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Glimpses of My Second Guide Dog–Heather

March 10, 2021

Glimpses of My Second Guide Dog–Heather

By Alice Jane-Marie Massa

                After so tremendously appreciating, admiring, and adoring my first Leader Dog, Keller, I, in many ways, was pleased that only one Golden Retriever was in the April class at Leader Dog School (Rochester, Michigan) in 1998 and that the Golden was too large to be a good match for me.  I think I needed a guide dog who would be quite different from my first beloved, small Golden so that I would compare and contrast the two dogs less.  Certainly, to follow the directives of my trainer, I did try not to compare and contrast my Golden and my creamy-colored Yellow Labrador Retriever; however, comparing and contrasting comes so naturally to most of us. 

                As I have noted on WORDWALK previously, Heather was the largest and strongest of my four Leader Dogs.  Coming into my life on the traditional Tax Day–April 15–of 1998, Heather was a beautiful, long-legged Lab with an especially long body.  Throughout her life, she maintained the same weight of 62 to 63 pounds.  Until Heather was my guide, I never realized what an abundant undercoat Yellow Labs have.  Heather’s amazing shed was truly like clockwork–precisely with the calendar:  each year, until her last, my second Leader Dog did an unbelievable shed of her undercoat during the first week of June.  Typically, after totally filling the slicker brush eight times, I would then wait for the next grooming to remove more of her shedding hair.  Around this time, when I gave her a bath, even more hair was loosened onto her two different types of brushes and her comb.  Fortunately, like most dogs, Heather loved to be groomed.  When Heather and I were in training at Leader Dog School, one of the trainers who had known my Keller and her extremely long hair, commented that I no longer had much hair to groom.  Well, I discovered that my Golden lost less hair than my short-haired Yellow Lab.             

The one Golden who was in my class at Leader Dog School was a canine buddy of Heather.  For one of our lessons, we students and Leader Dogs were at a very large, upscale mall.  While our trainer was working with some other students of our group, Murphy’s handler and I sat on one of the mall benches with the two dogs on the floor, between us.  The two Leader Dogs waited patiently for their turn to walk around the mall, so Murphy’s handler and I enjoyed a chat.  Several minutes later, a shopper came toward us and said:  “I just have to tell you that your dogs are so cute:  the Lab has her paw over the Golden’s paw.  It looks as if they are holding hands–paws.”  We thanked her for letting us know, and then I reached down and petted my Yellow Lab.  How sweet that she and Murphy were such good friends!

                Besides this friendship with Murphy, Heather seemed to want to check out another even larger Yellow Lab almost each time we went to our group’s big round table in the dining room at Leader.  Eventually, I was told that the second Yellow Lab was a littermate of Heather and that they had been close.  Another littermate was a Chocolate Labrador who went home with a student from Canada while the other Yellow Lab accompanied his handler/attorney home to Washington, D.C.

                                Unlike Keller who was so expressive with her paws, one of which she would wave at other people and dogs and which she used to point to objects which I had dropped or lost, Heather greatly liked having her paws firmly planted on the ground or floor.  When she knew she deserved a treat for whatever circumstance, if I temporarily forgot to reach into my pocket for a treat, Heather’s paws stayed firmly planted until I remembered the little treat. 

                Rounding out the tenth year of working beside me at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Heather was definitely slowing down and showing signs that retirement would be near.  At the college, we had always taken the stairs to whichever floor of whichever building.  On occasion, we walked up twelve flights of stairs to go to the sixth floor of the Main Building of the campus.  About five weeks before I semi-retired Heather, we were in the middle of a flight of stairs at the college when Heather stopped.  My hard-working Lab could not go up nor down the stairs–no matter what encouragement I gave her.  Luckily, a young librarian came along and offered his help.  Despite Heather’s arthritic condition, she allowed the young man to unhesitatingly pick her up and carry her to the top of the stairs.  I remain forever grateful to that librarian.  Following that incident, Heather and I no longer took the stairs:  we took the elevators. 

                After a decade of being at my side on the campus of MATC, guiding me home from school most days, instilling enough bravura in me to follow her across four of the drawbridges of Milwaukee, traveling with me to other states, and guiding me around my neighborhood for errands and pleasure–Heather was ready to be semi-retired until Leader Dog Zoe came into our lives.

