Jan Dean: Heidi Dean, teacher’s pet

k15841471Two Golden Retrievers peer curiously over the veranda gate, eager to meet the visitor.  Jan has agreed to tell me about the most memorable dog she’s ever had, an animal I’d heard described as a saint by those who knew her.


“It all started for me in 1989 when I answered a Canine Vision ad for foster homes in the Toronto Star.  After I passed their qualification process they put me on a waiting list.  At the time I was a Physical Education teacher and Vice-Principal at Timothy Eaton Business and Technical Institute and I had two Golden Retriever adults.  The day after the holidays ended that Christmas, I got a call from Canine Vision informing me they had a puppy for immediate take home.”


“I was shocked. I remember thinking that it was like having a baby, except with a baby you know when approximately he or she’s arriving.  I’d just taken my sister and brother-in-law to the airport and was feeling sort of down, so in a way the call came at a perfect time.Nervous but excited, I bundled up my mother and my little niece and we headed out to Oakville, Ontario, to the Canine Vision Centre. They gave us Jake, a Yellow Lab puppy.  He was a dandy laid back fellow and he went on to become a good guide dog.  After him, I fostered a Chocolate Lab who wasn’t totally successful as a guide dog; she was nice but too skittish and she didn’t make the program.”

 When “the call” came for Heidi Jan was told that the Centre had received five 16 week old pups, two Black Lab/Bernese crosses and three Yellow Labs.  “These puppies, born in Quebec, for some reason hadn’t been successful in finding foster placements and the organization was concerned they not get too much older before being placed in good homes.   At first I hesitated because I really preferred a younger puppy and also my ultimate preference was for a Golden Retriever because I already had my two olden Goldies.  But the people at the Centre worked on me for a while and one of the convincing factors was that typically you get guide dog puppies at 8 weeks old and this pup would already be housebroken.  That worked for me because I was going to British Columbia that August and I knew the puppy would have to travel with me.”

Jan picked the name Heidi because the puppy’s Bernese heritage reminded Jan of the Swiss Mountains and the famous story of Heidi and her grandfather who nourished the little orphan girl her with thick slices of home made bread and slabs of freshly churned butter.  “I could just taste the unpasteurized cheese, the writing was so evocative, the book always stuck in my mind.”


The day Jan picked Heidi up she brought along her neighbour’s little girl, Carly, who was having some school difficulties but loved animals and she was tickled to be asked to sign Canine Vision’s form that testified that she would help take care of the new dog.  On the drive home Carly sat in the back seat of the car with the puppy flaked out on her lap.  It was about a forty minute drive from Oakville, everything was going smoothly when, just blocks from home, an alarmed little voice cried out:  “Ja-an!”  Heidi had thrown up all over the poor girl. 


“Anyway, I took Carly back to her home and talked with her mom for a while and then I went out into the back yard and I knelt down beside the little thing and put my arm around her.  A four month old puppy is looking for a home and who knows what she’d experienced up until then.”   It’s probably inexplicable to anyone but a dog lover, but Jan swears that Heidi’s and her lifelong bond began right then and there, at that moment.  


“Heidi was born into the French language, so she didn’t speak dog English when she came to me.  I used to call her my ESL dog.  She grew into a great big boned black beauty.  She looked like a large black Lab with unusually broad shoulders.  People used to comment that for a big dog she could make the smallest imprint you could imagine.  She used to fold up and squeeze into the tiniest places.”


That August Heidi flew to British Columbia with Jan; they changed planes in Vancouver and took a smaller plane to the interior where they were greeted by Jan’s extended family. “What a three ring circus!  By then I’d only had her for a month, but Heidi stood cool as a cucumber, she really impressed us.  We stayed for a week with my family and my sister’s Llamas.   Heidi learned to stay out of the Llama pen very quickly and I have a photo of her sleeping with the kitten.” 


Back in Toronto Heidi started accompanying Jan to school.  The two older  Golden Retrievers had to come to terms with the fact that Heidi went to work with Jan and they didn’t. “They were very tight with each otherwhich helped them lot.  Heidi had to accept her place in the dog hierarchy, especially with my older male Goldie.  He’d bitten each of the preceding guide dog puppies, not seriously, but clearly it was necessary to work out their pecking order. Eventually the older dogs got used to me heading off to work with Heidi in the mornings and there weren’t any more hard feelings.”


