Written references to seeing eye dogs date back to the Tudor era, when a bit of children’s doggerel began “A is for Archer…B is a Blind-man/Led by a dog.”
German researchers began working with Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) in the 1920s, to serve as guides for WWI veterans blinded by gas. An American breeder living in Switzerland, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, wrote an article about the work in a 1927 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. US Senator Thomas Schall from Minnesota, who was legally blind, was paired with a German service dog that same year.
Morris Frank of Nashville lost the use of an eye in childhood. His vision was destroyed altogether in a boxing accident, at the age of 16. Frank hired a boy to guide him around, but the young man was easily bored and sometimes wandered off, leaving Frank to fend for himself.
Frank’s father saw Eustis’ article in 1927, and read it to him. The twenty-year old was electrified. Morris wrote to Eustis pleading with her to train a dog for himself. “Is what you say really true? If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own. We can then set up an instruction center in this country to give all those here who want it a chance at a new life.”
Dorothy Eustis called Frank in February 1928 and asked if he was willing to come to Switzerland. “Mrs. Eustis, to get my independence back, I’d go to hell”. She accepted the challenge and trained two dogs, leaving it to Frank himself to decide which was more suitable. Morris came to Switzerland to work with the dogs, both female German Shepherds. He chose a dog named “Kiss” but, feeling that no 20-year-old man should have a dog named Kiss, he called her “Buddy”.
Man and dog stepped off the ship in 1928 to a throng of reporters. There were flash bulbs, shouted questions and the din of traffic and honking horns that can only be New York City, but Buddy never wavered. At the end of the day Eustis received a single word telegram: “Success”. Morris Frank was set on the path that became his life’s mission: to get Seeing Eye Dogs accepted all over the country.
On January 29, 1929, Frank and Eustis established the first American guide dog training school in Frank’s home town of Nashville: “The Seeing Eye“. Frank was true to his word, becoming a tireless advocate of public accessibility for the blind and their guide dogs. In 1928, Morris was routinely told that Buddy couldn’t ride with him in the passenger compartment. Seven years later, all railroads in the United States had adopted policies allowing guide dogs to remain with their owners while on board.
By 1956, every state in the Union had passed laws guaranteeing access to public spaces for blind people and their dogs.
Frank told a New York Times interviewer in 1936 that he had logged 50,000 miles with Buddy, by foot, train, subway, bus, and boat. He was constantly meeting with people, including two Presidents and over 300 ophthalmologists, demonstrating the life-changing qualities of a guide dog.
Buddy’s health was failing toward the end of her life, but the team had one more hurdle to cross. One more barrier to break. Frank wanted to fly in a commercial aircraft with his guide dog, and did so on this day in 1938, flying from Chicago to Newark. United Airlines was the first to adopt the policy, granting “all Seeing Eye dogs the privilege of riding with their masters in the cabins of any of our regularly scheduled planes.”
Morris Frank’s seeing eye dog was all business during the day but, to the end of her life, she loved to end her work day with a roll on the floor with her “Dad”. Buddy died a week after that plane ride, but she had made her mark. There were 250 seeing eye dogs working across the country by this time, and their number was growing fast. Buddy’s replacement was also called Buddy, as was every seeing eye dog Frank ever owned, until he passed away in 1980.
Today, The Seeing Eye operates a 330-acre complex in Morris Township, New Jersey, the oldest guide dog school still in operation, in the world. The primary breeds used for such training are German Shepherds, Labs, Golden Retrievers, and Lab/Golden mixed breeds. Boxers are occasionally used, for individuals with allergies.
Since 1929, Seeing Eye, Inc. has trained some 16,000 guide dogs, pairing them with blind and vision-impaired across the United States and Canada. There are currently 1,720 such human/canine partnerships. The organization places an average of 260 guide dogs every year. The non-profit is primarily funded through private donations, as new students pay only $150, and returning students pay $50. Military veterans are charged a single dollar.