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Thirty Years with Leader Dogs: Part 1. Keller

March 4, 2020


WORDWALK Presents a Month-long Salute to My Four Leader Dogs:


Part 1. Keller–the Spring of My Four Seasons, Thirty Years, with Leader Dogs


By Alice Jane-Marie Massa


During this entire month of March, my blog posts will be “dog posts” because I will be celebrating thirty years of working with Leader Dogs. The exact magical and memorable date is March 21, 1990, when I received my first Leader Dog Keller, a stunningly beautiful reddish Golden Retriever. After my two pet spaniels, I loved grooming Keller’s long hair. Once, I measured the “feathering” on her back legs: her longest hairs measured fourteen inches.


Throughout these past three decades, my life has been truly blessed with my four guide dogs. “To everything, there is a season….” [Ecclesiastes 3:1] I can easily think of my four Leader Dogs as the four seasons of my life working with guide dogs. When I began working with Keller, she was the expert: I was in the spring of my time of working with guide dogs. She had much to teach me; and I had much to learn about working calmly, confidently, and successfully with a guide dog. During this “spring” (March 21, 1990 through December 15, 1997), Keller and I moved from Indiana to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where we attended Western Michigan University for a second master’s degree. My fast-paced, highly intelligent Golden quickly learned the campus of WMU, helped me to get to classes on time, and guided me home through a couple of blizzards and some deep snowfalls. In classrooms, she was quiet, still, and attentive. On the other paw, how excited she was to greet everyone who came to our apartment door!


We lived on campus–a campus that had a significant population of relatively tame squirrels who tantalized and distracted my guide dog. These squirrels were our major challenge. I am quite pleased to report that she did overcome this distraction–after some trying times. Much later in our working lives, Keller and I were casually walking down State Street in Milwaukee and then turned down Astor Street. Another pedestrian stopped us and said: “I just have to tell you that I am so impressed with your guide dog. A squirrel was running circles around the two of you, but your guide dog never paid any attention to that squirrel.” I just smiled and thanked the lady, but thought, “If only you knew what all we went through to arrive at this point!”


How well Keller worked at my side when I did my internship at the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center! Thanks to Keller, I made a turn to a new stage in my life and career.


During the summer of 1991, my family, including my young nephews, came to visit Keller and me. We went to one of the nearby beautiful beaches along Lake Michigan. Keller and I were enjoying a run through the deep sand. As we drew close to the waves, a wave slapped upon the shore. My Golden stopped abruptly and decided that the waves were a force of Nature to be left alone. She was happy to stay a safe distance from the unruly waves the remainder of the day.


Shortly before completing my internship at Kalamazoo, I secured a teaching position at Milwaukee Area Technical College. So, In August of 1991, Keller made another move and smooth transition to living in the downtown area of a large city–Milwaukee. Among as many as seven other guide dogs a semester, Keller always seemed to know her place as the Leader Dog who was setting the example as a seasoned guide dog. When she met a new person or guide dog, she would stay in a sit position and wave her right paw–yes, like the famous Lassie–at the person or dog–with or without my command to wave.


Besides doing all of the basic obedience commands and guide dog work superbly, Keller also did a great version of “Find it”–referring to what I had dropped and could not find. This trick of hers came in handy. When I told her to “Find it,” she would go near the object, lie down in front of it, and slap her right paw a few inches away from the lost object. Yes, indeed, her right paw would point directly to the object. When I was teaching in the Visually Impaired Persons’ Program of the Center for Special Needs at Milwaukee Area Technical College, my students really enjoyed watching or otherwise witnessing Keller’s doing this “find” trick.


Once when my dad and sister drove me back to Milwaukee from Indiana after the Christmas vacation, I acquired a nasty bout with food poisoning. Being so sick, I decided to go down my fourteen stairs; however, I fainted and fell down the last four or so stairs. Later, I was told that Keller immediately came to me and lay close beside me. In order to help me, my dad had to pull Keller away from me. She was always my “Golden glueball.” How I did love her!


