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Forward with a Leader Dog (Part I)

March 11, 2015


NOTE:  Continuing with the celebration of my 25th anniversary of working with guide dogs (on March 21, 2015), by dedicating each blog post in March to my three Leader Dogs, I am sharing below a portion of an article which I wrote in 1990, after receiving my first guide dog–Keller.  Although I deleted from the original 16-page document some of the very dated material (such as information about then recommended books) and material detailed in last week’s blog post, the article is still lengthy; thus, I am presenting the first part of the memoir in this post and will share the second part on March 18 (the 25th anniversary of when I first arrived at Leader Dog School, in Rochester, Michigan).



Forward with a Leader Dog:


Keller’s Story (Part I)


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



From January 5, 1990, when I received my letter of acceptance from Leader Dog School, until the middle of March, I walked and walked to prepare for the three and a half weeks of training at Leader Dog School.  Finally, it was March 18!  As soon as I entered the Detroit Metro Airport, an instructor, wearing a Leader Dog School jacket, greeted me.  While we waited for my luggage, I was introduced to another trainer to whose group I was assigned later.  On the Leader Dog School bus, my adventure was truly beginning.


During the 45-minute ride to the school, a trainer asked each student a number of questions, including “Which breed of dog would you prefer?  Would you prefer a male or female dog?”  My answers were “a golden retriever” and “female.”  Nevertheless, trainers explained that while one’s preference is considered, one will receive the guide dog that is best suited to the student’s lifestyle and personality.


At 25 miles north of Detroit and one mile south of Rochester, we arrived at Leader Dog School.  Founded in 1939, by a group of Michigan Lions Club members, Leader Dog School is situated on 16 acres, which was formerly an apple orchard.  On the property are two kennels, a dormitory, an administrative office building, garage facilities, a practice course, individual residences, and a “shelter” where students “park” (relieve) their guide dogs at least four times daily.


As we entered the dormitory for the first time, I was surprised that we were given the option of using our white canes for the first two and a half days.  So, with my tote bag and white cane in hand, I walked to my assigned room.  In the newer part of the dormitory, the last room on the right, number 17 was immaculately clean when I entered the spacious room.  To the right was a closet with storage space above for the coming harness, leash, and dog bowl.  By the closet was a dresser with four drawers.  At the left of the wide entry hall was a spacious bathroom.  The entry hall opened to a large room with two of each of the following:  twin bed, night table, desk and chair, comfortable arm chair.  Between the two chairs was an end table.  A large contemporary painting of a bird decorated one wall, and windows were opposite the entry door.


From Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, New York, Georgia, and Florida–twenty students arrived at Leader Dog School on March 18, 1990.    The first day, we unpacked and started to become acquainted with the other students and the building.  While students in my class ranged in age from early twenties to early seventies, the oldest person working with a Leader Dog is 93.


Although most lectures were on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, our first lecture was on Monday morning (March 19), when we were introduced to the experienced team of four trainers who instructed our class.  Additionally, at our first gathering, Mr. William Hansen, president of Leader Dogs for the Blind, extended a personal welcome to each student, individually.  Alas, someone mentioned Juno, the school’s imaginary guide dog, named after the Greek god of guidance.  For the first two days of training, each student had instruction with Juno, an empty harness held by the trainer to simulate actions of a working guide dog.


Learning the basics was highly emphasized in lectures, as well as in training sessions with Juno and one’s guide dog.  One must coordinate footwork, hand signals, and voice inflection with the commands and suggestions:  forward, straight, right, left, find the curb, find the door, find the chair, find the counter, sit, down, stand, stay, heel, steady, and others.  In the midst of learning the practice course and the basics with Juno, we became more familiar with the building that was our home for 26 days.  As I exited my room at the south end of the building, I passed other students’ rooms, trainers’ rooms, a souvenir shop (which was open each Tuesday evening), two laundry rooms, two feed rooms (where students picked up dog food, extra-large dog biscuits, and gauze for cleaning the dog’s teeth), a tactile map of the practice course, two telephone booths, a cupboard with braille books and games, two lounges, a trainers’ office, and dining room.  The newly re-decorated main lounge was a welcoming place for conversing with new friends or playing cards.  This lounge, where lectures were held, had a piano, fireplace, stereo, four sofas, round tables, and numerous chairs.  A tactile map of Rochester, Talking Book players, television, and vending machines were in the second lounge.


From the practice course, are Juno training progressed to Rochester.  Chatting around the large round tables at the downtown building owned by Leader Dog School, students awaited their turns for individualized instruction with a professional trainer.  Of the 65 employees at Leader Dog School, 21 are trainers.  Patiently instructing our class was a team of four trainers, who truly are among the most dedicated people I have ever met.  Their expertise in dog training, their caring for students, their friendliness and fairness, their teaching ability and understanding,  their humor and encouragement distinctly impressed this student of Leader Dog School.


