History

Long before there was ever an established guide dog program was developed, dogs have been aiding the blind. A wooden plaque from the Middle Ages portrays a dog leading a blind man with a leash. The first actual attempt to train dogs to aid the blind was made in 1780 at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital for the blind, in Paris. In 1788, Josef Riesinger of Vienna was able to train a dog so well that people often doubted that he was blind!

The first dog program was developed after the First World War. Thousands of soldiers were returning home blinded, often by poison gas. A German doctor, Dr Gerhard Stalling, had the idea of training dogs to help those affected. In August of 1916, Stalling opened the world’s first guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg.

Stalling's school branched out widely, but shut down in 1916. Meanwhile, a school in Pottsdam Germany was training German Shepherds for blinded veterans of the war. This school made great progress in the area of guide dogs, and was able to accommodate around 100 dogs at a time and provide up to 12 fully-trained guide dogs a month. The Pottsdam school lasted approximately 18 years before it was also shut down.

The first formal program that spread the idea internationally was begun by Dorothy Harrison Eustis. She had visited the school in Pottsdam, and from it developed her idea of training her own dogs for the blind. Ms. Eustis wrote an article about the Pottsdam school, which appeared in the November 5th, 1927 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. When Morris Frank, a young blind man living in Nashville, Tennessee heard the article and wrote to Ms. Eustis asking her to train a dog for him, her idea became a reality. After training in Switzerland, Morris Frank became the first American to use a dog guide. His dog, Buddy, a female German shepherd, became the first dog guide in America. The two went on to help train other blind Americans in the use of a guide dog, and it skyrocketed from there.

Morris Frank wrote the book "Love Leads the Way" (which, in 1984, Disney made into a movie), a heartfelt story based on his and Buddy's achievements. In it, the early problems that guide dogs and their owners caused is readily apparent. It was many years before guide dogs were readily accepted into places like restaurants, hotels, and stores. Now, due to the Americans With Disabilities Act, guide dogs are allowed everywhere that the general public is allowed to go, but one can only imagine what it was like to have a guide dog in the early years. It must have been terrible to have been given this wonderful gift, a dog that allows you to do many of the things that you simply could not have done alone before, only to have a restaurant owner angrily tell you at the door that pets are not allowed.

Training

These dogs are professionals. They are as well trained, if not more-so in some cases, than each of us are at our jobs. For us, our job is something that many of us dread each day and may spend approximately half of our lives doing. For a seeing eye dog, its job is its life. Training for a seeing eye dog begins at the age of one year, and most of the dog's life is dedicated to the enormously responsible task of aiding the blind to "see."

Even before training begins, however, the dogs are carefully bred. This ensures that the dog has just the right temperament, which is paramount to its job as a seeing eye. Temperament is the main reason that seeing eye dogs are most generally made up of Laborador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers. All three of these breeds are well known for their excellent temperament. It used to be possible to donate a dog to a guide dog program, but most schools no longer allow this. By breeding the dogs themselves, many of the questions that the schools may have about a dog's past and heredity are no longer concerns.

Once a dog is born, at somewhere between 7 to 10 weeks it is given a temporary home. This person or family becomes essential to the dog's training, as they provide the puppy with socialization (getting the puppy used to different kinds of people and everyday experiences, such as riding in the car, meeting people and other animals, and walking around near traffic and other noisy places) and basic training. The qualifications for this position vary from school to school, and if you are interested in raising a puppy to possibly become a guide dog, you should look through my "links" section. As you can imagine, this job must be incredibly rewarding. The only problem? At approximately one year of age, the dog returns to the school, where it will possibly train to become a seeing eye dog for its new owner.

Not all dogs bred for the task are put into the guide dog program, however. Some animals are simply more suited to be a pet than a guide dog. In some cases, these animals are returned to their original owners (upon permission, of course). In other cases, the dog may be suited for some other pet "career" such as as a police dog, where they are mostly used for detection of drugs or bombs, or a therapy dog, where they will be used in hospitals and care facilities to help raise the spirits of patients.

