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Twenty-nine Amazing Years with Guide Dogs

March 20, 2019


Twenty-nine Amazing Years of Working with Guide Dogs


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



With an overflowing abundance of hope, wonder, and joy, I took my first walk with a guide dog on March 21, 1990.  What a golden moment!  My first of four Leader Dogs–a gorgeous Golden Retriever named Keller–and I happily joined together to begin the greatest and most significant change in my life.  Forever thanks to Keller for helping me to achieve the steps onto a new stage in my life at age 39.


As these twenty-nine years have passed with Keller, Heather (my Yellow Labrador), Zoe (my Black Labrador/Golden Retriever), and Willow (my current Black Labrador), I think of the significant changes that have come forth in guide dog work.


  1. CURBS


When I began working with Keller in 1990, all curbs were quite similar and were much more easily identifiable.  Today, while some traditional curbs still exist, more and more are of the “curbless” variety, with only a plate of tactile markings or domes to indicate where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.  Thus, in earlier years, I felt more comfortable with walking in areas with which my guide dog and I were unfamiliar because the curbs were so distinct.




While some lawn-care equipment has become louder and while most everything else in the world has increased to a higher decibel level, “quiet” cars pose another challenge for the guide dog and handler.  Only with my third Leader Dog Zoe did I begin to experience these “quiet” cars.  When I trained with my current guide dog Willow at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan), an electric vehicle driven by a GDMI (guide-dog mobility instructor) was part of a “traffic check” lesson.  The guide dog schools’ preparing their guide dogs for these new challenges is reassuring for student handlers; nevertheless, I am pleased and grateful that by 2020, manufacturers will have to include an appropriate “sound-emitting device” in the electric vehicles.




When I moved to Milwaukee in August of 1991 with Keller, I was impressed with the condition of the sidewalks.  I recall only one span of sidewalk that was uneven due to uplifting of sidewalk sections as a result of growing tree roots.  Especially during my years with Zoe and now with Willow, the condition of sidewalks has noticeably deteriorated.  Besides encountering more lifts in sidewalk sections, we find that many more holes, due primarily to the freezing and thawing cycles, dot our routine paths.  Fortunately, Willow is very cautious and likes stopping at various sidewalk challenges to take good care of me and to receive her praise.  My little Black Lab wiggles with delight when I praise her.  I must add that some of these unusual sidewalk formations are like a road map for my feet–or boots or shoes–because they do let me know exactly where I am .  One day, earlier this past winter, Willow stopped, as usual, for a minor lift in the sidewalk along a busy street.  A young man was passing by us and remarked, “I am impressed.”  After twenty-nine years of working with four outstanding Leader Dogs, I, too, am still impressed.




Oh, pedestrians, please do not text or use your phone for another distracting purpose while walking!




While Zoe and I and then Willow and I survived the three-year streetcar construction project in our immediate area, both short-term and long-term construction projects continue and determine our daily walking routes.  This past Monday, as Willow and I were walking around a nearby park, I heard some large trucks on the other side of the park.  When we arrived at the north end of the park, I told my Lab, “Willow, right.”  She turned right, walked only a couple of paces, and came to an abrupt stop.  After telling her “Willow, forward” three times, I trusted in her “intelligent disobedience”:  I assumed that the truck noises must have meant some work on the sidewalk ahead.  Willow was happy to do a U-turn; then we made a left turn along Water Street.  A third of the way down the block, a familiar voice who identified himself as one of our substitute mail carriers, told me that my guide dog had stopped due to construction cones on the sidewalk.  I thanked him for letting me know the reason.  Although he offered to help Willow and me around the construction, I gratefully declined his offer because I knew my Leader Dog and I could arrive at our destination by another route.  We proceeded to the next corner and turned up the hill, with the sounds of the ever-present construction on City Hall to our right, as we headed to the bank.


Yes, yes, I know that “Construction is progress” and will also fill the holes in the sidewalks; however, I certainly would like one year–well, at least, one season–of absolutely no construction and no construction signs.




Now that the construction phase is over, the streetcar still poses daily challenges.  My guide dog and I always have to be careful with walking over the tracks.  Also, we do try to avoid being on a corner at the same time as one trolley is or two trolleys are making a turn when conditions are dry.  Why?  At such times, the turning trolley makes a terrible and distracting screeching noise.  Finally, each trolley has an electronic device that prompts a change in each traffic light so that the streetcar always has the green light.  Of course, this practice of treating the trolley like an emergency vehicle changes the light cycle; and altering the light cycle makes our crossing these intersections more challenging and less safe.




During the past eighteen months or more, I have noticed more than previously that too many people do not realize that my dog is a guide dog.  Willow wears a special harness which is emblazoned with “Leader Dog.”  besides holding onto her harness handle (which is unlike any harness for a pet dog), I hold onto her leash which is in the working position of half its length (due to being doubled and hooked onto a D-hook).  I wear dark, amber-colored glasses with side shields.  Nevertheless, more and more, people do not recognize me as blind nor my dog as a guide dog.  So, I ask that you please help spread the word so that more people can recognize a working guide dog.


Despite the challenges which we may face on a daily, weekly , or infrequent basis, working and living with my guide dog has been and continues to be the right, most wonderful choice for me.  Being blessed with the love, devotion, and superior work of my four guide dogs brightens each of my days and gives me pause each night to thank all who make possible magnificent guide dogs.  I am truly privileged to have walked beside Keller, Heather, and Zoe–and now to continue walking with Willow in the lead.  Twenty-nine special years and counting!


God bless our Leader Dogs!

Alice and Willow


March 20, 2019, Wednesday



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  1. This is a really informational post, Alice.
    For those of us who don’t use a guide dog, it’s interesting to read about how you work in tandem with a dog. The amount of challenges you face every day in a city, as a blind person, seem overwhelming to me.

    • Hi, Lynda–Special thanks for reading and commenting on this blog post.

      Best always–Alice and Willow

  2. Sue McKendry permalink

    Alice – – congrats on 29 years with your 4 wonderful guide dogs. – – Sue

    • Hello, Sue–Many thanks!  (I am glad that your comment came through the system today without the need for “approval.”  I guess all is well in “Computerland” now.)

      Take care–Alice and Willow

  3. Congratulations on your 29 years of working with bright and lovable Leader Dogs, Alice! Through your teamwork, you have been able to accomplish great things in spite of all the challenges.
    Wishing you and Willow miles of enjoyable walks in the coming year!
    Love, Mary

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