A prelude to receiving our guide dogs was a very touching and memorable lecture, which made some teary-eyed students realize that not only were we entering an emotional period of adjustment, but also our Leader Dogs would delve into another new period of adjustment in their young lives.  One instructor joked,  “Now that I have explained the dogs to you, I have to go to the kennel and explain you to the dogs!”


After lunch on that first Wednesday (March 21, 1990), we 20 students, in our respective rooms, awaited the arrival of our guide dogs.  Overflowing with excited anticipation, I told my roommate Lynda (from Missouri) and friends down the hall, “We need a cool, calm, collected coach.”  At that moment, little did I know that my calm coach  would appear soon in the form of a beautiful golden retriever.


Shortly after one o’clock, my trainer Tom Hill came to room 17 and gave me a preview of the coming attraction:  a 21-month-old, 54-pound golden retriever named Keller (as in “Helen Keller”).  As soon as I heard these words from my trainer, I felt another invasion of butterflies, but must have been smiling from ear to ear.


A few minutes later (at 1:11 p.m., Eastern Time), Tom returned to the doorway and told me, “Alice, call your dog.”  Sitting on the edge of my bed and on the edge of a totally new life, I, for the first time, called, “Keller.”  (As I re-type this passage, I am once again filled with emotion and am teary-eyed at just the recollection of this magnificent moment.)  Any worries I had drifted away as my Leader Dog came directly to me and softly nudged her head against me.  The gentle and affectionate Keller provided me with a heart-warming and loving introduction to life with a Leader Dog.  Sitting on the floor beside Keller, I finally realized that more voices than I expected were in the room.  Accompanying my instructor were the president of Leader Dogs for the Blind and two visitors, one of whom remarked that Keller and I were already bonding.  We were.


While my roommate Lynda, her fine German shepherd, and I relished these exciting moments, my Leader Dog was cool, calm, and collected during our afternoon of getting acquainted until the PA system announced our first “park time.”


As I attempted to gracefully heel Keller down the long hallway, down the stairs, and to the “park area,” other students with their black Labrador retrievers, yellow Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, shepherd mixes, and other golden retrievers joined in the procession outdoors.  In addition to being a part of the 4-H Puppy-raising Program, Keller had already completed four months of superior training at Leader Dog School.  On the other hand, I, at that point, had experienced only two days of Juno training.  Immediately, I knew that Keller, like all Leader Dogs, was very special.  Of the approximately one thousand dogs considered each year at Leader Dog School, only about three hundred are placed with students.  During the next three weeks of instruction, Keller and I had much to learn about each other before we would travel into the real world “forward” together.


For the second part of this memoir, please read my next blog post on March 18, 2015.


Since this essay is a memory piece, written in 1990, I strongly suggest that for additional and up-to-date  information about Leader Dog School, you please visit the website of Leader Dogs for the Blind at:



With forever thanks to the puppy-raisers and trainers of Leader Dogs,

as well as to the Lions Clubs and all others who support Leader Dogs for the Blind,


Alice and Leader Dog Zoe


March 11, 2015, Wednesday



From → Uncategorized

  1. Fran Rayce permalink

    I have a memory of meeting Keller at the MCL Cafeteria at Honey Creek Mall, Terre Haute, IN during a lunch time outing. What a beautiful animal she was, laying quietly on the floor while you enjoyed lunch with your parents.

    • Fran–Thank you for your comment which reminded me of an essay I wrote in the early 1990s. The title of the essay was “Dining with Keller Is like Dining with Robert Redford.” In Terre Haute, Keller was receiving so much attention that I thought I would never again eat a hot meal at a restaurant. Of course, I soon learned that we had to choose a table that was out-of-the-way and that I had to have Keller lying beside me–but in a spot that was not easily in the public eye. Oh, yes, Keller was a beauty. How she did love to work! Thanks so much for sharing your memory of my Keller. Alice

  2. Alice, what a moving story. I was almost in tears when you described your meeting with Keller for the first time. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. And into the real (and unknown) world together you and Keller ventured just a few months later, Alice! The two of you were a courageous team as you learned the campus of Western Michigan Universiity to attend classes every day for a year. That achhievement was only the first step in many more amazing adventures with your remarkable Leader Dogs. Congratulations!
    Love, Mary

    • Mary–Thanks for your comment. Yes that first year of 1990-1991 was quite a remarkable and pivotal year. Talk to you soon–A & Z

  4. Alice. I hope that some day, you and your Leader Dogs story makes it into a book. Oh what a story would unfold. I am so proud to know you, and all my friends who have owned, or own a guide dog. The word inspiration doesn’t accurately describe my feelings towards you all. dp

  5. Carole permalink

    Alice, this is another very favorite story. When I was teaching a unit about Helen Keller, I read your letter to the class through a blur of tears. The third-grade students were so fascinated and touched with emotion, as well. Keller was a beauty, inside and out.

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