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Leader Dog Willow Celebrates Fifth Birthday!

October 17, 2018


Leader Dog Willow Celebrates Her Fifth Birthday


by Granting an Interview


NOTE:  On this WORDWALK blog post, I am including the transcript of Leader Dog Willow’s interview on Face the Dog Nation.  For her fifth birthday, Willow decided that rather than her usual press conference, she would sit down for a one-on-one interview, conducted by Face the Dog Nation‘s own John Dogerson.  Thanks to Face the Dog Nation for sharing with me the following transcript.  –Alice Massa


* * *


John Dogerson:  Welcome to Face the Dog Nation, and Happy fifth birthday!


Leader Dog Willow:  Oh, thank you.  You are PAWticularly kind.  As you know, my birthday is October 19.  My mother’s name is Holly, and my father’s name is Sergeant.  They are PAWticularly proud of their British Black Labrador’s becoming a Leader Dog.  My alma mater is Leader Dog School, in Rochester, Michigan, where I first met Alice on June 7, 2016.  Although she was still sad about the passing of her third Leader Dog, Zoe, Alice welcomed me into her life with lots of love and special attention.  I knew that the trainers at Leader Dog School made a good match.  Alice and I immediately got along very well.


John Dogerson:  How long did the two of you train together?


Willow:  Before I met Alice, I worked with a professional trainer for four months after I learned so much from my puppy-raisers.  Then, Alice and I trained together at the school for three weeks with GDMI (Guide Dog Mobility Instructor) Christie Bane.  Next, we went to a big airport in Detroit, and I flew in a jet to Milwaukee.  Although I was very good on the airplane, Alice still says that she has resumed her retirement from flying.


John Dogerson:  What did you notice was most different about your new hometown of Milwaukee?


Willow:  Construction!  Alice had mentioned construction to me, and I heard the trainers talking about construction.  The trainers picked me for Alice because I was what is called a “city dog” and a “sound dog.”  That is, I have a very calm demeanor for dealing with city life, traffic, loud noises, and construction.  Alice is extremely grateful that I have been able to deal with all of the ever-changing construction from our first day together here to just recently.


John Dogerson:  What have you learned in the past year–since your previous birthday?


Willow:  Each stage of the three-year construction project for the streetcar has brought new challenges.  My predecessor, Zoe, worked through the initial phase of construction from September of 2015, until her passing on March 16, 2016.  Then, I took over the guiding of Alice for the remaining more than two years of construction.  All of my education and training were put to very good use on a daily basis.  During the previous several months, I had to re-learn the new “curbless curbs” which have tactile markings.


John Dogerson:  Can you explain what these tactile markings are?


Willow:  Alice calls them “bumpies.”  They are raised bumps in the sidewalk for indicating tactually where one should stop before a street crossing.  After all the dirt and debris from the construction washed away, Alice has been able to feel these bumps through her jogging shoes.  She tells me, “Willow, find the curb and bumpies.”  When I stop just in front of the patch of tactile markings, Alice is very happy and, as she is swiping her shoe over the bumps, praises me, “Bumpies, good dog!  What a good dog!”  Of course, when snow covers these tactile markings this winter, I will have some new challenges; but I know that I will receive the highest of praise when I find in the snow my marks for stopping before a street crossing.


John Dogerson:  What about all of those new tracks in the streets?  How do you approach the tracks which are embedded into the asphalt?


Willow:  Last November, a trainer from Leader Dog School came to check how I was doing with crossing over the tracks.  Like my Aunt Mary observed, GDMI John Bertram confirmed that I was shifting–and still do shift–my pace so that not one of my paws ever touches one of the four tracks or any of the gaps beside the tracks as we cross a street.  So, as I am guiding Alice, I do not stop at each track:  we proceed at a safe  and smooth pace across the tracks and street to the next “curbless curb” and tactile markings, where I receive more praise and a “Charlie Bear” (small, dry, dog treat which I love).  Then, Alice gives me my next command to go “Forward” or “Forward, right {or left}.”  We like to walk at least forty blocks a day, and often walk more–even fifty-four blocks in a day.


John Dogerson:  Have you learned any new English words lately?


