The divine gift of freedom

If you have ever seen a Guide Dog in action, I’m sure at least one of these questions crossed your mind. How does the dog do it? How can that person have such implicit trust in their dog, especially in heavy traffic?

The answer, I can tell you, is many, many hours of training, a careful breeding process, an incredible temperament, a careful matching process and an extraordinary skill set from three key points – the trainer, the dog and the person with vision impairment.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to go back in time and research the story of the first Guide Dog and I just had to share this wonderful story with you.

Of course, the relationship between ‘dog and man’ stretches back thousands of years. In this summary from the International Guide Dog Federation, I discovered that excavations in Pompeii revealed a wall painting of a blind man apparently being led by his dog around 79AD.

There are several instances of dogs helping the blind throughout Europe, as well as books written on trial training methods. However, the first person to work towards setting up a designated training school was German doctor and Director of The German Red Cross Ambulance Dogs Association, Dr Gerhard Stalling. He left his dog with a blind patient as company and noticed, when he returned, that the dog was behaving differently – it was looking after the patient.

Inspired by this, Dr Stalling explored guide dog training, especially for war veterans who had been blinded following exposure to mustard gas or as the result of shell shock. In August 1916, The German Red Cross Ambulance Dogs Association opened the world’s first guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg. Their first guide dog was issued in 1916 to a blinded veteran, Paul Feyen.

In 1923, The German Shepherd Dog Association opened a large guide dog training centre in Potsdam, near Berlin, where many of the training methods that are common today, i.e. selecting good dogs, careful matching, follow up in the home environment – were formalised. By the 1930s there were around 4,000 qualified guide dogs in Germany.

It was a plea from a young American man who wanted the chance to change the lives of others that was the catalyst for the international guide dog movement.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a dog trainer for the army, police and customs service in Switzerland spent several months at the Potsdam training centre and was so impressed, she wrote an article about it for the Saturday Evening Post in America in October 1927. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“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.”

Morris Frank, 19 was totally blind through two separate accidents. When his father read Eustis’ article to him, Frank was transformed. He wrote to her, begging her to train a dog to help him and others.

“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.”

Eustis received many letters following her article, but Frank’s plea to help not only him, but other people with vision impairment also, resonated with her. She took on the challenge and invited Frank to come to Switzerland.

Just one year later, Morris Frank stepped off a boat in New York City with his German Shepherd Guide Dog, Buddy into a crowd of reporters and cameras.

It was at this moment that Frank placed complete trust in his dog, in front of a crowd of waiting media, to prove that Buddy had the capacity to change lives.

One of the reporters dared him to walk across West Street, which was filled with taxis and trucks. Buddy guided Frank skillfully and safely to the other side – the beginning of an amazing journey.

From here, Frank and Buddy went everywhere. By 1936, she and Frank had clocked 50,000 miles by foot, train, subway, bus and boat to meet with people and demonstrate the life-changing impact of a Guide Dog. In 1938, Buddy and Frank were permitted to fly on an aeroplane, under a new law ‘granting all Seeing Eye dogs the privilege to ride with their masters in the cabin.’

“Buddy delivered to me the divine gift of freedom.”

What a poignant description of the difference Buddy made to Frank’s life. Together, Frank and Buddy broke down barriers and led the way.

You can make a difference, too. Find out how you can support Guide Dogs in your state.

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