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Community gathers to thank Alberta, the yellow lab guide dog who served them all

ST. PETERSBURG — All afternoon, they streamed into Alberta's home. Students and professors, kids from the church down the street. A yoga teacher. A tennis pro. Friends from the dog training club.

They came bearing cookies, cheese and wine, a poster to sign. The dean had bought sparkly paint. The Uber driver brought meatloaf.

For five hours, they shared stories and hugs as they said good-bye and wished Alberta a happy, healthy retirement.

"We're going to miss you," people kept saying. "We love you, Alberta!"

The yellow lab smiled and wagged her tail. When someone bent to shake hands, she offered her paw. She wove between guests' legs, sniffed at the bowl of pretzels, posed for pictures on command.

She wasn't wearing her harness that Sunday. So technically, she wasn't working. But even with a flowered lei around her neck, she stayed close to her partner's side.

"It's okay, Albee," Deni Elliott kept telling her through tears. "I'm okay."

***

They met at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit school in New York. The intuitive 2-year-old dog and the adventurous, athletic professor. For three wonderful years, they had been a team. Friends called them "Den-berta."

Previous story: Read about Deni's first meeting with Alberta

Deni, 62, chairs the journalism department at USF — St. Pete. She got Alberta just as she was losing her last slivers of sight. She said the lab drove like a Mercedes, sleek and fast. Within two days, they were stepping perfectly in stride. After two months, Alberta had learned to ignore lizards, avoid low-hanging palm fronds, and ride an airport escalator.

Alberta also likes to snuggle, which guide dogs aren't supposed to do.

"She's much more than my working partner," Deni said. "She's someone I really love living with."

They walked everywhere together — more than 1,000 miles a year — from Deni's home in South St. Petersburg, along the waterfront to her office, into classrooms, museums and stores. They strolled through the grocery, the bank and sushi bars. They went to Rays games, the Grand Prix, a Moody Blues concert. All Deni had to do was say where, and Alberta took them there.

They became part of the tableau of downtown. They both have long legs and platinum blonde hair. Strangers stopped them on the street to say hello. A parrot cawed its morning greeting from a porch. College students, missing their own dogs, stooped to stroke Alberta's soft ears.

"Using a cane emphasizes your disability, and pushes people away," Deni said. "Having a dog brings people to you. I have made so many friends because of Alberta. I know I'll never find another partner like her."

With Alberta by her side, Deni learned to let go — and let dog.

When Deni went to the US Open, a man came over to compliment her beautiful dog — and wound up teaching Deni to golf. He showed Deni how to feel the rise and fall of the grass as she walked. When Alberta saw the man had Deni's elbow, the dog hopped into the golf cart and rode the rest of the way with the caddy.

Deni even became the first blind person to compete in Rally dog competitions, giving Alberta commands as they trotted around a ring.

"She helped me do so many more things than I thought I could," Deni said. "And she just touched so many people."

But now, Deni said, it's no longer about what Alberta can do for others. It's what she has to do for Alberta.

***

The poster had hung in the college of arts and sciences. That Sunday, the dean took it down and carried it through the party, laid it carefully on the floor of Deni's den.

The background was sunflower yellow, a blown-up label for a beer bottle — with a background of the campus boat slips and Alberta, smiling, in the center, under the words: Bayboro Blonde Ale.

A local brewery, 3 Daughters, had made a special batch for the 50th anniversary of USF-St.Pete. Administrators had chosen Alberta's mug as the face of the school. Soon, hundreds more people knew the Bayboro Blonde.

The dean of arts and sciences, Frank Biafora, wanted his favorite dog to autograph his favorite beer.

"Come here, honey. Can you sit?" he asked Alberta. Of course she did. He poured silver paint onto a paper plate. Deni picked up Alberta's paw and pushed it into the puddle, then pressed it onto the center of the poster.

"Thank you," said the dean, stroking her muzzle. "You've been the best colleague this college has had. You make people smile at staff meetings. And you never question the dean's decisions."

Then the Uber driver broke out the meatloaf. "Do you want cake?" he asked the dog. "Look, I brought you cake." The dog drooled, and wriggled with joy. But kept her hold until Deni nodded okay.

"Happy birthday, Alberta!" Deni said, lighting five candles. That week, the dog had turned five.

"Happy retirement!" said the Uber driver. "Even if it came much too soon."

***

Alberta never let on that anything was wrong. She didn't slow down, didn't whine or rub her face. She just kept working, all spring, wagging her tail.

Deni couldn't see the redness in Alberta's right eye. She didn't know the amber iris was getting darker, the skin around it starting to swell. A friend noticed, and worried.

So a couple of weeks ago, Deni took her guide dog to the vet. Then to five more.

The first one said pink eye. But drops didn't help. The next one worried about an infection. But it wouldn't go away. A canine ophthalmologist discovered a tumor, and suggested laser surgery.

The last vet diagnosed melanoma. And said Alberta has to lose her right eye. With luck, the tumor won't have spread and the dog will live another decade.

But she can no longer be a guide dog. "Somebody on the team has to have good eyesight," Deni said.

And Deni can't keep her. "It wouldn't be fair for her to watch me put a harness on another dog and go to work," she said. "And leave her behind, alone, wondering why."

***

By the end of the party, Deni quit counting. More than 50 people had come to hug Alberta and sign a leather book with their memories of the dog they said had moved them in myriad ways.

"She had her own yoga mat, and just brought this sense of comfort and community to the entire room," said the yoga teacher.

While guests shared their stories, Deni broke all the rules. She fed Albee fish spread on a saltine. She let her munch a pretzel someone dropped.

"Come on up," she said, patting the sofa. "It's okay." Alberta had never been allowed on the sofa. She cocked her head and studied Deni's face, to make sure. Then she jumped up, turned around twice, and dropped her chin on Deni's knee.

People kept talking about their own dogs, and what they would miss about Alberta. Deni only half-listened, her hand deep in Alberta's soft fur. What would she do without her?

In a couple of days, she said, she would pack Alberta's blanket and bowl and fly to New York. They would go to the guide dog school and reunite with Alberta's puppy raisers and her favorite trainer, who want to see her. Deni will tell her, "You are the best girl. You did everything just right." Then the vet will remove the guide dog's right eye — and hope the cancer hasn't spread.

"I will be with her every minute," Deni said. "Until I'm not."

In New York, Deni will test-drive a new dog. And when Alberta has healed, she will go to live with Deni's nephew in Montana, where she will have two fenced acres to roam.

"Let's get one more picture," a friend said, leaning over the couch. Deni forced a smile.

Alberta sighed, closed her eyes, and fell asleep in Deni's lap.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at ldegregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825 or @lanedegregory.

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor John Timpe at jtimpe@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8308.

Community gathers to thank Alberta, the yellow lab guide dog who served them all 05/09/16 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2016 1:08pm]
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