By Linda Cole
In 1927, Morris Frank was 20 years old when he lost his eyesight in an accident. After reading an article about guide dogs written by Dorothy Eustis, an American woman living in Switzerland, Frank traveled to Switzerland to meet her. There, he learned how to control his own guide dog, Buddy, that Eustis trained for him. Man and dog eventually made history when Buddy successfully guided Frank across a busy New York City intersection.
It was just a few years later when a more organized guide dog training program began to take shape. But Dorothy Eustis wasn’t the first person to train canines as guide dogs, and Morris Frank wasn’t the first blind person to use a dog to guide him. The ancient Romans had already figured out that guide dogs could be trained to restore a blind person’s independence.
Although there’s no written record of early Romans establishing a training program for service dogs, it is known that they used dogs to assist the blind because of a mural found in a small Roman town, Herculaneum. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was covered in volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. The city was submerged in a sea of mud and ash, preserving houses, furniture, clothing, murals and many other things from that time. Among the treasures found when archaeologists began excavating the town was a mural of a blind man being led by a dog. The man is holding a walking stick in his left hand and a leash attached to a small dog in his right. This is the earliest record found of a dog helping a blind person navigate the world.
Further evidence found of a carving on a wooden plaque from the Middle Ages shows a dog leading a blind man through a village. In 1788, a blind Vienna sieve-maker named Josef Riesinger had his spitz dog trained so well that people wondered if he was really blind. In 1847, a man from Switzerland, Jakob Birrer, wrote about his experiences with a dog he trained himself to guide him wherever he went.
An official program to train guide dogs began in the 1780s in a hospital for the blind in Paris, spreading throughout Europe and eventually to Austria. In 1819 in Vienna, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Education of the Blind, championed using dogs in a book about education for the blind, and included a section on how he trained dogs.
All of these early efforts to train dogs for the blind were important steps in the beginning stages of the modern era of guide dogs, which came into existence during WWI when a German doctor, Dr. Gerhard Stalling, began to wonder if dogs could be trained to assist blind German soldiers returning from the Front. He got the idea one day when he was pulled away for an emergency, leaving his dog behind to keep a patient company. When he returned, he noticed that his dog appeared to be trying to help the blind patient.
Stalling began teaching dogs the skills they needed to know to lead a blind person. He opened the first guide dog school in Oldenburg, Germany in 1916, training around 600 dogs. The success of his program was duplicated at other branches he established in Germany. They sent dogs to WWI vets as well as blind people around the world, helping them all to regain their dignity and independence.
Unfortunately, training so many dogs became a challenge and the quality of the dogs began to decrease, forcing the schools to close after just ten years. But as Stalling’s programs were shutting down, Potsdam, a guide dog training facility near Berlin, was kicking into high gear, graduating around 12 trained guide dogs each month while still maintaining a high standard.
The training methods used at the Potsdam school caught the attention of Dorothy Eustis. She was impressed with the work they were doing, which prompted her to write an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1927. This was the article Morris Frank read which led him to her and resulted in the first guide dog for the blind used in America – Buddy – ushering in the modern era of training service dogs for the blind.
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