler and guide dog–a good match.


Transitioning from one’s first guide dog to one’s second must be the hardest–especially when one’s first guide dies too young. Although my trainer did not want me to compare Keller and Heather, comparing and contrasting are such normal parts of viewing the world around us and learning.  I did a lot of learning in the next three-and-a-half weeks.  I learned that working with the 17-month-old yellow Labrador retriever was and would be much more challenging than working with a 21-month-old golden retriever.


With persistence, patience, and prayers–Heather and I finally settled into being a fine working pair.  From 1998 to May of 2008, Heather was at my side and in the lead as I worked full-time at Milwaukee Area Technical College.  At all other times, she was at my side:  we traveled together, walked over the bridges of Milwaukee together, trekked through the snowdrifts together, and all that one does in a decade of living.


Even though Heather had been a very strong and healthy dog, arthritis and a couple of other ailments gradually slowed her pace.  Eventually, getting in and out of vehicles was becoming more and more difficult for her.  Instead of taking a few flights of stairs to my office and classrooms, we took the elevators.  After Heather’s amazing ten years of working in the city and at the technical college, I knew that I had to “semi-retire” my second Leader Dog.  The final month of the spring semester of 2008 had probably been too hard for her, so she seemed to agree fully to a life of semi-retirement.


The summer’s heat was bothersome to her.  During July of 2008, I was uncertain that she would survive the summer.  With medications, veterinary care, and my care, she persisted to enjoy the cooler autumn.  Nevertheless, I purchased a doggie ramp for the back stairs to make Heather’s leaving the townhouse and re-entering easier.  Well, you can “teach an old dog new tricks.”  When leaving the back door, Heather had to turn left, go down the ram, then turn right onto the sidewalk.  The first time I coaxed and coached her to go down the ramp took 45 minutes.  I was so determined because I knew that I could keep her as a retired dog only if she could go down the ramp.  The second time down the ramp took less urging on my part and was accomplished in five minutes.  After Heather’s initial trips down the doggie ramp, you would have thought she shifted from Leader Dog to circus dog because she went down and up the ramp like an old pro.  I was so proud of her and so enormously grateful!  Teaching Heather to use that ramp may have been one of the best accomplishments of my life:  I had to care for her in her later years, the way she had cared for me during the prior ten years.


After I stayed at home with Heather during the fall semester of 2008, my sister came from Colorado to be with Heather during the spring semester of 2009 so that I could return to teaching–teaching without a guide dog at my side, with only a white cane.  During this school year, my younger nephew was on an eleven-month deployment in Iraq.  When he had a leave to be at home in Colorado for two weeks, my sister left to be with her son; so, my cousin Carole came from Indiana to stay with Heather while I returned to Leader Dog School for my third guide dog, a  few days after the end of the spring semester of 2009.  There are not enough ways to say “Thank you” to my sister and cousin who helped make possible my being able to keep and care for Heather.  During the 2009-2010 school year, a dog sitter whom I hired stayed with Heather while Zoe and I were at the technical college.


Since I was never a permanent nor happy cane user, I was so ready for a young guide dog with whom I could walk quickly, efficiently, and independently.  Zoe, now sleeping beside me as I write this memoir, was the answer–not just for me, but for Heather also.  On June 6, 2009, when I first put the harness on my black Labrador/golden retriever mix, I could feel that she had immediately shifted from an excited, wiggly, and abundantly happy dog to a serious, professional working dog.  Transitioning to Zoe was easy.  I was blessed with the most nearly perfect guide dog one could ever imagine.


Three weeks later, my sister met Zoe and me at the Milwaukee airport.  The persistent stormy weather changed our plans for the two Leader Dogs’ first meeting.  Instead of meeting outside, my two labs had to meet inside.  Fortunately, all worked out quite well.  My sister and my cousin were there to witness the meeting:  Zoe wanted to sit right on Heather’s bed with my older dog, but Heather was not in favor of that kind of sharing.  Nevertheless, Heather was totally fine with watching Zoe playing with several of her toys.


From those first few minutes together to their final minutes together, they did get along extremely well and became best of buddies.  Zoe learned quickly to lie beside Heather’s bed to share a closeness with her older friend.  During the last year of Heather’s life, she became more easily agitated with certain noises or situations; however, if Zoe lay down beside Heather, my older lab was much calmer.  Going to the veterinary clinic had become a most unpleasant experience for Heather; however, with Zoe nearby, my yellow lab tolerated the vet visit more as she had in earlier years.


At each mealtime or at snack time, I fed Heather with one hand and Zoe with the other.  After having the two buddies stay in another room while I vacuumed, when I finished this chore, I called my two Leader Dogs.  Zoe always came quickly running to me, and Heather did her best to come as quickly as she could–following her youthful “sister.”  Although Heather was looking her age, posing the two of my guide dogs together for a photo was special and captured forever what I never dreamed would happen in my life.  How blessed I was to have my retired Leader Dog and my current Leader Dog together for thirteen months!


After Heather passed away on July 1, 2010, Zoe respected her old friend by never wanting to lie on either of Heather’s beds–no matter how many times I washed the covers.  Only after a couple years would Zoe lie in Heather’s favorite spots in our townhouse.  The first time after I did some major cleaning after my second guide dog’s passing, I found under a tall bookcase a clump of Heather’s hair.  Immediately, Zoe came beside me and excitedly sniffed Heather’s hair.  Although Zoe must have also mourned the loss of Heather, my current Leader Dog enormously helped me to go forward with my life during that summer of 2010; and she is still brightening and making easier each day for me.


Who would have guessed that a puppy born on October 22, 1996, would so significantly change, expand, and enrich my life?  Thank you, Heather.  Thank you, Leader Dog School and all the wonderful people there who make possible these truly amazing guide dogs.



Blessings to all!

Alice and Zoe


October 22, 2014, Wednesday



From → Uncategorized

  1. Beautiful tribute to your devoted and wonderful Leader Dog Heather! I especially enjoyed being with the two of you during the spring semester of 2009.
    Love, Mary

  2. Carole permalink

    All of the times that have been spent with you and your “girls” have been very rewarding. I am glad to have been present in their lives and have always enjoyed observing their skills and intelligence. Lucky you and lucky them!

  3. Alice.

    As close as I have been to all of our dogs, I imagine that there is no bond greater between man and beast like that of a guide dog and their owner. With a level of trust and friendship, mixed in with the natural born loyalty of a dog, well, I smile when I think of the closeness between you and your dogs. Another great post. Keep them coming.

    A big fan.


  4. We love Heather’s story! The Pekes – Korky, Charly & Mooney.

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