THE DOGGY SMELL COMES AND GOES. She's old. Her skin's old. She takes Vitamin E, Vitamin C and phenylbutasone now. Her brown eyes aren't clouded, exactly, just weary. The ears that once heard sounds miles away are now a little crunchy on the flopped edges, as if they are slowly crumbling off. Her fur is coming off too, thinning out in places, especially on her muzzle where she rubbed it against the cage at the Guide Dog Foundation. She was there for a couple of weeks after leaving Queens, after leaving her blind master of 10 years, before coming back to the people who knew her as a puppy.
Heta has retired.
She's got two green tennis balls.
She's got an American Indian blanket to sprawl on.
She hasn't worn a harness in a month.
"She has arthritis now," says Don Kolasch, standing over Heta.
"Her eyes look much better since she's been here," says his wife, Elaine. "Less glazed."
"She has trouble, though," says Don, "getting her back legs up in the morning."
"She has only one tooth missing," says Elaine.
"I think her sense of smell is still good," says daughter Piper, "because when I take her for walks, she sniffs at everything."
Heta's retirement villa -- the Kolasch family house in Great Falls -- is big and airy. It's in the woods. Heta is spending the day fanned out on her Indian blanket. She's experiencing full-body relaxation. She doesn't jump up when people come into the room. She doesn't chew. She just lies there. Her stomach goes up in the air, then collapses toward the pale pine floor. Since she got here on November 5, she's only barked twice.
She wakes, lifts her ratty ears, furrows her brow.
"She's always had that look on her face," says Elaine, "since she was a puppy. And she's always done this . . . " Elaine walks over, rolls Heta onto her back and scratches her tummy. A hind leg thumps up and down.
The fur is sagging underneath her new yellow collar. She doesn't have a double chin, but a triple or quadruple chin. It's enough extra fur to make a whole other golden Labrador, or a puppy at least. When she left the Kolasches 10 years ago for guide dog training, she weighed 50 pounds. Now she's at 66. That's what age does, makes you fat and saggy like Heta. It puts wrinkles in your brow. It makes it hard getting up the stairs.
"My vet," says Elaine, "gives her six months to live."
Everybody looks down at Heta.
She's snoring. THERE ARE AN ESTIMATED 10,000 GUIDE DOGS WORKING IN this country, used by 5 percent of the blind. Seventy of them graduate each year from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in New York. It's not the biggest or the oldest guide dog school, but it's been providing free, trained dogs to the blind since 1946. Like Heta, the dogs are usually a Labrador/golden retriever mix -- bred by the foundation for an easygoing temperament and good hips.
Heta was one of a seven-puppy litter. All their names began with H, and five became guide dogs. Puppies are born at the training center in Smithtown, Long Island. At 8 weeks old, they travel to foster homes for a year -- often to families of 4-H Club kids -- to become socialized pets accustomed to the various headaches and distractions that the world serves up to all living things. This is the "Puppy Walker Program," which Piper Kolasch applied to join when she was 14 years old.
Elaine Kolasch still has a manila folder, circa 1979, marked "Guide Dog Stuff" in purple felt pen on the crushed tab. Inside, there are stacks of letters back and forth to the foundation: inquiries, applications, a notification that the Kolasches were going to be interviewed in person. Finally there's Piper's contract, signed in her large and loopy teenage handwriting, agreeing to raise Heta as a puppy, to provide all veterinary services for her during the year, to provide basic obedience training. She also agreed not to let Heta run free except in areas far from "vehicular traffic" and to give Heta back to the foundation upon request.
There's a wad of snapshots on the Kolasches' kitchen table, taken during the months after Heta arrived in Great Falls in April 1979. Baby Heta with Piper washing the car. Heta, slightly bigger, on the basketball court with Piper's brother, Craig. Heta with Piper and her sister, Heather, sitting on the floor. Heta with Puff and Mandy, the Kolasches' black miniature poodle and white Maltese. Heta on the beach. Heta under the Christmas tree.
