Beau, the Guide Dog Who Took the Senate Floor

Moira Shea, who has progressive blindness, and her guide and companion Beau, on Labor Day weekend in 2002 in Annapolis.
Moira Shea, who has progressive blindness, and her guide and companion Beau, on Labor Day weekend in 2002 in Annapolis. (Courtesy Of Moira Shea)
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

His name was Beau, and he bridged the gap between senator and dog.

An accidental activist for the rights of the disabled, Beau, a yellow Labrador retriever, died quietly in his sleep this month, eight years after having an inhuman impact on the question of who may gain entry to the hallowed Senate floor.

The 13-year-old guide dog's owner, Moira Shea, reluctantly euthanized him on Dec. 9, ending his suffering from arthritis and breathing problems brought on by old age.

One hundred pounds of loyalty and quiet determination in his prime, Beau became a minor celebrity for a couple of days in 1997 when the Senate barred the visually impaired Shea, then a nuclear policy aide to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), from bringing the dog onto the Senate floor.

An objection had been raised -- anonymously at the time -- by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a stickler for procedure. The Senate had no formal rule allowing guide dogs into its chamber.

It had, however, voted two years earlier to require Congress to live by the workplace rules it had imposed on other employers. Those include the Americans With Disabilities Act, which guarantees that workers with guide dogs can bring them to the office under most circumstances.

It soon became clear that any argument for excluding Beau from the chamber was a dog.

Wyden quickly introduced a resolution to allow disabled people to bring "supporting services," including dogs, onto the floor.

"A guide dog is a working dog, not a pet," Wyden said from the Senate floor. ". . . I had hoped that there would be no need to offer this resolution, but I am forced to because discrimination still persists here."

Other senators rallied to the cause. The next day, the Senate passed a resolution by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opening the door to Beau and setting in motion a rules change permitting service dogs in the chamber.

"He was a really excellent guide dog," Shea, 50, now a communications manager at the Government Printing Office, said the other day. "He was very stoic, very professional, very aloof. He had a charisma. He just had something about him that I've never seen in another dog. . . . He developed a following. People react[ed] to him."

Beau was 18 months old when Shea got him in 1994 as a concession to Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes progressive blindness and hearing loss. Shea, then an economist at the Department of Energy, had managed on her own for years. But when she fell onto the Metro tracks one day on her way to work, she knew she could no longer trust her eyes to get around.

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