Valley Life for All: The legacy of Piper the guide dog |

Valley Life for All: The legacy of Piper the guide dog

Annie Uyehara
Special to the Daily
Piper led John Barbee on buses, ships, and planes. Piper also was trained to stay out of sight.
Special to the Daily

Editor’s note: The Vail Daily, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles about people in our community who have different abilities. As we all share a new challenge labeled COVID-19, we can learn from our friends and neighbors who have grown strong making their way through a life that has been out-of-the-norm. In this new reality of challenge, they are the leaders.

Piper was a handsome, charismatic dog. However, that’s not what made him exceptional. Piper was a dog born and bred to be a guide dog for the blind. 

He died in 2016, but Piper is a rare example in our community of what a guide dog does. For 17 years, he was the constant companion and guide for John Barbee, who became blind at 25 years old.

John, a Peace Corps volunteer, staffer and later a director in Washington, D.C., died a year before Piper. Piper stayed with John until the last moment, staying beside him at his bed. That’s not only a partnership, but a deeply loving relationship forged between a man and his guide dog. 

Piper was trained through KSDS, an organization that provides assistance dogs to enhance independence for those with disabilities to be able to fully function in society. 

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Piper took a bit more training than most dogs.

“He didn’t quite pass muster,” said John’s widow, Nancy Barbee. “So he went to a women’s detention center and they helped socialize him.” 

Piper, being a larger than average yellow lab, and John, being a larger than average human at 6 feet, 5 inches, were paired together by KSDS. John required training as much as Piper. “They spent three weeks together. Only John was allowed to make eye contract with Piper so they could bond,” recalls Nancy. 

And bond they did, although it wasn’t always easy. “They had a ‘push-me-pull-you’ relationship,” Nancy said. “John would get agitated sometimes about where he wanted to go, but usually Piper was in the right.”

Piper led John on buses, ships, and planes. Piper also was trained to stay out of sight. ”He could curl up under a folding chair,” recalls Nancy. “You would never know he was there.”

Her son, Mike, says Piper’s charisma facilitated John’s social life. “With Piper, my dad was accepted as a person with a disability. Piper sometimes connected my dad with other people who had disabilities. It made my dad feel more included in the community.”

Piper was popular, particularly with kids; he’d give them high fives. But guide dogs have a special etiquette that must be adhered to, and John taught people how to interact with Piper.

Until the end, Piper was loyal and loving. “He was a sweet dog,” said Nancy, “He loved to put his head in our lap. He was a very calming influence.”

Local nonprofit Valley Life for All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at or on Facebook.

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