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Seeing Eye Dogs In the Spotlight

January 15, 2024

Did you know that the official Seeing Eye Dog celebration day is on January 29th? Seeing Eye Dogs, or guide dogs, are pups that have been specially trained to serve as their owners’ eyes. These amazing canines help thousands of people with visual impairments to live independently every year.  A local Sandwich, MA veterinarian discusses seeing eye dogs in this article.


Is There Any Difference Between Guide And Seeing Eye Dogs?


For the most part, this is an issue of semantics, as there are no practical differences. However, the term Seeing Eye dog is a trademarked name, and should only be applied to dogs that were trained by The Seeing Eye. Pups trained by other schools should be referred to as guide dogs. 


There is a very distinct contrast between guide dogs and emotional support animals, though. Guide dogs are officially classified as service dogs, and are therefore protected by federal law. They can be taken into nearly all locations, excluding certain sterile environments like laboratories and specific hospital units. It is also illegal to interfere with them in any way.


The History Of Guide Dogs


Fido has definitely earned the title of Man’s Best Friend. Seeing-eye dog schools first emerged during the 20th century. He has been supporting visually impaired individuals for much longer than that, though. Dogs may have been assisting humans in this capacity for over two millennia! Ancient Roman art from Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., depicts a dog guiding a blind man. Similar images also exist in records from Asia and Europe, some of which date back to the Middle Ages.


More recently, a 16th-century alphabet rhyme contains the line, ‘B was a blind man led by a dog.’ Charles Dickens mentioned dogs guiding the blind in A Christmas Carol, and Elizabeth Barret Browning also mentioned guide dogs in her 19th-century work Aurora Leigh.


The modern history of the Seeing Eye Dog starts in Europe after World War I, when German guide dog training schools were established to help veterans who had been blinded by mustard gas.


One day, an urgent matter forced Dr. Gerhard Stalling to rush away while he was walking with his dog and patient. He left the patient and dog together. To his amazement, he found the dog assisting the human when he returned. This piqued his interest and inspired him to explore the idea further.


The first guide dog school was established in 1916. It gained rapid recognition and expanded to include branches in Bonn, Breslau, Dresden, Essen, Münster,  Freiburg, Hamburg, Magdeburg, and Hannover. At its peak, the schools were training 600 dogs annually for individuals all over the world.


Why Is Fido’s Birthday January 29th?


There’s a specific answer for this one: The Seeing Eye training center opened on January 29, 1929, as a joint effort between a wealthy dog trainer named Dorothy Eustis and a blind man named Morris Frank. Frank reached out to Eustis after reading an article she had written about guide dogs, asking her to train a dog for him. Eustis accepted. Together, they trained an exceptional canine companion, Buddy. The team became a media sensation after arriving in New York City back in 1928. Witnesses were stunned to watch the pup helping Frank navigate the city’s crowded streets. Eustis and Frank eventually founded The Seeing Eye, and the rest, as they say, is history.


(Fun fact: Frank owned three guide dogs over the course of his life, all of whom were German Shepherds named Buddy.) 


How Are Guide Dogs Trained?


Fido must begin training at a young age, long before meeting his prospective owners. Guide dogs usually begin working around the age of one and a half. Once matched with a human, they usually work for about 8 to 10 years. After that, they ‘retire’ to the life of being a pet, sometimes with adoptive families, while the owner—who is generally still in need—will be paired with another dog.


What Do Guide Dogs Do For Their Owners?


Guide dogs help their humans with various day-to-day tasks. These may range from crossing streets and navigating obstacles to safely maneuvering changes in elevation like curbs. The pups also guide their humans around different objects and obstacles, such as parking meters, lamp posts, and open manholes, and steer around potential hazards like low-hanging awnings or branches. These expertly-trained canines can even find entrances and exits to rooms or buildings, locate stairs or elevators, and find empty seats or benches. They can also retrieve specific items, such as mail, medication, or clothing.


How Do Guide Dogs Perform Their Jobs?


Much of it boils down to something called intelligent disobedience. When Fido spots a potential hazard, he will refuse to move forward, regardless of what his owner commands. For instance, he may stop or sit suddenly if something dangerous, such as a car or bicyclist, approaches, or if he and his owner approach an obstacle, such as a curb or stairwell.


This is often a joint effort between the pup and his owner. When crossing roads, the human listens to the traffic flow and waits until it’s moving in a parallel direction before telling the dog to proceed. Fido will only move forward if and when it is safe to do so.


What Breeds Make Good Guide Dogs?


Many of our canine friends shine in this area. The top ones are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Border Collies, Standard Poodles, Vizslas, Australian Shepherds, Boxers, and Airedales also do well. While not recognized as official breeds, a few doodle dogs, like Labradoodles and Goldendoodles, are also in high demand for not just their intelligence and trainability but also for their hypoallergenic fur. (These guys aren’t actually hypoallergenic, but their coats make them easier for people with allergies to cope with. However, that’s another topic.)


How Much Do Seeing-Eye Dogs Cost?


It can cost up to $50,000 to train and care for Fido. Unfortunately, those expenses are not usually covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or other insurance plans. However, there are alternative funding options available, such as using FSA or HSA accounts, crowdfunding, grants, and personal savings. Some charitable guide dog institutes may provide assistance, although eligibility requirements may vary.


Can I Pet A Seeing Eye Dog?


Fido may be adorable, but if you see him out and about, he’s working and must be allowed to focus on helping his person. Additionally, as mentioned above, guide dogs are protected by federal law. It’s illegal to interfere with their work.  The only possible exception is if a service dog comes to you. That may signal that the dog’s owner is in trouble. Call 911 and, if you can do so safely, follow the dog. For more information, contact your Burlington, ON veterinarian.

How Do I Support Guide Dog Organizations?

Consider making a donation to one of the wonderful organizations that train and support these Very Good Boys. Some of these include Guide Dogs For The Blind, The Seeing Eye, and Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Your Sandwich, MA veterinarian may also know of local organizations. For instance, here at Sandwich Animal Hospital, we work with several organizations that train service and support dogs.

Do you have questions about your dog’s health or care? As your local Sandwich, MA pet hospital, we are here to help!


Posted in Dog Care

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