I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame.
Don’t we all go weak at the knees when we see a service dog, usually a seeing-eye dog? Although it may also be one that alerts its deaf owner, pulls their wheelchair, protects them when they have a seizure, reminds them to take their medicines or provides emotional help.
In the 17th century a Tom Thumb’s Alphabet verse began, “A was an Archer, and shot at a Frog; B was a Blind-man, and led by a Dog”. 200 years later, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls”, so guide dogs must have been around long before the first service animal training schools were set up in Germany during the First World War to help returning soldiers blinded by mustard gas.
Dorothy Eustis was an American living in Switzerland who bred German Shepherds as police dogs. In 1927, after writing an article for The Saturday Evening Post about the guide-dog training school in Potsdam, she was contacted by a blind 20-year-old, Morris Frank, from Nashville, who promised that if she could train him he would set up a school in the US. He went out to Switzerland and spent five weeks learning to work with Buddy, the first of his six guide dogs, all named Buddy. In December 1928 Eustis and Frank set up The Seeing Eye.
In Britain the first guide dogs, Flash, Judy, Meta and Folly, also German Shepherds, started work in October 1931 in Merseyside. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was established in 1934. The dogs are often pale colours so as to be more easily seen by people with limited vision. As dogs are chosen for temperament, trainability and good health, the most popular breeds have become the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever, but several other breeds are used too. My niece in California has a handsome dark grey and white Borzoi called Opal, who was a diabetic service dog and is being retrained as a cardiac alert dog, warning her husband of changes in blood pressure.
The first person to have a guide dog in Australia was Dr Arnold Cook, who went blind in 1940 at the age of 18. He learned braille and was studying at the University of Western Australia when he was awarded a scholarship to the London School of Economics. In 1950 he returned to Australia with a black Labrador called Dreena and set up the first Guide Dog school. Six years later it became a national organization.
A few, short, tear-jerking stories about service dogs:
On 9/11, Roselle, a golden Labrador Retriever, was asleep under her owner Michael Hingson’s desk on the 78th floor of the World Trade Centre. Despite the dust and confusion after the plane hit, she calmly led him and 30 other people through the debris, down 1,463 steps and out of the tower.
In 2009, Jeff de Young was sent out to fight in Afghanistan, where he served with a bomb-detection black Labrador called Cena. They both survived, although he suffers from PTSD, and have been reunited. He is now a military ambassador for the American Humane Association, persuaded that the bond between human and dog is life-saving for PTSD victims.
Eric, a cardiac alert dog in South Carolina, saved Edward Colie’s life in 2013 by thumping his head against his chest, the alert he is trained to perform when he senses a stroke is imminent. Eric is a Miniature Poodle.
Dogs in the Everyday
Although dogs are trained to navigate obstacles, many are colour blind, and of course they cannot read signs, so that the handler navigates and the dog guides. However, as well as doing practical things, these dogs give their people confidence, companionship and independence, as well as reducing stress and increasing interaction with other people. One should remember though not to distract a working dog, which is trained to take its job very seriously, and particularly never ignore the handler and talk only to their dog.
One of Guide Dogs Australia’s most notable achievements has been sponsoring The University of New South Wales’ Centre for Eye Health, Australia’s first eye-care facility to offer free diagnostic services to the community, aiming to reduce preventable blindness. Now Guide Dogs Australia is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary – why don’t you sponsor a puppy?
Oh, say! what is that thing call’d light,
Which I must ne’er enjoy?
What are the blessings of the sight?
Oh, tell your poor blind boy!
Colley Cibber, The Blind Boy.