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Forward with a Leader Dog (Part II)

March 18, 2015

 

NOTE:  On March 18, 1990–twenty-five years ago today–I arrived at Leader Dog School for the first time; and I arrived at a new stage in my life.  Below, you will find the second part of the article which I wrote twenty-five years ago and which describes the initial walks onto that new stage.  (The first part of this article was my blog post of March 11, 2015.  As noted earlier this month, each blog post of March is dedicated to my three Leader Dogs–Keller, Heather, and Zoe.)

 

 

Forward with a Leader Dog:

 

Keller’s Story  (Part II)

 

by Alice Jane-Marie Massa

 

 

Through a mist of rain, on the practice course at Leader Dog School, I took my premiere walk with Keller in her harness, on March 22, 1990.  Even though the harness handle and leash did not feel comfortable in my left hand at this early stage of training, I was invigorated and encouraged by our first lesson together.  I felt as if I were learning to dance, and the dance was called “Independence.”  What felt a bit awkward at first quickly transformed into a steadiness, reliability, and trust.  Although our learning to work well together took a while, my love for this magnificent golden retriever was immediate and continued to grow as I more fully realized Keller’s devotion to her work and her adorable spirit.

 

To round off our initial week of training, much of which was individualized, we progressed to the sidewalks and street crossings  of the small city of Rochester, Michigan.  Some of us students felt more comfortable with walking with our real guide dogs than with Juno; and some of us preferred walking in Rochester than the practice course.  Nevertheless, what Keller might have enjoyed the most was a brisk walk on the bicycle path at Stoney Creek Park.  For the first time in a long time, I was walking briskly:  I was filled with the realization of how much Keller had already made possible and the dreams of how much more she would make possible in my future.  At that lovely park, despite the strong March wind, I laughed a little, cried a little, and hoped that no one was watching my emotions as I relished this path of freedom–a remarkable way to conclude our first week at Leader Dog School.

 

Sunday was a day of rest for all:  I thought that somehow the dogs knew that Sunday was their well-deserved day off; nevertheless, one could walk with one’s guide dog on the practice course during any free time.  Arrangements were made for any student who wished to attend church services; however, the guide dog who was still in training had to remain in the dormitory.  Of course, I had no desire to leave Keller behind.  Thus, while attending the school, I did not go to church; but I certainly thanked God (as I continue to do) for my Leader Dog and for all who make these guide dogs possible.

 

At all times (except for showering), the dog guide was with the student.  Each duo became so planted in one’s mind that we sometimes caught ourselves calling a student by the guide dog’s name.  As days passed by and we became more acquainted with each other and with the other dogs–each lab, shepherd, and golden seemed perfectly matched with the student.  The ability to select the best dog suited for each student was another remarkable trait of our team of instructors.

 

Each morning at 6:30, a trainer knocked on each student door and announced those famous words:  “Good morning!  Park time!”  Both Keller and I were eager to arise and start our day of training.   Most frequently, the other park times were at 11:00 a.m., as well as4:00 and 8:00p.m.  “Table two, breakfast,” announced a trainer over the PA system every morning at eight.  Each student was assigned to one of four tables in the bright and spacious dining room where we greatly enjoyed the variety, abundance, and flavor of the “five-star” meals.  In addition to breakfast, our guide dogs joined us for the noon lunch and five-o’clock supper.  In the dining room, each dog was to lie down at the left of each student’s chair and maintain a down-stay throughout the fragrant meal.  From the first meal with our Leader Dogs to the second and third, the progress in achieving the down-stay for the duration of the meal was remarkable.  Thanks to Keller’s puppy-raisers and her superior training with Tom Hill for three months before I met her, my Leader Dog’s dining room behavior was impeccable at “table two.”  At breakfast and lunch, midst a myriad of conversations, we learned from our instructors where our morning and afternoon walks would take place.

 

At the beginning of our second week at Leader Dog School, Keller and I took our first “solo” walk in Rochester.  For half a block, nervous butterflies danced along with me.  However, when Keller found the curb, I praised her and then concentrated totally on her and our work together.(Although all butterflies were forgotten for the remainder of that walk, her finding the curb for the first time for me is a moment that I will never forget.)

