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Guide Dogs - Then and Now

By: Alex Lieber

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A carving on a wooden plaque, dating from medieval times, shows a dog leading a blind man through a village - this is perhaps the earliest evidence of a guide dog. Throughout history, dogs have helped people in countless ways, even acting as their eyes and ears. Today, more than 10,000 dogs give the blind freedom they otherwise would not know.

But guide dogs as they are now recognized only came into being recently, and laws that protect these dogs and the rights of their owners are still being developed. It took more than 60 years after the first guide dog training school was established before a federal law was passed that prohibited discrimination against guide dogs and their owners.

However, guide dogs are becoming more accepted. The passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 guarantees that the blind and their guide dogs cannot be denied access to restaurants, air travel, taxicabs, hotels and other places and conveyances. Until this landmark legislation was passed, the blind and their dogs were routinely barred from these areas.

In the United States, there are 10 centers dedicated to raising and training "teams" – the dogs and their owners. In discussing guide dogs, it is important to make a distinction between the term "guide dogs," which includes all guide dogs, and "Seeing Eye dogs." Seeing Eye is the registered trademark of one of the 10 organizations that train guide dogs.
Founded in 1929, The Seeing Eye is one of the oldest institutions in the United States dedicated to training guide dogs. Only their dogs are actually called "Seeing Eye dogs." However, all the organizations conform to the guidelines agreed to by the governing U.S. Council on Guide Dogs.

The Modern History of Guide Dogs

The first attempt to develop a program for the blind occurred in Vienna, Austria. A man named Johann Wilhem Klein founded the Institute for the Blind. Part of the institute's mission was to train dogs to be used as guides, but the project didn't gain recognition and was largely forgotten.

Following World War I, however, interest in guide dogs resurfaced. The war had blinded thousands of German soldiers, many of whom suffered the effects of mustard gas. In 1919, a German doctor named Gerhard Stalling developed a program to train dogs for the blind. Again, the guide dog program went unnoticed. Ten years later, an American woman named Dorothy Eustis, working in Europe as a police dog trainer, heard of the program. She studied the methods and published an article in New York on the program.

A blind man named Morris Frank asked Eustis to train a guide dog for him. He traveled to Europe, where he was trained and partnered with a German shepherd named Buddy. He returned to the United States with his guide dog and established the first guide dog school in North America. Incorporated in 1929, the school was named The Seeing Eye, after the article Eustis wrote. The title came from the Bible, Proverbs 20:12: "The seeing eye, the hearing ear; The Lord hath made them both." The first class taught two students. By the end of the year, 17 had graduated.

The success of the guide dog program had finally achieved international recognition, and it quickly spread throughout the world.

The Makings of a Good Guide Dog

Most guide dogs are Labrador and golden retrievers, German shepherds, or a mix of these. Sometimes boxers are used as well. Dogs are specially bred for gentleness, good health and even temperament. Guide dog organizations usually breed their own dogs to ensure these traits.

Basic obedience and socialization training begins around 8 weeks of age, often conducted by a volunteer puppy raiser. The dogs – male or female – are showered with affection to nurture their ability to bond. At a year and a half, the dogs begin their training to be guide dogs with a sighted instructor.

The tasks guide dogs undertake fall into three primary skills:

  • Changes in elevation, such as an upcoming curb, stairway, edge of platforms, etc.
  • Locating objects, such as exits, elevators, seats or specific destination.
  • Obstacle avoidance, such as navigating around obstacles and hazards (cars, manholes, trees, etc.).

    The human partner makes most of the decisions for the team. When crossing a street, for instance, the person listens for the right time to go. Dogs cannot tell when a light turns green, so he or she relies on the person for the command.

    They are also taught how to disobey a dangerous order. Called "intelligent disobedience," the dog will refuse a "forward" command when it is unsafe. The dog is carefully conditioned to disobey during certain situations, because they do not necessarily understand the inherent danger they are avoiding. The person must reinforce the behavior with praise; otherwise, the dog may forget.

    During the training process, the blind person is taught the commands that the dog knows, as well as health care and grooming. They also learn the access laws governing guide dogs. The training process takes several weeks.

    Though the dogs are trained to handle diverse situations, such as busy city streets, airports, subways and the like, the dogs require periodic retraining when situations change. "If a graduate moves into a new environment, we have a trainer go through a refresher course with both of them," explained Michelle Lavitt, communications coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. "The graduate and the guide dog may not have used subways, so we reacquaint them with the procedures to follow."

    Besides being legally blind, eligible individuals must be in good physical and mental health; a minimum of high school age; able to provide adequate care for the dog; and show a need for a guide dog. Most programs offer the dogs free of charge or for a nominal fee. Some pay for all expenses, including travel and room and board, if necessary.

    In the Public Eye

    The biggest challenge faced by the blind and their guide dogs is the public. Guide dogs should be ignored, for everyone's safety. Unfortunately, people are often curious and want to pet the dog.

    Touching or feeding the dog is distracting, and distraction from the job puts the dog and the teammate in great danger. Another danger is the approach of another dog. There have been a number of high-profile attacks on guide dogs by off-leash dogs.

    About a third of the 10,000 guide dogs in the United States have been attacked by other dogs. Even the approach of a friendly, leashed dog is dangerous because it also distracts the guide dog from his or her important job.

    There is an established and enumerated "Etiquette" on how to treat guide dogs. To learn what all of them are, see the story Guide Dog Etiquette.

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