Willow:  Oh, yes!  In the evening and at night, in September, the streetcar made trial runs; then, on October 1, the streetcars began their full schedule–but with no passengers.  Every time we walk alongside one of these streetcars, Alice tells me the new English word “trolley.”  As with most important words, I learned this new word very quickly and well.  Although I had lived in Alabama and Michigan, I had never before seen a trolley.  I have learned many new things during this past year and know that I will have much to learn during the upcoming Wisconsin winter.


John Dogerson:  I do not want to bring up a touchy subject, but I do recall that you were not too happy with the fallen autumn leaves in 2016 and 2017.  Do you have a comment?


Willow:  Yes, I will admit that leaves of the autumnal, dancing variety were a particular challenge for me; however, I am very pleased to say that I have matured in the Leaf Department.  This autumn, I am not at all bothered by those autumnal projectiles.  My mama, Alice, is especially proud of me.


John Dogerson:  Good to know!  Congratulations!  Now, I understand that you have a PAWticular concern you wish to mention.


Willow:  Absolutely!  In the past eighteen months to two years, Alice has noticed that more pedestrians have no idea that I am a guide dog.  This number is more than the entire number from her previous 26 years of working with guide dogs combined.  How can this be?  Aren’t Sesame Street and other children’s programming teaching what a guide dog is?  Mr. Dogerson, please help us to spread the word that the kind of special harness I wear indicates that I am a guide dog who is professionally trained to lead a person who is blind or visually impaired.  People should realize the immensely important work that I am doing.  I am honored to be a Leader Dog and am still waiting patiently for my blue ribbon from the mayor for all the challenges which I have met during this streetcar project.


John Dogerson (reaching under his desk):  I have a birthday surprise for you.  A birthday cake with an edible blue ribbon!  From all of us here at Face the Dog Nation, HAPPY FIFTH BIRTHDAY!


[Willow wags and thumps her tail, tilts her head slightly, and seems to have a “Labbie” smile on her beautifully expressive face.]


* * *


POST-SCRIPT:  If you have a question for Willow, please post your question in the comments section.  I think Willow will agree to answer your questions.


With loving, daily, and tremendous gratitude to my Leader Dog Willow,




October 17, 2018, Wednesday(two days before the big birthday!)



From → Uncategorized

  1. Wow, has it already been five years? It seems like just yesterday when Zoe passed. Happy birthday, Willow.

    • Hi, Abbie–Thanks for the birthday wishes!  Although I am already turning five, I have been with Alice for only two years and four months.

      Looking forward to hearing your voice next week–Willow

      • Oh, for some reason, I had it in my head that you’d been with Alice for five years. That was my mistake. Thanks for clearing that up. I didn’t realize Alice had our conference calls on speaker. Maybe sometime I’ll hear your voice.

  2. Sue McKendry permalink

    Happy birthday, Willow! It was so nice to learn more about you through the above interview. Reading about your challenge with autumn leaves, which you have now overcome, and since you and Alice are such avid walkers, I’m wondering which of the four seasons is your favorite. I wish you many more birthdays and congratulate you on your many very significant achievements.–Sue

    • Dear Sue,

          Special thanks for your nice comments and birthday wishes! My favorite season is the late part of spring, when the leaves are budding and growing on the trees, when the ice and snow are gone, but when the hot summer days have not yet arrived.  Good question!

      Enjoy the autumnal weekend–Willow

  3. Happy 5th Birthday, Willow! I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow on your special day. Alice would say that every day is special with you, and I would agree. You are brilliant and beautiful! When I walk with you and Alice on my visits to Milwaukee, you always make sure that I understand who the “leader” is. You give me a look that says, “I’m the Leader Dog here, and I like my job.” I stay in my place by walking a few steps behind you and Alice. Many thanks to you for your love, expertise, and dedication! Best wishes for miles of wonderful walks in the coming year!
    With lots of pats and love,
    Aunt Mary

    • Dear Aunt Mary,

          Many thanks, and we look forward to your visit at Thanksgiving time.

      Take care–Willow

  4. Carole permalink

    Happy October Birthday, Cousin Willow! I heard that my parents had a good time visiting you in September. Will we ever get to meet nose-to-nose?
    Tail-wags and kisses . . . Bebe Angelina

    • Dear Bebe Angelina,

          I was PAWticularly happy to hear from you and thank you for the birthday wishes.

      Happy Halloween!  Leader Dog Willow

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