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En Route with Leader Dog Willow to Our Polling Place

February 20, 2020


En Route with Leader Dog Willow to Our Polling Place


By Alice Jane-Marie Massa


This post is not political: it is simply a description of my Leader Dog Willow’s guiding me to and from my polling place for the first of four times this year. Yes, Wisconsin divides the voting into two categories–non-partisan and partisan. Thus, we will make four trips to our polling place during 2020 for two primaries and two general elections. Yesterday, February 18, we were among the 23 per cent of eligible voters who did their civic duty. Doesn’t this number of voters on a sunny winter day seem low?


On Tuesday morning, the ice and snow from the night of Presidents’ Day appeared to be problematic only on the north side of the block and at certain other well-known sidewalk and curb areas. With a concerning high wind, I decided to postpone our trip to the polling place until after Willow and I took a walk to the post office to mail four items. After putting Willow’s leash and harness on her, I generously applied a balm called “Musher’s Secret” onto her paws because conditions did not warrant her fashionable blue boots. Since the quickest route to the post office had some unusual extended patches of ice-incrusted snow, I chose a different and clearer route for the walk home from the post office. As has become typical, the snow banks at the down and up curb at the intersection before the post office were more challenging than necessary. Nevertheless, Willow demonstrated her Leader Dog talents and calmness.


By the afternoon, the wind had diminished in strength; so, I thought we should go to vote between my two meetings of the day. To avoid the intersection where the trolley makes the turn for both east/north-bound and south/west-bound routes at the boulevard and Jackson Street, Willow and I took a different path yesterday afternoon to our polling place. This route allowed us to stay on the sidewalk that had the most sun and was clear. Also, most of the snow was removed from the curb areas on this selected journey. Instead of actual curbs, Willow had to find and stop at only the tactile markings–a metal plate with tactile markings or bumps; this metal plate is embedded into the sidewalk near where the curb was previously. “Willow, find the bumpies,” I instructed my Leader Dog. As we proceeded westward, we crossed four tracks of the trolley on Jackson. When we turned to the south and crossed the boulevard, Willow carefully walked over two more tracks. Another pedestrian with a noisy wheely cart of unknown type was crossing the boulevard at the same time; however, Willow was undaunted and proceeded very professionally across the long expanse of the crosswalk. Maneuvering me around some snow by the curbless curb, Willow turned right upon my command. As we walked beside Old Saint Mary’s parish, I was concentrating so much on the path ahead and the task ahead that I forgot to say a quick prayer as we passed the statue of Mary. At the next street, Willow guided me smoothly over another set of embedded trolley tracks. Next, I said to my beloved British Black Labrador: “Willow, find the curb. Good girl! Willow, left. Find the building.” Less than half way down the block, I added, “Willow, find the stairs.” After giving my little Lab some well-deserved, enthusiastic praise, she most carefully guided me up the stairs; then, I told her to find the door. My fourth Leader Dog, like her three predecessors (Keller, Heather, and Zoe), led me easily, quickly, efficiently, and successfully to my polling place.


Inside the annex of City Hall, I once again praised my wonderful Willow and gave her a little treat. Knowing the typical set-up of the polling area, I instructed my guide dog to turn right; and we proceeded to a nearby table. After giving my information to the two ladies at the table, I pulled from one of my pockets a small frame–“a signature guide,” which I asked one of the poll workers to place on the ledger where I needed to sign my name. Then, another poll worker came to direct Willow and me to the far corner of the room where the Automark voting machine was located. After I inserted the ballot into the machine, I sat down and had Willow lie down beside me. She stayed very quietly beside me while I voted.


The poll worker, who remembered me from the previous election, handed me the headset for listening to the print-to-speech voice. Although I have almost always turned off the computer screen by pressing the top right button, the poll worker told me that she had just turned off the screen for me. When she reminded me of her first name and said to let her know if there was any problem with the Automark machine, the poll worker walked away while I began to listen to the computerized instructions. Soon, I was using the arrow keys to read through the choices on the ballot and press the key in the middle of the four arrow keys to note my selection of a candidate. The “select” button has a very tactile braille letter “s” on the well-sized key; braille identifies most of the other keys as well. Having read through the ballot and made one’s selections, the Automark offers the user a review screen. After listening again to one’s choices on the review screen, one presses the select button again to activate the machine’s marking of the ballot. Within a few seconds, the ballot came out of the machine; with a little tug on the paper, the ballot I had voted was in my hand. A few seconds after Willow and I stood up, another poll worker directed me to the deposit box for ballots, located nearer the Automark machine than in the past. He asked me if I wanted an “I voted” sticker, and I responded that I certainly did because I place each “I voted” sticker onto the plastic cover of my braille calendar for each year. Then, the young man told me the direction to head for the door even though I had not asked him. Thanking him, I walked ahead a few steps with Willow with commands of “Forward; find the door.” However, Willow stopped seemingly right in the middle of the room–as if she were saying: “Let me just take this all in for a moment–freedom, democracy at work. God bless America!” Or, did she want to be directed to the “Auto-PAW” machine to cast her vote? As soon as I repeated my command for her to move forward to the door, she did. While we made our way to the exit, a few people, as is customary, thanked us for voting.


In front of the bank of doors to exit the building, I took the time to praise Willow and put on my fleece-lined gloves. Having voted, Willow and I happily passed through the double doors. On the porch of the building, I said, “Willow, find the stairs.” My “Queen of Caution” walked slowly toward the top of the stairs, then edged to that first stair, and stopped. With my right foot, I confirmed our placement at the top of the stairs. Enjoying more words of praise from me, Willow proceeded down the stairs very smoothly and carefully. She takes such extraordinarily good care of me! With a turn to the left, we were on our way home with one new “I voted” sticker.


Hoping you enjoyed a happy Presidents’ Day,

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


February 19, 2020, Wednesday



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  1. joanmyles permalink

    Fabulous, love the telling, and the great description! Willow is such a good citizen. and you have quite an interesting process there. Here, we have paper ballots which move back and forth through the mail. This makes for a wonderful opportunity to read through information about candidates and issues as we vote. Blessings, dear Alice, and you too Willow *sunbeams**children singing**pawprints in snow*

    • Good morning, Joan–Thanks for sharing the manner in which Oregonians vote!  Willow thanks you for calling her “a good citizen”!  Although she is always happy, I am sure that yet another compliment brightened her day.

      Enjoy your Thursday–Alice and Willow

  2. Susan M McKendry permalink

    Alice and Willow–This post should be required reading for all present and future handlers of guide dogs. Even those of us who are familiar with some wonderful leader dogs often are unaware of the many challenges posed for these teams in an urban environment. Thanks for this descriptive post. And here we were, congratulating ourselves for going out on a cold day when we had only one vote to cast, never thinking of the challenges some had to face–Sue

    • Good afternoon, Sue–Thanks so much for the very nice compliment and comment!  I am glad that you have known my Leader Dogs and that they have enjoyed the pleasure of your company.

      Looking forward to the promised warmer temperatures–Alice and Willow

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