In the early twentieth century, those without sight were marginalized members of society. They had no job options and no mobility. They had to rely on the kindness of someone to lead them to town or help them with whatever needed to be done.
A series of circumstances on two continents was to change all that. In the process, provide dignity and independence to those with visual impairment.
The catalyst for change was the number of soldiers blinded after World War I. The German military saw first-hand what happened to their own men. One of their officers who worked with their K-9 Corps realized there might be a way to train these dogs to be service dogs for the blind. When I first wrote this article in 2012, Buddy, a dog that was the first dog trained for this purpose by German shepherd dog breeder Dorothy Harrison Eustis was reported to be the first seeing eye dog brought to America. The year was 1928. This article is about Morris Frank, the blind man who received Buddy, and the work he and Eustis did to build the Seeing Eye School and train and distribute as many dogs as possoble.
But then I heard from an alert reader who told me that another service dog for the blind came to the U.S. in 1926. That dog, Lux, was sponsored by John L. Sinykin, a Minnesota businessman, who devoted time and wealth to creating the Master Eye Foundation. Sinykin knew that his first dog needed to be placed with someone of achievement so that the story of the service dog would be told. In 1926, Lux was placed with Senator Thomas Schall of Minnesota. Sinykin did everything correctly, but somehow Buddy and the Seeing Eye School became better known.
What follows is the story of Dorothy Eustis and Morris Frank. But I have deep appreciation for the reader who told me about John Sinykin and Lux. I now tell their story here: Lux, First Guide Dog Placed by Master Eye.
In both cases, the inspiration for the training grew from work accomplished after World War I by German dog trainer, Lambert Kreimer.
The Woman Who Led the Way
Dorothy Harrison Eustis (1886-1946) was born into a prominent family in Philadelphia and married Walter Abbott Wood, Jr. Wood’s family became wealthy farm machinery manufacturers. Harrison moved to Wood’s hometown of Hoosick Falls, New York (near the border with Vermont). She and Wood lived on a farm and ran an experimental cattle breeding program to increase milk production. In 1914, the couple traveled to Germany. Dorothy brought home her first German shepherd.
Not long into married life, Wood contracted typhoid fever and died. Dorothy was only 29 and the motehr of two. She returned to her former home in Philadelphia where she met and married George Eustis. She and Eustis moved the family to the Swiss Alps where Dorothy began breeding German shepherds. Her work with cattle breeding on the Woof farm added to her knowledge of how to breed for certain traits. She partnered with a fellow named Elliott Humphrey, a well-regarded dog trainer, to breed dogs for the Swiss State Police and for liaison service in the Swiss Army. The dogs could also be used to find missing people.
With those tasks in mind, Eustis and Humphrey bred for intelligence and reliability.
Started with Police Dog Program
Eustis’ police dog program was becoming well-known. Perhaps because of her family background, she was approached by The Saturday Evening Post to write about it. But Dorothy Eustis had a different story to tell. She had an opportunity to visit Potsdam. There, trainer Lambert Kreimer used German shepherds to guide World War I veterans blinded by mustard gas. The resulting article was published on November 5, 1927. The program–and the information shared by Dorothy–she shared was to change the lives of blind people everywhere:
The future for all blind men can be the same, however blinded. No longer dependent on a member of the family, a friend or a paid attendant, the blind can once more take up their normal lives as nearly as possible where they left them off, and each can begin or go back to a wage-earning occupation, secure in the knowledge that he can get to and from his work safely and without cost; that crowds and traffic have no longer any terrors for him and that his evenings can be spent among friends without responsibility or burden to them; and last, but far from least, that long, healthful walks are now possible to exercise off the unhealthy fat of inactivity and so keep the body strong and fit. Gentlemen, again without reservation, I give you the shepherd dog.
The article spawned a huge response from readers. One of the letters that caught Eustis’s attention was from Morris Frank, a young American who lived in Nashville. Frank lost the sight in one eye as a result of a childhood accident; he lost the sight in his other eye at the age of 16 (1924) in a boxing match. In his letter, he wrote: “Thousands of blind people like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog to show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own.”
Frank offered to help her set up a school in America.
The Plight of Those Without Sight
Jim Kutsch, former president and CEO of The Seeing Eye (founded by Eustis and Frank and now located in Morristown, New Jersey) notes that the reality of being without sight at that time meant that people really had no life. “The use of canes trailed the use of dogs by at least a decade,” he says. “If you were blind at that time, you were totally dependent on being cared for or guided around by others.” (Kutsch retired in 2019; Glenn Hoagland now holds that position.)
This context explains Frank’s excitement. As a man who lost his only working eye at the age of 16, Frank knew what life can offer and longed to recapture what he could.
Eustis liked what Morris Frank wrote and invited him to Switzerland.
Morris Frank’s family had money, but even adequate funds for a cross-ocean journey couldn’t overcome prejudice. Because Frank could not find his way around the ship by himself, he was classified as a “package.” In acknowledgment that he was a human, the ship management provided a separate room for him, but he was not permitted to move around the ship unless someone from the staff was available to accompany him.
