Unconditional love: blind hiker Randy Pierce, wife Tracy and guide dog Quinn

Editor’s note: Since today is Valentine’s Day, we wanted to share a love story with you, but not just any love story. This is a tribute to a man, a woman and their dog, who epitomize unconditional love and devotion. Portions of this story appeared in The Nashua Telegraph on Feb. 1, with material added since then.

NASHUA – When guide dog Quinn died in January, Randy Pierce lost more than the service dog who took the place of his eyes and helped him perform everyday tasks.

Pierce lost a friend and companion who helped him complete a feat that no other blind man has been known to accomplish: climbing New Hampshire’s 48 tallest mountains in winter.

The beloved yellow Labrador retriever, widely known as the Mighty Quinn, succumbed to cancer on Jan. 20, just weeks after his ninth birthday.

“I miss my dog so much more than I miss my guide,” Pierce said. “I miss my guide and it has an impact on my life, but you can’t compare that to the depth of emotions.

“He gave me love. There is a lot more that a service dog is doing for us, but the things you feel for your dog, the love you feel, is the same for me. I had the good fortune that I spent 24/7 with my service dog. I got the luxury of all that interaction and that only makes that love a lot stronger.”

Quinn remains the only service dog to summit the 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire, and is one of just a handful of dogs to achieve the milestone.

“What a normal service dog does is incredible, in terms of focus, attention and a lot of love and responsibility,” said Pierce a few days after his loss. “They take their responsibility very seriously and have this work ethic built into them. But calling Quinn a service animal is like calling (climbing) Mount Washington a stroll in the woods.”

Pierce and Quinn are well-known in hiking circles and for his work as the head of 2020Vision Quest, a nonprofit organization that strives to raise awareness for the sight-impaired and to inspire others to overcome adversity to achieve their goals. Despite his climbing achievements, Pierce says he is most proud that he has spoken to thousands of school children around the state.

“Your vision is more important than sight,” he tells classes regarding life’s challenges. “You always have the ability to choose your response. You may be aware of what you are unable to do, but far more important is what you can do. You are only limited by the ability to believe, problem solve, then get out and do it.”

Pierce tirelessly answers questions from students, such as how guide dogs are trained, how he knows if his clothes match (safety pins in specific spots identify colors), how he checks email and other details of everyday life. Of course, he gives a lot of credit to his wife, Tracy White Pierce.

He laughs as he retells the story of a student who asked how he got his “Seeing Eye Wife.”

“’Oh,’ I said, ‘Well that’s easy. All the guide dog work was the first step and then Quinn won her heart for me. That’s part of the wonder of a guide dog.’”

Quinn may have been by his side 24/7, but Pierce says Tracy also acutely feels his loss. She not only worries about her husband managing without his guide dog, she misses the buddy who slept on the floor by her side of the bed and always was happy to see her.

“She misses her morning sunshine,” he said. “If I woke up first, he’d come to me, but he’d go to her for belly scratches. He’d greet her with all that love whenever she came home, celebrating that we were together. I didn’t have that because I was always with him.”

Things weren’t always that cozy for Tracy and Quinn. In fact, the first time they met, Quinn completely ignored her, which is exactly what he had been trained to do. Pierce was at a dinner in a community center in winter 2008, and had temporarily tied Quinn to a table leg before disappearing to help wash dishes in the kitchen. He didn’t want to worry about health codes or the dog getting underfoot with busy helpers.

Tracy walked over and tried to befriend Quinn, but the devoted servant refused to take his eyes off the door to the kitchen, which stood between him and the person he protected.

Tracy also enjoys hiking, and before long, she began to join Quinn and Pierce on the trails. Quinn was there when Pierce proposed to Tracy at the summit of Mount Welch on May 1, 2010, and served as ring-bearer at their wedding on 10/10/10. In 2012, the trio went to the Grand Canyon.

Having already completed the peaks in winter, Pierce set a goal to accomplish the Appalachian Mountain Club feat in nonwinter weather. He began the odyssey on Independence Day in 2010, with a sunset climb of Mount Washington, accompanied by Tracy and Quinn. The original goal was to finish the peaks within 10 years. He thought that was a reasonable pace, and liked the double-entendre of completing a goal for 2020VisionQuest in the year 2020.

