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Celebrating 28 Years with My Leader Dogs

March 21, 2018


Celebrating 28 Years with My Leader Dogs


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



As in 1990, March 18 of this year was on a Sunday; thus, on this past Sunday, I was especially recalling arriving at the Detroit airport and going to Leader Dog School for the first time.  Undoubtedly, going to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Michigan, was the biggest and most important step of my life.  For a long time, I had thought a guide dog would be in my future:  I just did not know when.


Twenty-eight years ago today–March 21, 1990–at 1:11 p.m. (Eastern Time), my trainer at Leader Dog School brought to the entrance of my dorm room a beautiful Golden Retriever.  As instructed, I was eagerly waiting beside my bed–several yards away from the door, where Tom said, “Alice, call your dog.”


With my voice tight with emotion, I managed to say, “Keller, come.”  She ran directly to me and immediately nuzzled against me.  Quickly, Keller was ready to lie beside me on the floor and enjoy being petted as I introduced myself to her.  On that day, I truly began a new stage in my life.  Keller had so much to teach me about guide work and trust,.  So much of what my first Leader Dog taught me is still with me–Willow and me–today.


Although learning to handle and work with a guide dog was not always easy, I distinctly remember the first time Keller and I walked outside the downtown training center, turned left, and walked toward Fourth Street in Rochester.  “Keller, find the curb,” I told my new guide dog.  Just as Keller was trained to do, she stopped at the curb of Fourth Street.  My happy and grateful words of praise were “Good dog, Keller.”  Throughout my whole being, I was overjoyed with this one step of progress of our working together as a team.  I no longer had to worry about not seeing a curb or a stair.  Leader Dog Keller was leading me, guiding me; and I was on the path to giving her my complete trust.


As the harness passed from Keller to Heather (my Yellow Labrador), to Zoe (my Black Lab/Golden Retriever Mix), and now to Willow (my Black Lab)–one of the biggest changes and challenges for guidework is curbs.  Unlike those curbs that Keller found for me from 1990 to 1997, today almost each curb is fashioned differently.  At some intersections, “Find the curb” means find the traditional curb (with a short drop-off), or find the sloping sidewalk to the street, or find the tactile markings to denote the end of this span of sidewalk.  Perhaps, you have noticed that too many ramps lead diagonally into the intersection–rather than allowing for a straight-line crossing by the person with a guide dog, white cane, or wheelchair.  I believe  that due to the differences in curbs, my third and fourth guide dogs had to learn much more in training with the professional trainer than did my first two guide dogs.


When I received Willow in the June class of 2016, much more training involved the “quiet vehicles.”  Most assuredly, guide dogs of this generation have so many more crucial lessons to learn than did earlier guide dogs.  As much as I prefer quiet levels of sound, I certainly do not prefer vehicles that are too quiet.  Ironically, while large vehicles are becoming more quiet, snow and leaf removal equipment is becoming louder and louder.  Since today is my 28th anniversary, I will not even mention c-o-n-s-t-r-u-c-t-i-o-n nor the s-t-r-e-e-t-c-a-r.  Certainly, Zoe and now Willow have had to work around more obstacles and loud noise.  Speaking of noise, I know that my third and fourth Leader Dogs have endured many more sirens than did my first two guide dogs.  I am always grateful for all that my four Leader Dogs learned so very well before their harnesses ever came to my hand.  My daily task is to maintain the high level of training which my guide dog received at Leader Dog School and to adapt that superior training to the new environment and new challenges.


The difference in what we today call “curbs” and “quiet cars” translates into the guide dog handler’s having an even higher degree of trust in one ‘s guide dog in order to be a part of a successful and happy team.  Despite the higher level of challenges of working with a guide dog today–especially in the city–I most thoroughly know that my decision to train with my first Leader Dog led me on the absolutely  best path my life could take.  On this 28th anniversary of my working with Leader Dogs, I celebrate this incredible opportunity, I marvel at the talents and devotion of each of my four Leader Dogs, and I abundantly give my heartfelt thanks to all who make possible these amazing Leader Dogs whom I trust and love.


Cheers for Keller, Heather, Zoe, and Willow!


WORDWALK NOTE:  Last week, I posted two pieces on WORDWALK:  one on the typical day of Wednesday and a second post on Friday.  If you missed my March 16 tribute to Leader Dog Zoe, please continue reading after the closing for this week’s anniversary post.


God bless all guide dogs on this special day!

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


March 21, 2018, Wednesday




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  1. Hi Alice, this is a great way to end my day. I enjoy learning about the leader dogs from your posts.
    What a blessing they are to so many people. Lynda

    • Hi, Lynda–Many thanks for reading this post and sharing a comment!

      Always so nice to hear from you on WORDWALK!

      More soon–Alice and Willow

  2. Alice, as I sit on my brother’s living room couch in Florida with his Daukshound Max lying beside me, I can’t help thinking that God should bless all dogs every day. Thank you for the trip ⠙⠪⠝ Memory Lane.

    • Hi, Abbie–Good point!  I agree and hope that you and Max continue to share some good times while you are in Florida. Thanks for taking the time to comment and giving my post a “like.”

          I hope that your nephew had a grand birthday and liked the great poem you wrote for him and posted on your blog.

      Enjoy the warm weather and sunshine–Alice and Willow

  3. Sue McKendry permalink

    Congratulations, Alice on your 28th anniversary of partnering with leader dogs. If the Lions Leader Dogs needs an ambassador, you would be the perfect one. I just read your post from last Friday and commented on it. That beautiful poem honoring Zoe illustrates the relationship you have had with your three previous leader dogs. Willow has some pretty big paw prints to fill and she is doing so very well at this immense task. Congratulations to you and Willow–Sue

    • Hi, Sue–Special thanks for your kind and wonderful comment. Willow, who does have mighty big paws to fill, and I just returned from a 26-block walk and will look forward to another walk this afternoon–fortunately, without the wind of the past few days.

          Twenty-eight years ago today, I took my first walk with Keller in harness on the grounds of Leader Dog School–the step before working with a Leader Dog on the city sidewalks of Rochester.

      Thinking of you on this day–Alice and Willow

  4. …And Cheers for you, Alice! Congratulations on 28 years with your beloved Leader Dogs! As a team, you and each of your remarkable dogs have enjoyed countless achievements, met overwhelming challenges, and shared sincere love and devotion. How wonderful!
    Love, Mary

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