Piper says she took Heta shopping at Tysons Corner to get used to people. She took her on the Metro to get used to the subway. She took her to obedience class, then showed her at a dog show -- "to get her used to other animals," she says, "and not go crazy." Elaine remembers taking Heta to buy a new car. Don remembers taking Heta on vacation with the family to the Eastern Shore; they found a motel that didn't mind a guide dog in training.
When Heta was about a year old, the Kolasches got a call from the foundation. A man would meet them at a designated pickup point and take Heta back to the training center on Long Island. Don Kolasch says he couldn't go, it was upsetting, so Elaine drove Piper with Heta in her kennel. They took a last photograph: Heta's face looking out from the back of a blue van. There were other year-old puppies in cages next to her. AT THE TRAINING CENTER, HETA'S VISION WAS CHECKED. SHE was given hip X-rays to make sure she didn't have dysplasia. She was neutered. She was tattooed -- on her stomach, next to her right hind leg -- with the training center's telephone number.
She was taught to disregard stray cats and squirrels, loud noises and crowds. She was taught to work in the harness. She was walked on city blocks, in shopping malls, on the New York City subway. She was taught to stop at curbs, avoid breaks in the sidewalk, changes in pavement, traffic and pedestrians. She was taught to find an empty seat on a bus or in a room. She was taught to find her way out of a building -- to remember the way she came in -- through doors, stairwells, escalators, elevators. She was taught to pick up anything her master dropped. She was taught to watch out for overhangs -- awnings, ledges, tree branches.
And she was taught to disobey her master's command to go forward, if going forward would be dangerous -- because guide dogs do not read traffic lights. The blind person stands at a corner, listening to the flow of traffic. When he hears a parallel flow, he asks the dog to go forward.
With the harness removed, she was taught to relax.
Heta was trained by Emily Biegel, now director of administrative affairs at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Emily remembers that Heta was a confident, good-natured dog who was "quite a character in her day, even though she seems like a grand old lady now." Heta once ripped a winter hat off Emily's head because it had a pompom on it. "She got overcome by desire sometimes," says Emily, "and she has a sense of humor."
Emily wants to say something about guide dogs. "We have signs for our dogs now that say: Please don't pet or feed me. I'm working." She wants to explain this. "The retriever breeds, especially, are very friendly. They love being petted. But when they walk into a room, for instance, you want them to find their master a free seat -- not walk around the room looking for people who will pet them . . .
"We can't train them," Emily says, "not to be dogs." IN THE KOLASCHES' PHOTO COLLECTION THERE'S ALSO AN 8-by-10 glossy, in black and white, of a fully grown Heta standing next to Ken Randall. It was taken upon their graduation from the Guide Dog Foundation training.
Heta was Ken Randall's first guide dog. He was 42 and living in Queens. They were paired because Heta had proven herself to be a low-key, unexcitable dog -- except for the pompom incident -- and well-suited to handling the New York subway, which Ken needed to take into the city several times a week.
Emily Biegel trained Ken Randall too, taking 25 days to teach him about Heta, about what Heta could do for him, and about caring for a guide dog who needs to be worked and trained every day. After about six months in Queens, Ken says, Heta began settling into her life there. At first she jumped around some -- she was still a young dog, after all -- and he tried to protect her from certain distractions.
"When they are still puppies, they're a little silly and undignified," says Emily. "But after so many years, the dogs get to be just about perfect. You can say 'drugstore' and 'inside,' and they'll find the drugstore and go right inside."
In time, Heta was taking Ken into the city during rush hour without problems and flying with him on planes, often to conventions of the American Council of the Blind. She also danced with him at parties. "She had a habit," he says, "if my wife and I went out to a party or dance, and I decided to go out on the dance floor with somebody, Heta would come out on the floor and get between us."
"She'd get right up on her hind legs," Sandra Randall says, "and dance with him. It was like she was saying to everybody, This is my master. She was just jealous and didn't want anybody else out there with him."
He called her "Heta Bear" or just "My Bear."