The duo progressed way ahead of schedule, and completed the set on Aug. 24. They climbed the 48 peaks twice in the span of 38 months. Just before summiting that final summer peak, Pierce was the guest speaker at Dog Days held at Beaver Brook Association in Hollis.

“I’m a big believer in achieving it when you can,” Pierce told the gathering. “I’m proud that somewhere along the way, I realized I had something special with Quinn and I wanted to make the effort to complete this with him.”

During that presentation, Pierce spoke about losing his sight and what having a guide dog means to him. He was a healthy, active person until 1989, when he developed a neurological disorder that began to rob him of his sight and his mobility. He was 22. By 2000, he was legally blind, and in 2003, found himself confined to a wheelchair.

Pierce spent a total of one year, eight months and 21 days in the wheelchair, during which time he suffered the sudden loss of his guide dog Ostend to by cancer. He moved from wheelchair to walker, and said the last tool the physical therapists gave him was a hiking stick. Quinn had entered his life by then.

“As a tall, generally healthy person, that gave me the ability to walk a little faster,” he said. “It also led me to think about hiking. When I got to the woods with Quinn, he was so much happier to work in the woods. I decided to go see more mountains. We had to overcome challenges, because this was everything he was trained to avoid. He learned so much and took it to a new level and demonstrated what is possible in this world.”

Pierce is quick to point out that Quinn never had any special training to climb mountains, just training to not view the hiking stick as an obstacle. He also has to rely on the dog’s “intelligent disobedience,” or knowing when not to continue on a path.

Quinn and Pierce’s completion of the second round of the 48 peaks on Aug. 24 was on a “flawless day.” People from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the school where seeing eye dogs are trained, accompanied them and Tracy up the Liberty Trail on Mount Flume, with much celebration afterwards.

The jubilation was short-lived, however. A few weeks later Quinn seemed to be having peculiar mouth pain, which made it hard for him to play or eat. He was diagnosed with myositis, an immune system reaction that causes inflammation and irritation of the jaw muscles. While at the veterinarian for his mouth, a mass was discovered on his front leg. It was an aggressive form of spindle cell cancer but it could be removed and was treatable. The next discovery, however, was osteosarcoma, the bone cancer that would prove terminal.

“In November, we didn’t think he would make it to his birthday in December,” Pierce said. “Then we didn’t think he’d make it to Christmas. We decided to celebrate his life with him as best as possible, with lots of play. We couldn’t spoil him with food because of the medications, but we did fun things, and the things he loved the most, as much as we were able, to try to put the grief away.”

Pierce was the guest speaker at Beaver Brook’s annual dinner, held Jan. 15 at LaBelle Winery in Amherst. Quinn was too ill to accompany him that day.

The end came on Jan. 20, when Quinn was in too much pain to play or be touched.

“I can say with good conscience that this great boy didn’t deserve cancer, to suffer from it,” a tearful Pierce said. “He got to be in our arms and know in that moment of his life that he was loved. Even that moment isn’t enough for how much he gave to me. He did everything I ever asked him to do. The fact is, you never want to say goodbye and wish there was more time.”

Pierce is on the waiting list for another guide dog, but that could take months. Potential service dogs spend about two years being trained with raisers before being sent to the agency that matches each dog with a person, and compatibility is critical.

Pierce expects he will continue to hike mountains with the next dog, too, since it brings him such great pleasure. And his love of Quinn won’t be diminished when he gets another guide dog.

“Together, we did a lot of good things, and I hope there are a lot more good things in my life,” he said.

Valentine’s Day will find the Pierces back in Hollis, to pick up a copy of this newspaper, which is a surprise for Tracy, on their way to a candlelight snowshoe date.

“We will have a bottle of our favorite Quinn-inspired wine, ‘Quinn’s Mighty Melbec,’ snowshoes, a bonfire and many like-minded folk retreating into the woody wonders of Beaver Brook to celebrate a love for nature, life and our beloved partners,” Pierce said about their plans.

More on Quinn

For more of Pierce and Quinn’s story, visit www.2020visionquest.org or follow Randy Pierce on Facebook. To read the Telegraph tribute, go to www.nashuatelegraph.com/mobile/mnews/1027736-264/mighty-quinn-service-dog-and-friend-to.html.