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My First Guide Dog: The Keller Years

March 22, 2017


The Keller Years:


March 21, 1990-December 15, 1997


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



If I were to divide my life into chapters, an easy way to do so would be according to the dog (or dogs) who shared my life during a particular period.  On March 21, 1990, “The Keller Years” began when a strikingly beautiful, reddish golden retriever came into my life as my first Leader Dog.  Twenty-seven years ago today, Keller and I took our first walk together–with her wearing her Leader Dog harness and leash.  The day was gray, with a little rain; but March 22, 1990, is a golden day in my memory.


Although I had pet dogs throughout my then four decades of life, learning to work with a guide dog was like learning a new dance with a new dance partner.  The name of the dance, if well done, was Independent Mobility; and I often realized that my partner was training me more than I was training her.  After all, during the previous three months, she had been training with a professional trainer while I had only been reading books about guide dogs and increasing the length of my daily walks with a white cane.


At that time, the guide dog school which I attended (March 18 through April 12, 1990) did not give students any information about the puppy-raiser or puppy-raiser family.  Thus, although I have been able to thank the puppy-raisers of my Yellow Labrador Heather, my Golden Retriever/Black Labrador Zoe, and my Black Labrador Willow–I have never been able to thank the puppy-raiser of my first Leader Dog, Keller.  In 1990, students were not even told the exact birthdays of their guide dogs.  knowing only that Keller’s birthday was sometime in June, I established the tradition of celebrating her birthday on the birthday of whom I thought was her namesake–Helen Keller.  While no other guide dog in our March-1990 class had been a littermate of Keller, I did learn that one of Keller’s littermates, named Cedar, had become a graduate in the previous class at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan).  Since Keller was such a loving dog and had such good house manners, I certainly have always missed having the opportunity to greatly thank the people who raised, initially trained, devotedly cared for, loved, and then amazingly generously gave the young Golden back to Leader Dogs School and eventually to me.  Somehow, I hope these puppy-raisers know how much their gift to me remarkably changed my life in very positive ways and how deeply I thank them for the gift of my first Leader Dog.


Perhaps, these puppy-raisers of Keller trained her to do something that is not a requirement for guide dogs.  On command, Keller would find what was to me a lost item on a floor.  Whenever I told her to “find it,” she did; then, Keller lay flat out on the floor and extended her right paw so that it was pointing directly to the lost object.  “Good dog, Keller!”  Of course, she enjoyed the praise; and I was pleased to have help with finding what I had dropped or otherwise lost.


Since Keller was so good at performing the “find it” trick, my students at the Visually Impaired Persons Program (for adults) enjoyed witnessing Keller’s obedient finds.  Also, while I was a blind rehabilitation instructor, Keller had a quick, uncanny way of learning the names of my students.  When I told her “Find Joe,” Keller would gracefully lead me through the large classroom with four cubicles along one wall and find the student with whom I wanted to speak.


During one semester, our Visually Impaired Persons’ Program included six students with guide dogs and a number of students with white canes.  The guide dogs, from a few different guide dog schools, got along very well; but I always thought that Keller realized that she needed to set an example for the other guide dogs and behaved accordingly.


One day I distinctly remember during “The Keller Years” was marked by Keller and my taking a typical noon break by walking through three buildings via skywalks and then going outside.  As we were walking on the skywalk from the Continuing Education Building to the Old Main Building in the bright light of the windows of the skywalk, someone stopped to tell me, “Your guide dog always looks so happy when she is working.”  I thoroughly appreciated hearing this comment, but I knew that Keller was completely devoted to her work and especially loved her guide work.  I was extraordinarily lucky to receive such a guide dog as my first Leader Dog.  She was beside me when I, at Leader Dog School, returned a phone call and learned that I received a fellowship grant to earn a second master’s degree at Western Michigan University.  Keller was beside me when we learned the campus of Western Michigan University and attended classes and events.  My first Leader Dog was beside me when we learned our new home area in Milwaukee and the campus of my new workplace at Milwaukee Area Technical College.  My new Golden was beside me as my life blossomed into a new career and new experiences.  Together, we learned so very much.


As I write just a few notes about Keller, I realize that “The Keller Years” would need to comprise a few or several chapters–not just one.  If she were still here beside me, I would have her sit and tell her “Wave.”  Her right paw would be immediately up and repeatedly stretching out in a wave to you and/or to your pet dog or guide dog.  At Leader Dog School, she was dubbed “the Stellar Keller”; and her light has shined upon me with my second, third, and now fourth Leader Dogs.



March on to a Happy Spring!

Alice and Willow, my fourth Leader Dog


March 22, 2017, Wednesday



From → Uncategorized

  1. Sue McKendry permalink

    Alice–So enjoyed this post! Keller was indeed stellar. And now, March 22 will be a special day to me for another reason.–Sue

    • Sue–Once again, I am so glad to read your comment. Willow and I hope that your birthday was a happy and special one. I was thinking of you yesterday.

      Happy Spring–Alice and Willow

  2. mfanyo permalink

    Dear Alice,
    What a lovely tribute to your beautiful and brilliant Leader Dog Keller! One of my favorite stories about Keller happened at the mall inTerre Haute where Keller attracted the attention of two little girls. I hope you will share that experience with your readers sometime.
    With love and admiration for you and your first Leader Dog Keller,

  3. Alice, what wonderful memories you have of Keller. I’m glad you shared them with us.

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