 

While routes were extended during the second week of instruction, I was impressed by the trainer’s varying or shortening routes to suit the student’s health condition of the day, pace, and endurance.  For example, some of us enjoyed a three-and-a-half-mile walk alongside a moderately traveled country road; however, some students completed their walk at different points along the country road.  Of course, the same understanding was maintained for our walks in the city.  In Rochester, a treat during a lesson was Keller’s heeding the command “find the counter” at a pharmacy on the main street so that I, thanks to Keller, could make my first purchase–a Nylabone.

 

No practice time was lost due to snow or rain:  on two inclement days, we went to Sterling Heights Mall, with its 400 stores on two stories.  The mall afforded us a variety of experiences, including curving stairways and a glass elevator.  Keller seemed to enjoy her view from the glass elevator, and my spirits continued to be lifted by all our new adventures.

 

The climax of the second week was a challenging obstacle course designed by the instructors, on the practice course.  My Leader Dog did extremely well on this obstacle course–except for the one overhanging obstacle.  With a couple times of additional practice, Keller learned to take me around the overhanging obstacle–preparation for dealing with low-hanging tree branches.

 

During the later stages of training, we were introduced to freelancing–an opportunity for each student to choose his or her own route and destination which could be a pharmacy, dime store, coffee shop, bakery, a mailbox and other spots in Rochester.  As we students and our guide dogs explored the city of Rochester and other locations, the instructors communicated information about our progress via walkie-talkies.  One of my pleasant memories of freelancing was arriving at the bakery, placing an order, sitting at a table, talking with another student, and sipping hot chocolate  while our Leader Dogs behaved beautifully.  “Find the chair” and “find the out door” are just two of Keller’s activities that I find so helpful and which I appreciate each time.  To provide us with experiences in different localities, we visited Birmingham and Royal Oak, where we learned the basics of crossing railroad tracks with our guide dogs.

 

Especially during the final eight days of training, I was impressed by the extent to which our instructors geared training to meet each student’s individual needs for type of travel in one’s home area.  For example, while some students traveled to a rural area for a walk along a country road, four students and I went with a trainer on two afternoons to downtown Detroit, where riding a city bus, walking on crowded sidewalks, crossing busy intersections, and using a revolving door were among our activities with our guide dogs.  Also, since I was returning to campus life during the autumn of 1990, I did some training with Keller on the campus of Oakland University.  A trainer introduced Keller and me, as well as another student and his guide dog, to the means of locating a particular classroom door.

 

After students who had previously been successful graduates of Leader Dog School left for their homes with their successor guide dogs, we “first-timers” stayed for one more week of training and enjoyed a second visit to Stoney Creek Park, where we practiced crossing a bridge with our Leader Dogs.

 

At the end of the third week was the “magical Mystery Tour”–the drop-off lesson.  Since we knew we were within the parameters of our usual working area of Rochester (nine blocks, east to west; five blocks, north to south) and since we could ask questions of other pedestrians, the drop-off lesson–even with patches of ice on the sidewalks–was not as difficult as I had anticipated.  Actually, I thought the lesson of greatest challenge was the 18-block walk with planned surprises for students and dogs.  After this stressful walk, we all were pleased to return to the center with the knowledge of all that we had learned and accomplished.

 

Rides on the Leader Dog School buses were memorable:  these rides offered us time to ponder an upcoming walk, to analyze the walk of a just completed lesson, to have fun and interesting conversations with students and trainers, to harness and un-harness our guide dogs.  Keller and my last ride on a Leader Dog School bus was to Pontiac, Michigan.  After entering the Silverdome through revolving doors, we and our dogs had another new experience by walking around the domed stadium.

 

The highlight of our last full day at Leader Dog School was a an informative tour of the grounds and kennels.  My only disappointment in the tour was at that time, in the kennel, there were no puppies.  Upon my return from the tour–the first time I had left Keller–I received a royal welcome from my special golden.

