Blind World Magazine

Beau, the Guide Dog Who Took the Senate Floor.

December 28, 2005.
The Washington Post, USA.

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.

Instead she trusted Beau's.

Like other Labs, he was a good guide dog, unflappable, smart and steady. Kids stopped to pet him, Beau kept moving. Traffic and trains did not spook him. He saw the world, traveling to Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., for Shea's work, and overseas to France, Switzerland and Ukraine on vacation.

They looked out for each other. Shea swore he could read her mind.

People started treating Shea differently, though. On the Metro, they would ask the longtime District resident if she knew where she was going. In museums, security guards would track her closely -- she could hear their radios -- apparently concerned that she would knock over something valuable.

"I was being denied access to a lot of different places, like restaurants and taxis," Shea said.

The Washington Post first took note of Beau in October 1996, when he and Shea were turned away from the National Symphony Orchestra Decorators' Show House in Potomac. He also appeared in a 2000 article in which disabled subways riders complained about a Metro proposal to shorten train stops in stations. Beau already had been hit on the head by closing doors.

With age slowing him, Beau retired in 2002, replaced at Shea's side -- but not in her heart -- by Owen, also a yellow Lab. Beau began going to work every day with Shea's husband, Christophe G. Lorrain, a teacher at the Field School.

"He would go out of the house in the morning and try to guide my husband," whose vision is fine, Shea said. "Beau still needed to feel like he was working. He still needed a job. That's what he was born to do."

When he was gone, Shea had Beau cremated. She keeps his ashes in her home.

"It sounds crazy but it gives me comfort," Shea said. "I'm trying to figure out how to preserve his legacy. He wasn't like a member of my family, he was a member of my family. . . . This dog, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be working today. He totally changed my life around. I trust[ed] him with my safety. It was just the most incredible, amazing experience."

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