It is often said that a dog is man’s (and person’s) best friend, but a guide dog is this, and so much more. It is protection, independence, and a lifeline to the outside world for countless disabled people around the world—one of them being Michelle Krupa, 55, of Medford, the owner of Shelby’s Kitchen in Bellport.
Krupa and her husband, Tom Krupa, who runs the cozy local eatery with her, were recently faced with the unthinkable after their 3-year-old black Lab, Milton, was dropped off at the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, about two weeks prior, and accidentally left inside a van in the parking lot by a worker from approximately 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on Friday, July 22. The scorching temperatures were in the low 90s, and Milton had perished by the time he was found to have been left behind.
Milton was an integral part of aiding Krupa in thriving, as she navigates daily life while owning and running a small business, with the rare genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which is progressively causing her to lose her vision and hearing.
“He was a pile of mush and a big goofball, and a very good worker,” Krupa said wistfully of Milton, who managed to find time to play and to love and to be loved, while also being diligent in his critical role for which the Guide Dog Foundation trained him. “When he was off harness, he was a dog. When he worked, he was a guide dog,” she said, explaining how he lived a bit of a double life, alternately in the dual roles of both steadfast protector and beloved pup. “All guide dogs do, like a superhero.”
Initially, Krupa hadn’t planned to speak publicly about what happened, but realized that she had to use this tragedy to give a voice to the voiceless so that Milton’s life wasn’t lost in vain.
“If it helps save one dog, or one child, then it’s worth it,” she said. “That’s one of the most important things that I’m trying to get out with this message: how important guide dogs are. They are not a robot. They’re not a toy. They are very important to people like me. When they’re trained to help, they’re really incredible.”
Another equally salient point Krupa strives to elucidate to the public is that there needs to be a system in place to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
“It’s human error. They never thought they needed a check system, because they’re experts,” she added of the anomalous incident. “They told me he’s the only dog that they ever had this happen to.”
When the local business owner first got the call from the Guide Dog Foundation, she was incredulous, and thought the inconceivable news was a cruel joke.
“I kept saying, ‘the Guide Dog Foundation doesn’t do things like that,’” she said.
The forgiving Krupa has been sure to point out that she is still grateful to the Guide Dog Foundation and believes they are a great organization that needs to implement increased safety measures and learn from this tragedy.
“They’re very, very sorry,” she underscored. “They told us the truth. They could have said he had a heart attack, and we would have never known. As painful as it is, they’re not monsters; they’re wonderful people. They help thousands of people a year, but they have to be accountable. They took my boy.”
“Not only did they take your dog, they took your independence. They took your safety. They took everything,” Tom Krupa added.
Krupa recently began going to school at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point as her condition progresses, with a prognosis of eventual complete deafness and blindness.
“I live there Monday to Friday at the dorm, and they’re basically teaching me independence skills,” she explained. “I’m still in evaluation. They decided I need to learn Braille. My eyesight is worse than I thought, and it’s going faster than I thought; so, they’re going to be teaching me sign language, in my hands, so I can talk to people.”
The school is also teaching her how to adapt to her condition with modified basic life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and eating.
Milton had been dropped off at the Guide Dog Foundation, where Krupa first got him in September 2020, so that he could receive further training to sit with her in a classroom and help her there, the way he had been assisting her at Shelby’s since she bought the eatery in 2021.
“That was part of the confidence he gave me,” she said, remembering fondly while straining to hold back tears. “He was here from 5 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night.” She added that he couldn’t be a guide dog all day and would sometimes slip into his alter ego as a doting dog, which the customers—especially the children—loved, and looked forward to seeing. “It got to be a routine; they’d come over and they’d say ‘hi’ to him. They’d pet him, wait for their egg sandwich, and they’d say, ‘Okay, Milton, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He thought this was all for him. He thought everyone was coming for him.”
Milton wasn’t so far off the mark in this belief, since Krupa said he gave her the confidence to open Shelby’s Kitchen in the first place.
“I wouldn’t have believed enough that I could,” she remarked.
When the Guide Dog Foundation of Smithtown was reached for comment, chief marketing officer Mike Rosen gave the following statement to the L.I. Advance: “Our team has been in regular contact with them [the Krupas], and we are providing our complete support, including, at a time when they are ready, matching Michelle with another guide dog, so she can continue to live her life without boundaries,” Rosen said, adding, “When we are complete with our internal review, we will have more information.”
Thanks to the strength and resolve of Michelle and Tom Krupa, resiliently speaking out in their time of grief, Milton will continue to be a superhero and a guardian angel, in death as he was in life. His legacy will be to serve as a stark reminder to all about the necessity for a system of checks and double-checks, especially in extreme weather conditions.
Michelle stressed this point, stating, “Children, dogs, elderly, any living thing you’re responsible for, you have to be responsible for.”
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