 

Instead of a formal graduation ceremony, student, Leader Dog, and trainer had a more personal and quiet time for evaluation of one’s training and discussion of one’s future work with the Leader Dog.  At this “check-out” time, I signed a contract and received an identification card, my dog’s medical records, and other paperwork.  Then, with a handshake from my extraordinary instructor (my guide dog’s trainer), Keller was truly mine–to be at my side, to love, to lead me.

 

On April 12, 1990, another trainer boarded the plane with me.  As soon as I was seated and Keller was at a down-stay, the trainer left:  Keller and I were really on our own–our first flight together.  Enjoying my Leader Dog’s extremely good behavior on the airplane, I realized how fortunate I was.

 

After being at home with Keller for one month, I could more fully appreciate the school’s philosophy that when one leaves the school with a Leader Dog, the twosome is just beginning to work together.  Although we learned so much at the school, we were still growing in trust in one another, still learning as we very happily lived together.

 

Most appropriately, in the front of the Leader Dog School’s building in downtown Rochester is the golden statue of a lion which symbolizes all that Lions Clubs have donated to Leader Dogs for the Blind.  Every Lion member whose Lions Club has donated to Leader Dog School can be very proud of the school, its employees, and the Leader Dogs who so enrich the lives of many people.

 

As the months and years swiftly passed, Keller continued to encourage my spirit (even at six or earlier in the morning), to enhance my enthusiasm (even in the pouring rain or drifting snow), to embellish my confidence (even in a new situation or location), to expand my horizons with new hope–as we traveled forward together.

 

“Keller, what a good dog!”

 

POSTSCRIPT:  Although I deleted portions of the original sixteen-page article for this post and last week’s blog post, I hope that you have a flavor of the wondrous first three weeks of sharing life with a Leader Dog.  Throughout these past 25 years, life with my three Leader Dogs–Keller, Heather, and Zoe–has given me so many more tales to tell and gratitude to express.  If you are interested in additional and current information about Leader Dog School, please visit the website:

 

http://www.leaderdog.org

 

On Saturday, March 21, 2015, my current Leader Dog Zoe and I will enjoy our walk, as we always do; however, on this 25th anniversary, as Zoe and I walk, I will fondly remember my first walk with Keller, my ascent up the stairs at President Lincoln’s home in Springfield with my Leader Dog Heather, and a slide show of memories  spotlighting a multitude of blessed moments with my three Leader Dogs.

 

 

Congratulations to my dear friends of 25 years–

Lynda and her current Leader Dog Coda (from Missouri),

Linda and her current Leader Dog Maddy (from New York)!

 

May all anniversaries ring with such special joy,

Alice and Leader Dog Zoe

 

March 18, 2015, Wednesday

 

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10 Comments
  1. Fran Rayce permalink

    How fortunate for you to have had such loyal and brave companions to enhance your life. And how fortunate they are to have had such a kind, concerned, and compassionate owner to serve. Congratulations to you and your canine friends on achieving so much together.

    Fran

    PS I recalled, along with you, the sadness of the summer when you and your family suffered so much loss. You described it in such touching terms. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered hearing the news.

  2. Alice. Such amazing animals, and just as amazing are those who trust in their reliant loyalty. I am truly humbled to know you, and all who harness these amazing creatures. Another brilliant post my dear. Hats held very high! Deon http://www.dplyons.wordpress.com

    • Deon–Sending special thanks your way andhoping that you are having better weather! Take care–Alice

  3. Thank you, Alice, once again, for sharing your memories.

    • Abbie–Thanks for “liking” my post and for adding a comment. Have a good writing day! Alice

  4. How gifted you are, Alice, at recalling every detail of your experiences with Keller and at expressing those treasured times with words that allow your readers to share your emotions!
    With love and best wishes,
    Mary

  5. Carole permalink

    Yes, I agree with Mary. Your attention to detail is extraordinary. Love those stories!

    • Carole–I never will forget the snowy night when you, Tim, and Jason drove Keller and me from Kalamazoo to Indiana. What a blizzard! Keller and I were so grateful to arrive home safely to see Dad after his surgery during that 1990-1991 school year. So many memories are linked to the guide dog whom I had at the time. Thanks for your comment–A & Z

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