At home, Heta was bossed around by Buttons, the Randalls' other dog -- a much smaller mixed-breed. They romped in the yard, playing tag and tug of war. When Heta wasn't working, she caught a million tennis balls launched in the air by Ken. The Guide Dog Foundation has many rules for its dogs -- they must be seen twice a year by a vet, walked several times a day, etc. -- and it suggests that you never feed a guide dog from the table. The Randalls laugh when asked about this.
"She's eaten everything under the sun," says Ken. "The only thing Heta ever refused was a mushroom. She spit it right out."
"She ate her own dog food," says Sandra, "and then everything we ate. On holidays, she'd have her dinner plate with turkey -- and a little bit of everything else."
For Ken's 50th birthday -- two years ago -- Sandra Randall had a little gold ring made. She took Heta to see a sculptor, who carved a portrait of Heta's head. This was cast in gold. Even though Ken has Herman now -- a young, frisky black Labrador guide dog -- when he touches his ring, he can still feel Heta's profile.
Over the last year, after Heta turned 11, Ken noticed that she didn't seem as eager to work. "It got to be an effort," he says. "Her walking seemed a little hard for her. Stepping up on the buses was strenuous. It used to be that whenever I got the leash out, Heta was always ready to go. It became less like that. And she didn't seem very interested in going outside."
Emily Biegel says the foundation strongly recommends against keeping a retired guide dog in the house, especially if a new guide is coming in. The dogs can become confused about their obligations, or jealous of each other. The blind master is given the option of finding another home for the dog, often with family or friends. If this can't be done, the dogs are returned to the foundation.
About 20 dogs a year come back to Long Island to be placed. Right away, Emily calls the people who first raised the dog -- the Puppy Walker Program family -- but only four or five families a year take dogs back into their homes.
"Usually when I call," Emily says, "the family is no longer at the address or phone number. Or, their lives have changed. Their kids have left the house. They've had no relationship with this dog for years, after all. The dog is distant from them emotionally. They have disassociated themselves." PIPER IS 25 NOW. SHE'S A DELICATE SORT WITH BIG BLOND hair, creamy skin, salmon pink nails, a soft voice, a white shirt. After high school, she looked into becoming a guide dog trainer but was told she needed to go to college first. She's in graduate school now, at Catholic University, working toward a master's degree in social work. She counsels abused and neglected city teenagers at Residential Youth Services.
And she's been watching over Heta.
"A walk in the woods takes forever," she says, "because Heta won't go over logs. She's trained to walk way around everything."
Down on the Indian blanket, Heta looks as if she's taking her retirement seriously. She has assumed the standard daytime position: melting into the floor. The fur around her eyes is dark -- nearly black -- and it's hard to see if she's awake. She likes the sun, though, and finds patches of it on the rug.
"We never thought we'd ever see her again," says Elaine. She's standing over Heta too, in a striped T-shirt and jeans. "Even though our lives have changed -- the girls have jobs and are busy -- we decided to take Heta back," she says. "How could we let her die someplace else? How could we not see her again?"
She shares the house with Butterscotch, a 13-year-old tabby cat, and Bailey, a year-old Siamese that Heather brought home from college last year. But Heta has the place of honor.
"She gets anything she wants now," says Don, picking up the dog brush and running it down Heta's back. "It's not a question of whether Heta remembers us. Dogs, they say, can only remember somebody for six weeks. So, she's still in the process of forgetting Ken."
A gust blows. Heta lifts her head. A bright windsock on the balcony moves around in the breeze. "When the vet saw her," Elaine says, "Heta was having a really bad day. She'd just been traveling. She'd been in the kennel."
Heta is getting better every day, Elaine says. She's jumping up when people come into the room, eating more, feeling less rigid in the morning. The arthritis medicine is working. She grabs her green tennis balls more often. Elaine's expecting Ken and Sandra Randall to call soon. She knows they'll want to know how Heta's doing from time to time.
Martha Sherrill writes for The Post's Style section.