“At first when I took Heidi with me it was just going to be while I finished up and prepared for the next school year. But I just sort of kept bringing her.  Initially the Principal was a little nervous, but the kids absolutely loved Heidi and she soon became part of life at school.”  “T.E.B. was a special needs school.  You’d have these big roughy toughy boys sent to the Vice Principal with all the affects of the

adolescent male and yet as soon as they’d see Heidi in my office, down they’d go on all fours to hug the big dog.”  Because she was brought in as a guide dog- in- training, there weren’t the normal restrictions against dogs.   Heidi went with Jan everywhere, school dances, all the meetings, even into the cafeteria.  “She became a fixture at Board meetings.”


The original plan was to breed Heidi once or twice and then put her into the Canine Vision program.   By that time Jan was so attached to her she hated the thought of losing this dog, but was resigned to her responsibilities to Canine Vision.  When Heidi came into her first heat, Jan’s male Golden Retriever wasn’t neutered so Heidi had to be sent to stay at Canine Vision for a while.  The next time she came into heat she was bred but had a false pregnancy. “She was with me here at home and all my friends who were her friends too came around to see her and everybody commented on her fat belly and her weight gain, but in fact she wasn’t pregnant.”  Several months later the same thing happened.


Two successful pregnancies followed.  “When you take the dogs away and breed them, they’re gone from you for so many weeks to have the puppies.  I remember when I went out to see her and her first litter.  She just put her head on my lap and sighed with a kind of cry.  You can’t explain anything to them, you can’t say, it’s okay, you’ll be coming back home.  It was distressing.  Then when she had that first litter, people sent cards, somebody brought me a chocolate cigar, the staff at school went nuts.”


“Heidi had a very tough time with her second birth; some of the puppies had to be delivered by emergency C Section.  After that it was decided that Heidi had to be disqualified from Canine Vision.  She was too old to train for the program and although they would have kept her and bred her again because they wanted more puppies like her, the history of false pregnancies also disqualified her as a brood bitch. So she became mine!  I was so relieved and so were all the other people who loved her.” 


Heidi went on to become a fixture at every school where Jan taught.  Jan was Vice Principal at Woburn Collegiate Institute from 1992-1997 and then Principal of Maplewood High School until 2000.  If Jan was monitoring the halls or chaperoning a school dance, Heidi would could be seen strolling at her side.  In down times she’d lie in patches of sun in the Principal’s office.  ”Heidi never wanted to be far from me.  One of the attributes that made her such a brilliant dog was that nothing rattled her and she just got better and better as she matured. You could take that dog anywhere.  I wouldn’t have to even think about it, she was so good. There was a special calmness about her.  The Bernese aspect gave her extra sweetness and absolute loyalty.”


Heidi loved to be hugged and even people who didn’t like dogs usually loved to give her hugs.  I can remember attending dinner parties where Heidi was specially invited.  I also remember the time my friend Jennifer, Heidi, and a group of teacher friends and I were invited to dinner at the home of another teacher friend and we all sat around in a circle, including Heidi, for an evening of reminiscing.



“At the end of her life I didn’t know she was sick and neither did the vet but she’d started panting a lot.  It turned out she had a mass, but we didn’t know.   The day before she died she and I walked down to the boardwalk by the lake, all the way up and down the hill.   She’d just passed her eleventh birthday.”


Not long before Heidi passed away, Jan and her friend Jennifer and Heidi took a trip to Prince Edward County in southern Ontario.  Heidi loved the car and was always a good traveling companion. They stayed in a little cottage on West Lake in Wellington, toured around, and ate picnic lunches.  Jan was keen to do some shopping in the quaint little shops in Bloomfield but since Jennifer had already seen these stores on other occasions, she and Heidi walked around town and looked at other things.  At the steps of the old town hall, Jennifer sat down to eat an ice cream cone.  Heidi was sitting in front of her, when a man came along the sidewalk with two out-of-control Labrador Retrievers who were straining at the leash.  As they approached, they lunged forward and let out several loud barks.  The fur stood straight on Heidi’s back and she immediately pushed against Jennifer as if to say ‘you’re not coming close to my aunt!’  She looked at the unruly dogs and gave a tremendous bark.  The Labs and their owner made a hasty retreat.


“It’s hard to go on when you loose a dog like that; it took me a long time to get over her.  I had to do a lot of thinking and talking and praying about it. It was close to Easter when she died and I went to every single Easter service, you

name it, I was there with a Kleenex.”



“Recently I was at a school reunion and the teachers all talked about Heidi.  It would be good if we didn’t have such restrictions on where dogs can go.  Life would improve if we could include them more in our lives”.



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