Morris Frank Travels for Seeing Eye Dog
When Frank arrived in Vevey, Switzerland, Eustis was testing two possible dogs so that they could see which one was more compatible with Morris Frank. Ultimately, the dog with whom he did best was a dog named Kiss. Frank was only 20 at the time, and he quickly changed the dog’s name to Buddy. (All of his subsequent dogs were also named Buddy.)
The training went well, but when Dorothy Eustis took Morris Frank to the dock where he would board a steamship back to the United States, Eustis left him witha stern warning. “If people won’t let you in [to restaurants, hotels, modes of transportation], Buddy will do you no good.”
Morris Frank left Europe to embark on opening doors for the blind.
First Seeing Eye Dog School Established
Morris Frank was a man of his word. Once home, he arranged to bring Eustis and the dogs to Nashville. He had gathered 150 blind soldiers who awaited dogs and the special training required.
In 1928 Eustis’s arrival was noted in The New York Times: “Shepherd Dogs Coming for American Blind” (12-14-1928). The article goes on to describe that Mrs. Dorothy Harrison Eustis was sailing with three German shepherd dogs “the first contingent of the great canine army which will eventually go to the United States as leaders for the blind.”
In January of 1929 Dorothy Eustis gave a lecture at the New York Association for the Blind. She described how dogs could help in NYC:
“…The dog is taught to go always at a fast walk, so that the slackening in his gait for an obstacle is instantly felt through the rigid handle in his harness. At curbs he pulls back and stands still so his master can find the edge with his cane. For steps, for approaching traffic and all obstacles barring progress, he sits down. A perfect working team can be made of the trained shepherd dog and the blind man, once the latter has become familiar with his city by raised maps of the streets.”
First School in Nashville
The school formed by Eustis and Frank took the name The Seeing Eye (now trademarked). The school started in Nashville, but Morris Frank arranged for travel to other towns to hold classes.
In 1931 Eustis bought a ten-bedroom mansion in Whippany, New Jersey, to give the school a permanent base. Frank remained as vice president of the school and did just as he promised. He traveled everywhere with the original Buddy to break barriers that prohibited guide dogs from taking their masters into restaurants, hotels, banks, and on to various modes of transportation). When Buddy I passed away, Frank picked up the campaign with Buddy II and all subsequent seeing eye dogs he owned.
The Seeing Eye School Today
Today The Seeing Eye, Inc. still exists. It is the oldest school for guide dogs in the country. In 1965, the Seeing Eye moved to a newly designed special facility in Morristown, New Jersey.
Most of the school’s dogs are bred in Chester, New Jersey. While many are German shepherds, today the school also works with Labrador Retrievers, golden retrievers, or Labrador-golden crosses. The breeding program is carefully monitored by a geneticist to see that the qualities needed for a service dog are in place.
Puppies are raised by volunteers who work on training and socialization for the first year and a half of their lives. Those who qualify come to campus for additional, specific guide work training. Formal training to be a Seeing Eye dog lasts four months. Among the many lessons is one on “intelligent disobedience.” The dogs need to be empowered to resist a command if the command will put their person in danger.
Finally, the blind people who are to receive dogs move to campus where they and their partner learn to work together.
Careful Work Continues
Jim Kutsch notes that in addition to the continuation of careful breeding and training of the dogs, there have been other changes. “When Morris Frank first learned to work with a guide dog, the methodology was different. The blind person held the harness and leash in his or her left hand. A relatively short cane was used in the right hand to check the space ahead.”
“Since that time, many improvements have been made. Today the harnesses are better made and are fit more precisely. This means the dog’s owner gets more accurate information from the dog more quickly,” explains Kutsch.
Dogs Still Vital
In many areas, blind people have been aided greatly by technological progress. A person can easily listen to audio books or other publications. Computers now have have screen reading software, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech, and other programs to assist individuals with disabilities.
But when it comes to mobility, dogs are still important. The street environment is more complex than ever. Jim Kutch notes: “It used to be that all traffic lights changed predictably after a certain number of seconds. Today lights change according to the traffic. It is no longer possible for a person to anticipate a light change.”
Catalytic converters–and hybrid cars– that permit cars to run more quietly are also a negative for the blind. “We’ve added hybrid cars to our training program, says Kutsch. “You can’t hear these motors when they are at a full stop. We now teach dogs that a car is a car, whether it’s making a noise or not.”
While much progress has been made since Morris Frank’s day, Kutsch–in a phone interview in 2012—says there are still battles to be fought. His own Seeing Eye dog has gone many places with him–including the hospital delivery room when his children were born. He and his wife, who also has a guide dog, still find that an occasional restaurant or taxi cab will refuse to take them.
A Tribute to Eustis and Frank
“But overall, Dorothy Eustis and Morris Frank have enabled me to have a normal life and pursue my dreams.” Kutsch holds a Ph.D. in computer science, has worked as a professor and held several positions with AT&T.
For a profile of Buddy, Morris Frank’s first “seeing eye” guide dog, please click here.