It is impressive to see how service dogs and guide dogs have simply upended the way the blind or visually impaired move around. From an under confident and scared personality depending on a lifeless stick to an assertive maneuver on the busy roads or trams, guide dogs have given a new life to those who haven't been blessed with appropriate visual abilities. But have you ever wondered how the concept of guide dogs came into being? Well, we are not very sure of who was the pioneer in believing dogs could be a man's best friend but we definitely know who introduced guide dogs for the blind in the United States of America, and the story behind the first guide dogs center in the country. Read on for more details.
Dorothy Harrison Eustis was a police dog trainer who was impressed with dogs and their ability that helped police catch the culprits easily. What she did not know was that a dogs' ability extended beyond sniffing and catching thieves.
When Eustis heard of a German school that trained dogs to help the soldiers blinded during WWI to regain their self-confidence and mobility, she did not quite believe it and dismissed it as a mere circus act. However, she convinced herself to witness it first hand and then decide.
Eustis, who was 41 at the time, traveled from Switzerland to Potsdam, Germany, intending to secure a few interesting tips for her police dog training business but what she observed and learnt at the German school, gave birth to a guide dogs institution in America just a couple of years later.
So impressed was Eustis with the dog training that she decided to share it with the world through an article she drafted for The Saturday Evening Post entitled 'The Seeing Eye'. "Gentlemen, I give you the German shepherd dog," wrote Eustis. She added that the initial days are difficult but after a few days of care, learning, feeding, and authority, it becomes a boon for the blinds.
"I shall never forget the change that came over one man as he turned away from that gate," wrote Eustis. "It was as though a complete transformation had taken place before my eyes. One moment it was an uncertain, shuffling blind man, tapping with a cane, the next it was an assured person, with his dog firmly in hand and his head up, who walked toward us quickly and firmly, giving his orders in a low, confident voice." Post submitting the article, she began training dogs at her own school Fortunate Fields in Switzerland.
After the article was published on November 5, 1927, letters from all corners of the United States poured in seeking more information on guide dogs. But one letter stood out which read, "Is what you say really true? If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own." This letter was from Morris Frank of Nashville, Tennessee, who was later invited to Switzerland by Eustis.
Frank met his first guide dog – a German shepherd named Kiss, who he renamed Buddy - in April 1928 and spent a few days training him in Eustis' institute. He returned to the U.S. that spring with Buddy and true to his words shared his new found independence with the reporters and demonstrated how Buddy guided him well through the busy streets and dangerous intersections of New York city.
Frank recalled later in an interview, "As I put my hand down on Buddy, I knew that she was going to be my Declaration of Independence, and give me back the freedom that I so long desired to come and go as I please."
"And that she also would be the pioneer of the guide dog movement in the United States for the blind men and women who neither wanted charity nor pity, but wanted to live a normal life with normal people,", he added. "As they showed me how to put the harness on the dog and we started down the road, as my legs stretched out, and my shoulders went back and my head went up and the wind blew in my face, I knew I had my independence. And I knew it could be a success in this country as it had been in Europe."
Frank found the idea of guide dogs extremely wonderful and proposed that they (Eustis and he) cofound the first dog training center in America. Eustis happily agreed and on January 29, 1929, the 'Seeing Eye' was born in Nashville, Frank's hometown.
As per the Timeline, the first few years proved to be a little challenging; a dearth of qualified trainers and the extremely hot weather added to their woes. They moved to New Jersey in 1932 and with their resources depleting quickly, they sought donations, support, and endowments.
The organization fixed their price per dog at $150 in 1934, and it included boarding, training equipment, travel, and lifetime follow-ups. The military personnel paid just $1. The prices have remained unaltered till date and nobody has ever been turned down due to financial constraints.
The Seeing Eye is the oldest guide dog school in the world. Though around 2% of legally blind or visually impaired people use guide dogs, this organization insists that only the dogs that graduate from their school can be called "Seeing Eye® dogs". Today, it serves around 260 people (per annum) who are visually challenged and has partnered 16,000 individuals with guide dogs since its birth.
(In the picture: Statue of Morris Frank and Buddy in Morristown, New Jersey)