                How fondly I recall when my second Leader Dog met my third Leader Dog!  Having my retired Leader Dog and my successor Leader Dog together with me made for many of the most precious moments of my life.  During those thirteen months, I fed the two dogs at the same time:  I held the bowl for Heather in one hand and the bowl for Zoe in the other.  What a treat for me! 

                Since Heather was ready for retirement, she did not seem to mind passing the harness to Zoe.  I was not surprised, but was enormously grateful that the transition worked out splendidly. 

Once when my sister from Colorado was visiting us, Mary snapped a photo of Zoe and me on the stairs of our front porch.  Only later when my sister looked at the photograph did she realize that also in the photo was Heather who was looking out the living room window–undoubtedly to witness the “changing-of-the-guard,” to be certain that the young and vivacious Zoe was performing her Leader Dog duties especially well by taking care of Heather’s handler. 

                At age 70, I wonder how I then most fondly took care of an aging dog’s extra needs, worked with and loved Zoe, taught full-time, did all of my lesson plans, graded all those essays and speeches, did the usual errands, fixed meals, did the housekeeping, etc.  Well, I can only deduce that the reasons were love and gratitude for both Leader Dog Heather and Leader Dog Zoe.  

WORDWALK NOTE:  Although this month of March is dedicated to my four Leader Dogs as I mark thirty-one years of happily and gratefully working with guide dogs, I do plan an extra post on the eve of Pi Day.  So, watch for a pi poem on Saturday.  Then, next Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day, I will have more tales about my Leader Dogs to share with you.

Wishing you many happy tails, tales, and trails!

Alice and Leader Dog Willow

March 10, 2021, Wednesday


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  1. Annie Chiappetta permalink

    Thanks for a great post.

    Ann Chiappetta, Author

    ` Making meaningful connections with others through writing `

    914.393.6605 Facebook Annie Chiappetta

    “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

    * Joseph Campbell

    • Hi, Annie–Special thanks for reading this post and commenting! Always good to hear from a fellow guide-dog user!
      Our best to you and Bailey–Alice and Willow

  2. Sue McKendry permalink

    Heather was a beauty, but I never knew about her thick undercoat. We were working in different departments by the time she was with you, so I never got to know her as much as Keller. I became acquainted with Zoe and Willow after retiring. I appreciate your comment about wondering how you did it all, and I’m sure there are many others in our 70s who look back on what we did when we were younger and wonder how did we do it.

    • Hi, Sue–Many thanks for your comments about my four Leader Dogs and the difference in decades of our lives.  We look forward to talking with you soon–before St. Patrick’s Day.

      Enjoy these sunny days of March!

      Take care–Alice and Willow

  3. Carole permalink

    Alice, I have many fond memories for each of your magnificent guide dogs, but the one that seemed so surreal was when we traveled to the Illinois pet cemetery to visit Keller’s grave upon one of your return visits to Indiana. For the first time that Heather had ever been on the property, she took you directly to Keller’s grave without any guidance. As she placed her paw on the stone, we were in awe of her unbelievable sensory gift.

    You have been blessed with the best, as they have been with you!
    Love from their Auntie Carole

    • Hi, Carole–A thousand thanks to you for recalling and sharing this precious and somewhat unbelievable memory of my Heather!

      Best always–Alice and Willow

  4. mfanyo permalink

    Dear Alice,
    Thank you for sharing those precious memories of Heather! Remembering the “changing of the guard” photo still touches my heart! Another favorite photo of Heather was taken on my back porch steps in Colorado. Heather was posed next to a big pot of geraniums looking very young and alert and more than ready to guide you where you wanted to go—a job she took very seriously for many years! Another fond memory of Heather is the many concerts and performances that she enjoyed quietly curled up at your feet in concert halls. She always listened as attentively as the rest of the audience. Heather was extraordinary!
    With love and thanks to a very special Leader Dog,

    • Hi, Mary–An anecdote about Heather’s being in the audience with me for many concert and theatrical performances does not come readily to mind because she was always so well-behaved at such happenings.  I do know that I have always been grateful that she guided me so well to and from the Maya Angelou performance at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  Despite the sell-out crowd, great applause, and cheering for the wonderful Ms. Angelou, Heather was impeccably behaved.  To this concert, Heather and I went with no one else, but managed quite well.  I am still enormously grateful to my second Leader Dog for all of the independence which she facilitated.

      Many thanks for sharing your recollections of Heather and for your photography of my four Leader Dogs!

      Alice and Willow

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