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Heather–the “Summer” of My Four Seasons, Thirty Years with Four Leader Dogs

March 12, 2020


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


Part 2. Heather–the Summer of My Four Seasons, Thirty Years with Leader Dogs


By Alice Jane-Marie Massa



Happily continuing my month-long celebration of my thirty years of working with my four Leader Dogs, I now turn to a focus on my second Leader Dog–Heather, a creamy-colored Yellow Labrador Retriever who bounced into my life on April 15, 1998.


At 62 pounds, Heather weighed the most of my four Leader Dogs; also, she was the tallest and longest of my quartet of guide dogs. Naturally, this lovely Lab was also the strongest and required the most “handling.” Since she was so young when I received her–only 14 months–our learning to work especially well together took the longest period of time–approximately eighteen months after we arrived home in Milwaukee. Was the more challenging initial period worth the considerable effort on both of our parts? Undoubtedly, my energetic Heather and I ventured forth in ways that my first Leader Dog Keller and I did not. Thanks to Heather, I gathered the courage to follow her lead over the State Street wooden, historic drawbridge, then the Kilbourn Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, and Wells Street drawbridges. Eventually, my Yellow Lab became a solid, trustworthy, dedicated, Leader Dog who guided me for the most years in a wide variety of places and circumstances.


Coincidentally, the same person at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan) trained both Keller and Heather. However, what different dogs they were! I clearly remember Tom Hill’s telling me in front of the downtown training center in Rochester, “Alice, don’t compare Heather with Keller.” Of course, my trainer recalled what an outstanding guide Keller was. Nevertheless, so much of how we perceive life is through comparison and contrast. Honestly, I did continue to compare and contrast my first two Leader Dogs; but I learned not to voice these comparisons. My determination to work well with Heather had to surpass any thoughts of comparison and contrast.


While I did seem to bond with the adorable Keller immediately, bonding with Heather took much longer. I distinctly remember the moment when I felt we had truly bonded as a team. During our first winter together, we were walking down Juneau Street. After we had crossed the busy intersection of VanBuren and Juneau and proceeded east, Heather uncustomarily took me on a path off the sidewalk and onto the burham for a short distance before returning us to the eastbound sidewalk. As soon as we passed the spot around which Heather guided me, a huge icicle fell and went splat directly behind us. A few paces from the ice-crushing scene, I stopped, praised, and hugged my amazing Yellow Lab. Did she hear the ice cracking from above, or did my Leader Dog notice an ice patch already on the sidewalk? I do not know: I only know that for various reasons, that moment gave me the trust I needed to have in Heather’s working abilities. Trust in one’s guide dog is such a vital part of the working relationship of a guide dog/blind handler team. Through that trust comes a natural and very deep bond.


Another unforgettable winter experience with my “summer” Leader Dog occurred on April 7, 2000, in the midst of a Wisconsin blizzard. Due to the weather conditions, when we left the college where I taught, we took the bus about half way home–instead of walking the entire route. After the bus stop at the major intersection of Water Street and Kilbourn Avenue, Heather had to guide me across Water Street in a high wind with horizontal snow. As soon as we were walking alongside City Hall, I breathed a sigh of relief. However, half way up the block, a surprise was ahead. As a snowplow came down the hill on Kilbourn, a slab of ice-incrusted snow fell off City Hall and partially onto Heather and me. For the first and only time in thirty years of working with Leader Dogs, my guide dog bolted away from me. All I could hear was the snowplow, the treacherous wind, and the echo of trainers at Leader Dog School saying, “Call your dog toward you.” Through the cacophony of noises, I yelled, “Heather, come!” Gratefully, within a second, I felt something at the left side of my left knee–my Heather, who had returned to a perfect heel. I only took the time to very quickly praise her as I picked up her harness and leash because I wanted us to walk away from City Hall and move up the hill as rapidly as possible. I did not want us to have to experience another slab of ice-incrusted snow falling upon us. While we hurried up the hill, I continued to praise her with the most thankful and happiest of tones. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful. As I dried her off in the warmth of our townhouse, I gave her more praise and my forever love.


Due to working at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Heather was a well-known guide dog. I think she loved seeing and being around so many people. During those ten years (1998-2008), I taught in various classrooms in different buildings at our downtown campus. Each semester when I had a new schedule, Heather learned our daily routes and routines very quickly. Typically, my schedule on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was different from my schedule of classes on Tuesday and Thursday. However, with a few commands from me, Heather knew exactly where to guide me.


Also, my Leader Dog lay beside my desk at the front of the classroom. She never stood from this rest position until I told her to do otherwise or, on occasion, when the students began to close books and open backpacks a minute or so before the end of the period. Heather slept through or heard many of my lectures and knew when the time for the end of class had come: she certainly was a keen observer of my students and me.


On the last day of the semester of one of my smaller classes in a carpeted room in the Continuing Education Building, I thought that Heather was lying still beside my desk as I was giving some final information to my students. Gradually, I began to realize that this outstanding class of students were acting a little differently than usual. I walked to where I thought Heather was. She was not there. My students chuckled, and one young lady promptly explained that Heather had gone all around the classroom of U-shaped desk formation to bid farewell to each student. What a quiet greeter my Labrador was because I had no idea! Since my guide dog had nearly completed her rounds, I called her back to her place; and we all had an amusing, but very memorable moment for this English class.


Following in line with my sentiments, each of my Leader Dogs who worked with me at MATC had a special fondness for the college’s library. In the Main Building’s second floor, I only had to say, “Find the library” for each to take me directly to the large library.


At the end of most school days, Heather and I walked home. However, what we did could better be described as alternating between fast-walking one block and running one block all the way home, during our earlier years together. Despite her fast pace, she never once missed a curb.


