Imagine a world without service dogs. On this date in 1929, the school for Seeing Eye Dogs was opened in Nashville, Tennessee. This guide school trained dogs to assist the blind and since then has influenced programs all over the world. From those roots arose our service dogs of today, whose duties can extend to helping people with not just physical but also emotional and medical needs.
The original Seeing Eye school was co-founded by Morris Frank, a young Nashville insurance salesman who was blind, and Dorothy Harrison Eustis who was a Philadelphia socialite. Eustis bred and trained German shepherds for the Swiss army and state police in Switzerland. After The Saturday Evening Post approached her to write an article, she responded with an article entitled “The Seeing Eye”, that was about a program in Potsdam, Germany where dogs were being trained to lead soldiers who had been blinded in World War I.
When the article was published in 1927, a newsstand operator mentioned it to Morris Frank, who bought the magazine and took it home for his father to read to him. Hoping that a guide dog would give him independence, he wrote to Dorothy Eustis, asking her to train a dog for him and to consider starting a school in the United States.
Dogs are evaluated from the time they are puppies. If they meet the criteria, they are placed in the Seeing Eye training program, where they learn and perfect the necessary skills to help their owner. At about a year and a half, the dogs are matched with a trainer based on the dog’s ability and personality. This stage can take anywhere from 3-6 months, but they will need continual training and skill reminders for the rest of their lives.
Guide dogs are typically German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or a Labrador/golden cross. They’re generally in service for seven to eight years. When a dog retires, it can be kept as a pet or returned to The Seeing Eye and placed into a forever home.
Some examples of the duties of modern service dogs include:
- Emotional support dogs: These animals are taught a wide variety of skills to assist people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, and are often aids to veterans.
- Hearing dogs: These animals help the hearing impaired by responding to sound with a certain behavior. For instance, when they hear a knock at the front door, they might be taught to go sit in front of the person to alert them.
- Mobile assistance dogs: These animals help people who have trouble getting around due to cerebral palsy, severe arthritis, or other conditions. Mobility assistance dogs can even be trained to do things such as push an elevator button, open and close doors, and even pick up dropped car keys and credit cards.
In 2015, Charli Saltzman wrote a series for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors about Guide Dogs. You can check it out, starting with her first post here: Basic Rules for Guide Dogs