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Thirty Years Ago Today, Leader Dog Keller Was Born

June 27, 2018


Thirty Years Ago Today, Leader Dog Keller Was Born


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



Thirty years ago–June 27, 1988–a beautiful, little Golden Retriever was born.  Well, I think this was the birthdate of my first Leader Dog whom I received on March 21, 1990.  During that era, Leader Dog School did not share with a student the exact birthdate of the guide dog nor the contact information for the puppy-raiser.  By the time (in 1998) when I trained with my second Leader Dog Heather, I was happy to know my Yellow Labrador’s exact birthday, as well as the address and names of her puppy-raisers.  While I was able to correspond (by postal-service mail) with Mr. and Mrs. Sever and was able to thank them abundantly for raising my second of four Leader Dogs, I have always regretted never knowing precisely whom to thank for my first Leader Dog who most remarkably changed my life, made possible the furthering of my education, and allowed me to re-boot my career.


Since my first trainer at Leader Dog School did tell me the approximate age of Keller, I knew that my Golden Retriever was born in June of 1988.  I chose to celebrate her birthday on June 27 because Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880.  I thought that if a litter was born on June 27, one of those “Future Leader Dogs” just might have been named Keller.  I loved my first Leader Dog’s name; and as such a remarkable guide dog, Keller gave honor to her name and namesake.


Whether in Milwaukee or back home in Indiana, each year, my family and I celebrated Keller’s birthday with a little party, including a decorated cake with Keller’s name on it and a new toy for the birthday dog.  After cancer took Keller’s beautiful life much too soon, I have continued to fondly remember my first guide dog each 27th of June.


During the initial month of our partnership, the only other bit of information which I learned about my Keller, who was reddish-gold in color, was that a littermate of hers–named Cedar–became a Leader Dog in the class prior to the one which I attended in March to April of 1990.


Although I garnered little information about Keller’s background, I tremendously enjoyed coming to know her throughout the seven years and almost nine months when she was ever at my side.  When I think of all she taught me about working with a guide dog and about enhancing my life, I am immediately filled with emotions and tears for the love and gratitude which I still thoroughly give to my first Leader Dog.


Once when Keller and I were walking over one of the skywalks of Milwaukee Area Technical College’s downtown campus (where I was a full-time instructor for twenty years), another MATC employee told me that she had never seen a happier dog than my Keller.  The woman added, “Your dog’s  tail is always wagging; she loves being a guide dog.”  Oh, yes!  How I loved hearing these words to affirm my belief.  Keller always was eager to slip into her working harness and take me places:  she relished being out and about.  Her most outstanding characteristic was her work ethic:  she was born to be a guide dog.  My Golden worked perfectly for me through the Friday before her passing on Monday, December 15, 1997 (exactly two weeks after the passing of my beloved dad).


Keller was “the teacher dog” for me.  Thanks to her special ways, I was able to work with a much stronger, larger, and more challenging second guide dog.  Then, when my beloved Zoe came into my life, I knew that part of the reason my third Leader Dog was so easy to handle was because of all I had learned from Keller and Heather.  Now my fourth Leader Dog, Willow, and I have been able to worked through many challenging construction areas by following the pawprints of those outstanding three guide dogs who preceded my little Black Labrador.


When I think of how pleased I was to maintain an e-mail correspondence with Zoe’s puppy-raiser Mrs. Baird and how delighted Zoe and I were to meet Mrs. Baird in July of 2012 (three years after receiving Zoe), I do wish I knew the puppy-raiser of Keller to thank this very important person (or persons) for giving up–returning to Leader Dog School–a gorgeous, bright, and loving Golden Retriever.  Keller was so much more than a lifetime gift to me–what this puppy-raiser gave  to me was a miracle.  May we all meet someday on “The Rainbow Bridge.”


To all people and dogs who are celebrating birthdays this summer–BEST WISHES!

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


June 27, 2018, Wednesday




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  1. mfanyo permalink

    Dear Alice,
    We are sitting at the hotel in Prague with tears in our eyes as we finish reading your touching piece about Keller, your wonderful first Leader Dog. Love, Mary, Lisa, and Aunt Kathy

    • Hello!  Mary, Aunt Kathy, and Lisa–What a special treat to have a comment all the way from Prague on WORDWALK!  I hope that you will have fairer weather on Friday.

      Enjoy your tours!  Take care–Alice and Willow

  2. Caryn permalink

    Hi Alice,
    Lynda Lambert sent me your book, “The Christmas Carriage and Other Writings of the Holiday Season”, when I bought her most recent book, “Walking by Inner Vision”, and I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your book!!! Your writing is so engaging! I’m so glad you decided to bless me through your generosity! May your summer bring wonderful memories for when the frigid winter temperatures hit Milwaukee!

  3. Carole permalink

    Keller was my first encounter with a guide dog, and I will always remember how she amazed me with her intelligence. You have definitely been blessed with all four of your magnificent Leader Dogs.

    • Hi, Carole–Of course, we will never forget when right after Christmas in 1992, you came to Milwaukee to be with Keller and me at the animal hospital, after Keller’s three-and-a-half-hour surgery.  Despite her long hospital stay, Keller was eager to work as soon as the veterinarian gave his permission.  From that January 5, 1993, until her passing almost five years later, my beautiful Golden did her guide work with ease, eagerness, and perfection.

      With our forever thanks,

      Alice and Willow

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