In the early twentieth century, those without sight were marginalized members of society. They had no job options and no mobility, and had to rely on the kindness of someone who might lead them or help them with whatever needed to be done.
A series of circumstances on two continents was to change all that, and in the process, provide dignity and independence to those with visual impairment.
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., whose family had become wealthy farm machinery manufacturers. She moved to Wood’s hometown of Hoosick Falls, New York (near the border with Vermont) where 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, and Dorothy, who loved dogs, brought home her first German shepherd.
Not long into married life, Wood contracted typhoid fever and died, leaving Dorothy, 29, a widowed mother of two. She returned to Philadelphia where she met and married George Eustis. The family moved to the Swiss Alps where Dorothy began breeding German shepherds, bringing with her some of the knowledge gained from cattle breeding. She partnered with a fellow named Elliott Humphrey 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, and she was approached by The Saturday Evening Post to write about it. Eustis opted instead to write about a Potsdam program she had observed that used German shepherds to guide World War I veterans who had been blinded by mustard gas. The resulting article was published on November 5, 1927, and the information 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, including a letter from Morris Frank, a young American insurance salesman who lived in Nashville. Frank had lost the sight in one eye as a result of a childhood accident; he lost the sight in his other eye in 1924 in a boxing match when he was 16. 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 if she would help him.
The Plight of Those Without Sight
Jim Kutsch, current 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.”
This context explains Frank’s excitement. As a man who had lost his only working eye at the age of 16, Frank knew what life might have offered him and longed to recapture what he could.
Eustis responded to his letter and invited him to Switzerland. Because he could not fend for himself on his travels, Frank had to be classified as a “package” and sent via American Express by steamship from Nashville to Switzerland. He had a room but he was not permitted to move around the ship unless someone from the ship’s staff was available to accompany him.
Morris Frank Travels for Seeing Eye Dog
When Frank arrived in Vevey, Switzerland, Eustis was busy working with two possible dogs so that they could see which one was more compatible with Frank. Ultimately, the dog with whom he did best was a dog named Kiss; Frank who was then only 20 and quickly changed the dog’s name to Buddy, feeling that a young man should not own a dog named Kiss.
After his training, Eustis parted with Frank temporarily, offering a 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, and he arranged to bring Eustis and the dogs to Nashville where 150 blind soldiers awaited dogs and instruction. 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, and 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.”
The school formed by Eustis and Frank took the name The Seeing Eye (now trademarked), and while they began in Nashville, Frank’s hometown, trainers also traveled elsewhere to hold classes. In 1931 Eustis bought a ten-bedroom mansion in Whippany, New Jersey so that they could have a permanent base. Frank remained as vice president of the school and did just as he promised–traveling everywhere with the original Buddy as well as subsequent Buddys (Frank preferred to maintain the same name for all his dogs) to break barriers that prohibited guide dogs from leading their owners where they needed to go (including restaurants, hotels, and various modes of transportation).
The Seeing Eye School Today
Today The Seeing Eye, Inc. still exists and is the oldest school for guide dogs in the country. In 1965 they moved to a newly designed special facility in Morristown, and today its president and CEO is Jim Kutsch, a Seeing Eye dog user himself who is married to another Seeing Eye user.
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. Continuing in Eustis’ footsteps, a 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 until the dogs who qualify are ready for additional training at 18 months old. Formal training to be a Seeing Eye dog lasts four months, and they learn obedience as well as “intelligent disobedience” to understand when following an order might cause danger. The dogs then spend another month being trained with their human partners.
Jim Kutsch notes that in addition to the continuation of careful breeding and training of the dogs, there have been changes: “When Morris Frank first learned to work with a guide dog, the method involved holding a harness and leash in one’s left hand, and then holding a relatively short cane [compared to what people use today] to check the space ahead.”
“Since that time, a lot has been learned to improve the system. Today the harness can be adjusted ergonomically to make the person most comfortable, but more important, the harness is fit more precisely, which means the dog’s owner gets more accurate information from the dog more quickly,” explains Kutsch.
Dogs Still Vital
Despite the improvement in helping the visually impaired with computers and audio systems, etc., when it comes to mobility, dogs today are just as important as they always were. Kutsch continues: “The street environment is more complex than ever. It used to be that all traffic lights changed predictably after a certain number of seconds. Today lights change according to the traffic, and so 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 visually impaired. “We’ve added hybrid cars to our training program. You can’t hear them 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 so much progress has been made since Morris Frank’s day, Kutsch notes that there are still battles to be fought. While 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 uses a Seeing Eye dog, still find that an occasional restaurant or taxi cab will refuse to take them.
“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 including working at Bell Labs before taking his current job).
For a profile of Buddy, Morris Frank’s first “seeing eye” guide dog in America, please click here.