The criteria by which a dog is chosen for the program are very strict. These dogs must be willing to devote themselves completely to the needs and the life of their blind master. When a dog returns from the puppy raising program, the dog is assessed by its willingness to learn, initiative and concentration skills, nervousness, aggression, and anxiousness or distraction around other dogs or cats. Because signals come through the harness, sensitivity to touch and sound is also important.

Once a dog is deemed ready, a four to six month training program is begun. During this time, the dog will learn to:

  • Walk in a straight line without sniffing
  • Walk on the left hand side slightly ahead of the trainer
  • Stop at all curbs
  • Wait for a command before crossing roads
  • Stop at the top and bottom of stairs
  • Avoid head high obstacles
  • Avoid spaces too narrow for a dog and a person
  • Board and travel on all forms of public transport
  • Take the trainer to an elevator button
  • Learn approximately 20 basic commands
  • Lay quietly when asked
  • Intelligently disobey commands which may lead the handler into danger
  • There have been talks of a "Seeing Eye Robot" to be used in place of a dog. One of the reasons that I do not feel that these robots will be very successful is due to the very important ability of guide dogs to "intelligently disobey." A visually impaired person must rely entirely on his sense of hearing to tell whether or not it is safe to cross the street. A dog, however, may be able to see something that the man cannot. In these situations, the dog is trained to "intelligently disobey" his owner. In this respect, as well as most others, I simply cannot imagine a robot ever being able to replace a guide dog.

    After this training is complete, the arduous task of matching up dog and owner begins. An athletic young man would be matched up with a dog with a great deal of energy and vigor, while an older man would most certainly be matched up with a dog that is quite a bit more mellow. This may sound like a difficult process, and it no doubt is. However, for each person that has a unique personality, each dog also has its own. Given the three major breeds listed above and the different qualities of each, as well as each dog's own personality, a match can always be found.

    Once dog and owner are matched up and both are satisfied with the arrangement, the owner and dog must learn to work together. For the next three to four weeks, the two of them train together under the supervision of a sighted instructor. Upon the completion of this course, the dog returns home with his owner.

    A guide dog will generally remain with his or her owner until the dog's retirement. This length of time obviously varies greatly and is dependent upon many factors. Most service dogs retire anywhere between an average of 8 to 10 years of age. When a guide dog is put into retirement, it can be due to a health related issue that prevents the dog from carrying out its duties, or it may simply be due to the dog losing the desire to work any longer. When a dog is put into retirement, most guide dog schools give the blind owner the option of keeping it. If the previous owner does not wish to keep the dog, the people who raised the dog as a puppy are generally contacted next. If neither of these parties wishes to keep the dog, the dog is put up for adoption into a good home.

    The waiting lists to obtain a retired guide dog, for most schools, range from 3-5 years. Although the dog will most likely never form a bond with his new owner as strong as that which he had with his matched up blind owner, the dogs are already very well trained, well mannered, and therefore great for families.

    Guide Dog Etiquette

    By interfering with a guide dog at work, you are running the risk of putting its owner in jeopardy. The following are several guidelines that one should follow in the presence of a guide dog:

  • If the dog is working, do not try to pet it. If the dog is not working, always ask the handler for permission to pet the dog.
  • When you have the owner's approval, don't pat the dog on the head. You may stroke the shoulder area of the dog, but also try to steer clear of the dog's harness.
  • Don't give the dog commands.
  • Don't attempt to grab or steer the person while the dog is guiding him or attempt to hold the dog's harness.
  • Don't walk on the dog's left side. The dog's owner, when being led, will be walking on the left side and your place there may distract or confuse the dog. Feel free to walk on the owner's right side, but stay several paces behind him.
  • Don't allow children to tease or abuse the dog.
  • Don't allow your pets to challenge or intimidate a guide dog.
  • Don't feed the dog.
  • Don't make the dog the center of attention.
  • Conclusion

    Guide dog schools can now be found throughout the world. An international association where a listing may be found is at the International Federation of Guide Dog Schools for the Blind. Thousands of blind and disabled people have had their lives transformed by guide dogs and the organizations that provide them. Through these organizations, the visually impaired, and even the guide dogs themselves ... Dorothy Eustis's legacy lives on.