Keller gave me the courage to live only with her at my side in a large city. The winters that Keller was in the lead were the worst winters of all my 29 years in Wisconsin. I recall days when the snowdrifts in our inner courtyard were so deep that I would change the position of her doubled leash to the “long” leash so that she could jump over the drift; then, while she waited for me on the other side of the drift, somehow, in my younger days, I managed to follow her path over the pile of snow. Oh, the snow piles at curbs that I remember traversing with her leading the way. What a marvelous guide she was! Keller was superbly trained by Tom Hill at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan). Sadly, at that era at Leader Dogs for the Blind, students were not told the names of the puppy-raisers. I have always wished and still do wish I knew whom to thank for raising the puppy who became my first Leader Dog.


Each day around noon, Keller and I walked through the buildings of campus to go outside for a while. I distinctly recall walking over the skywalk from the Continuing Education Building to the Main Building when another MATC employee stopped me in the sunshine and told me: “Whenever I see you with your dog, she always is wagging her tail and looking so happy to be working with you.” I loved hearing these words and remember them fondly. Keller was born to be a working dog: she loved to work as a guide dog from the moment I first put a harness on her until her dying day. My beloved Golden had a tremendous work ethic–and she worked with such grace, joy, and devotion. When we were in training at Leader Dog School, the trainers had given a number of the dogs in the class nicknames. Keller was called “The Stellar Keller.” Indeed, she was stellar in both her guide work and demeanor. On her tombstone is carved a star in the upper right and the upper left corner. At the pet cemetery of a veterinary clinic near my hometown of Blanford, Indiana–Keller lies in rest and at peace beside my American Cocker Spaniel, Chico, and my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chelsea. Yet, of course, Keller lives forever in my treasured memories and in a part of my heart.


PAW NOTE: On March 11, my blog post will focus on my second Leader Dog, Heather. On March 18, my third Leader Dog, Zoe, will be featured. Then, I will end this special month of March with a blog post about my current Leader Dog, Willow. Please join us for this anniversary celebration on WORDWALK.


May all of your spring days be golden!

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


March 4, 2020, Wednesday




From → Uncategorized

  1. Susan M McKendry permalink

    Alice–This is a wonderful way to pay tribute to your four wonderful guide dogs, and I am so happy to have the beautiful poster which has a place of honor next to my spot on the couch. Even though I knew Keller, I learned many things about her from this post. She was the first guide dog I was privileged to know, and I always enjoyed those times we could take short walks at lunch time. I was also amazed at how the bodacious squirrels around MacArthur Square couldn’t tempt her into a rousing game of tag. Looking forward to next week–Sue

    • Hi, Sue–Many thanks for your especially nice comment!  Until you mentioned the walk at MacArthur Square, I had forgotten about this happening.  Thanks for refreshing my memory!

      Hoping to talk with you soon–Alice and Willow

  2. joanmyles permalink

    Reblogged this on Jewniquely Myself and commented:
    *Ari and I are delighted to share Alice’s remarkabel memories of her devoted canine teammates. Thanks for joining the jurney!*

  3. Patty permalink

    Reblogged this on Campbells World.

  4. Dear Alice,
    Keller certainly lived up to being “Stellar Keller” throughout the years that she was your Leader Dog. Besides being beautiful, Keller was sophisticated. She knew her job well and did it with an air of confidence! I remember that she loved my boys, and they adored her! Although Keller may have enjoyed running and playing with them, she clearly knew that her responsibility was to be at your side. Keller was a truly remarkable And beloved member of our family! Thanks for sharing your treasured memories of her.
    Love, Mary

  5. Carole permalink

    Alice, as I have been sorting and downsizing my organized “collections” during this pandemic, I came across the almost full-page article in the July 8, 1990, edition of the Tribune-Star with the photo of Keller, you, Lee, and Eric on the front porch swing. It was titled “Guide dog clears way to bright future.”

    Who would have guessed that the incredible thirty-year journey with your loving and devoted guide dogs would have taken you so very far!

    Congratulations to you and your amazing companions!
    Carole and family

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