On at least two prior blogs, I have written about my remarkable experience when Heather and I ascended the stairs at President Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. I did travel the most with Heather. A most memorable trip in 2002 was to Colorado to visit my mother one last time. Despite Heather still having boundless energy, when she went into my mother’s bedroom to greet her as she was lying in her bed at my sister’s home, Heather came to an abrupt stop beside Mother’s bed. Then, my vivacious guide dog lay her big head on the bed beside my mother. Somehow Heather knew when to bring forth her calm, gentle, and caring demeanor. This moment was one of the sweetest I have witnessed in my life.


How can I put ten years with Heather into one blog post? I cannot. At the funeral of my mother, my second Leader Dog was at my side. Heather guided me home through nearly empty streets and sidewalks on 9/11. A few months after 9/11, Heather was beside me when we went to Great Lakes Naval Base to enjoy my cousin’s graduation from basic training. Only once did she awaken me and dance around my bed until I arose; soon after, fire trucks arrived at my large apartment complex to extinguish a small fire in the decorative wood chips around shrubbery which was a short distance away from my townhouse. So many tales to tell about this “summer” guide dog who brightened my life and warms my memories.


As my Yellow Labrador began to slow her pace more significantly, going up and down stairs became more of a challenge for her. During the final two months of the final semester she worked as my guide at MATC, we had to take the elevators instead of our usual numerous flights of stairs. At the end of the spring semester of 2008, I proclaimed Heather “semi-retired.” When I received Zoe, my third Leader Dog, on June 6, 2009–Heather became officially retired. However, I was honored and blessed to have two Leader Dogs for thirteen months–one retired and one new Leader Dog. Heather was very ready and happy to turn the harness over to Zoe, who became Heather’s best buddy and calming ”sister.”


While feeding my two Leader Dogs, I held one pan of food in one hand for Heather and the other pan of food in the other hand for Zoe. Yes, this was supper time at our home for thirteen months. Enjoying these two Leader Dogs together became the best thirteen-month period of my life. Finally, on July 1, 2010, Zoe and I had to bid farewell to my nearly fourteen-year-old Heather–until we all meet again at the “Rainbow Bridge.”



Take care, stay well, and thanks for reading this long dog post!

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


March 12, 2020, Thursday




From → Uncategorized

  1. joanmyles permalink

    Oh, such a sweet and remarkable tale of your time with this amazing canine teammate. Heather truly was an angel in your life. I hope to share this on Monday. Thank you, my darling friend, blessings and sweetness to you! *willows in mist**starlight amid crescent moon*

    • Joan–Special thanks for your sweet message which reminded me of one story which I intended to include, but forgot.  Your referring to Heather as “my angel” prompted me to recall how Heather would cross her front paws in a fashion that made me think that she was thinking doggie prayers.  Also, when we were at Leader Dog School, Heather and a very large Golden Retriever were great friends. When, during our stay at Leader Dog School, other students and I were at a very large mall with our Leader Dogs, a friend and I were sitting on a bench and waiting for our trainer to complete a lesson with another student.  While my friend Tierney and I chatted, our two Leader Dogs lay side by side.  Later, a shopper came up to us and said she just had to tell us how sweet our dogs looked because my Yellow Lab’s paw was crossed over the Golden Retriever’s (male) paw–as if the two guide dogs were “holding hands.”  Murphy and Heather were  so sweet together that I wish I had a photo of this scene.

      Best to you and Ari–Alice and Willow

  2. Alice, have you ever considered putting together a collection of your guide gog stories? You seem to have more than enough material for such a book. I enjoy reading about your experiences with your canine companions.

    • Abbie–Thanks for the “like” and your comment.  Yes, I have thought of a book about my thirty years of working with Leader Dogs–a short one with poems interspersed; however, unfortunately, all I have managed to produce for this 30th anniversary celebration has been my very well-received poster and now these blog posts.  Thanks for asking!  (You may want to read my comment to Joan in this comment section.)

      Take care, and stay well–Alice and Willow

  3. SUSAN MCKENDRY permalink

    Alice–Funny but as I was reading this blog about your leader dog that I knew the least, I was thinking of exactly what the above reader commented. It is a marvel to see how your dogs have worked with you in everyday situations, but the events described above literally made me hold my breath until reading of the successful outcomes. Heather worked with you after our time of being office mates ended with you transferring to different department and five years later, my retirement. So glad she could retire with a good friend like Zoe.

    • Sue–Many thanks for being such a loyal friend of my Leader Dogs and loyal reader of this WORDWALK blog!  Oh, there are so many tales to tell about the relationship that Heather and Zoe developed.  Heather let Zoe know that my younger Leader Dog was not to lie on the arthritic Heather’s bed, but was most welcome to lie right alongside Heather’s comfy bed.  Zoe obliged and was always so respectful of her predecessor.  As you may recall, my Christmas card of 2009 had a photo of Heather and Zoe lying side by side.

      Take care, and stay well–Alice and Willow

  4. Dear Alice,
    When you write about Heather being the “Summer” of your four Leader Dogs, I recall two special photos of Heather, both taken in the month of June. The first is a photo from Heather’s first summer with you which you displayed for many years in your MATC office. Heather was at my house lying down on one of the broad back steps next to a big pot of pink geraniums. Her vivacious personality and youthful physique are quite evident! The other photo was taken years later soon after Leader Dog Zoe’s arrival. I was focused on taking a photo of you and Zoe leaving your townhouse for a walk. However, when the photo was printed, I noticed that Heather was looking outside through the large living room window seriously watching you and Zoe as if she was saying, “Yes, Zoe will work well for Alice. I can pass the torch to her.” The memory of that photo will always touch my heart and bring tears to my eyes.
    Love, Mary

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