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Mighty Quinn, service dog and friend to blind hiker Randy Pierce, of Nashua, dies of cancer

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 ever been known to accomplish: climbing New Hampshire 48 tallest mountains in winter. ...

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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 ever been known to accomplish: climbing New Hampshire 48 tallest mountains in winter.

The beloved yellow Labrador retriever, widely known as 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,” said Pierce, of Nashua. “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 one of only three dogs and the only service dog known to summit the 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire.

“What a normal service dog does is incredible in terms of focus, attention, and a lot of love and responsibility,” Pierce said 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 Mount Washington a stroll in the woods.”

Pierce and Quinn are well known in hiking circles and for Pierce’s work as the head of 2020 Vision Quest, a nonprofit organization that strives to raise awareness for the blind and sight-impaired and to inspire others to overcome adversity to achieve their goals.

The self-described “tall lanky blind guy” and Quinn climbed the 48 peaks in winter and were the subject of a documentary called “Four More Feet,” by filmmaker Dina Sutin that focused on their adventures and perseverance.

They completed their winter summits on Cannon Mountain on March 11, 2012. The Telegraph was there, and printed a front page story about their effort.

As with many hikers, Pierce finds winter hiking to be easier because the snow covers some of the jagged rocks that can lead to a tumble.

Having already completed the peaks in winter, Pierce set a goal to do it again in nonwinter weather.

The duo completed the second round on Aug. 24. They had climbed the 48 peaks twice in the span of 38 months. Just before summiting that final summer peak, Pierce was the guest speaker at the Dog Days event at the 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 at length about losing his sight and what having a guide dog means to him. He was a healthy, normal, active person until 1989, when he developed a neurological disorder that began to rob him of his sight and his mobility. He was just 22.

By 2000, he was legally blind, and in 2003, he found himself confined to a wheelchair.

“The lack of being able to walk really gave me an appreciation for walking and climbing,” Pierce said.

While he was confined to the wheelchair, he suffered the unexpected loss of his guide dog Ostend, whose life was also cut short by cancer.

Along the way, Pierce and Tracy White got married, with Quinn serving as their ring bearer on Oct. 10, 2010 – 10-10-10.

Pierce spent one year, eight months and 21 days in the wheelchair. He moved from wheelchair to walker to crutches, and he 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,” Pierce 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 spoke of how many subtle signals took place between him and Quinn on any given hike, and how stressful it was for the dog if Pierce had to leave his side and navigate part of a trail with a human guide.

He also joked about how people find it odd that a blind man climbs mountains – they’d see the dog wearing his harness and comment on how nice it was that Pierce was helping train a guide dog, and he’d have to correct them that Quinn wasn’t in training, he was working.

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 had to rely on the dog’s “intelligent disobedience,” or knowing when not to continue on a path. The audience laughed as Pierce related the story of the one time he defied Quinn on a hike: There was a large step, and Quinn refused to hop up and have Pierce follow him. Sweeping his cane in various directions showed no branches, falls or obstacles. Quinn still refused to budge, so Pierce stepped up anyway, and proceeded to hit his head on a branch that couldn’t be detected from below.

Quinn had accurately determined it was too low for Pierce to clear once he was standing on the higher level, and Pierce learned not to second-guess Quinn’s judgment.

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 afterward.

The jubilation was short-lived, however. A few weeks later, Quinn seemed to be having a peculiar pain in his mouth, 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 Quinn was at the veterinarian’s office to have his mouth examined, a solid 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.”

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

“I can say with good conscious that this great boy didn’t deserve cancer, to suffer from it,” 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 puppy 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, 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,” Pierce said, “and I hope there are a lot more good things in my life.”

For more of Pierce and Quinn’s story, visit www.2020visionquest.org or like the organization on Facebook.