Seeing Eye Dogs
Written by Megan Hammons
More than 85 years ago, in January 1929, the first training school for seeing eye dogs was established in the U.S. by a young blind man named Morris Frank from Nashville, and Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an ex-pat living in Switzerland training German shepherds. The idea of guide dogs for the visually impaired began in Germany after World War I, in an effort to grant more independence to soldiers blinded in war.
Eustis, formerly only training her dogs for police work, was impressed by this new concept and wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post, which lead to her correspondence and eventual collaboration with Frank. Frank’s goal was to not only gain more independence for himself, but to help others with vision impairment, specifically in the United States. Today, more than 16,000 partnerships have resulted from their school, The Seeing Eye, the first guide dog school outside of Europe, and the oldest existing guide dog school in the world.
How Seeing Eye Dogs Can Help Visually Impaired Seniors Maintain Independence
Seniors with failing eyesight may have never considered the possibility of a guide dog, and how it could help maintain a level of independence and activity. Guide dogs can help make someone with low-vision feel safer in his or her mobility, not to mention making travel to destinations quicker and more accurate. Guide dogs provide loving companionship and can help a senior feel safer at home and on the streets, as well as reducing dependence on others for simple errands and trips.
There are, however, considerations to be made. For example, a person must be legally blind to be eligible for a guide dog (it’s important to note there are other types of service dogs for non-visually impaired seniors). The prospective handler must complete a two- or three-week training course and must have adequate health and stamina to work with the dog. The senior should be an independent traveler, able to provide a guide dog with meaningful routes and destinations. It’s important to remember that guide dogs are not well-trained pets, but highly trained working dogs that receive thousands of hours of training from the time they are puppies. Guide dog handlers should be prepared to maintain their dog’s grooming, physical care, and training, along with the softer, but still important, requirements like affection, play, and praise.
Training Requirements for Seeing Eye Dogs and their Handlers
Once you’ve considered these requirements and decided a guide dog cold be right for you or your loved one, the next step is to find an area training school, especially one offering services for seniors. Many of these schools are funded by private donations, so the fees for attending the training courses and bringing home your guide dog are most likely low. Typically, the school will schedule an in-home interview with the senior to assess the environment and observe the style of mobility and common travel routes. Home, work, and social needs are discussed, as well as what type of dog would be the best match.
Once approved for training, the senior would typically complete an on-campus training program to learn cues, gestures, and footwork needed to direct a guide dog (the dogs have already been trained to respond to these cues). Other training topics include the daily routine of their dog, such as feeding, relieving and grooming, obedience exercises, and critical skills in maintaining control of their dog. Students also participate in mobility training with their instructors and dogs, practicing transportation on rural roads, in metropolitan areas, through obstacles, in crowds of pedestrians, across busy streets, and on stairways, platforms, and public transportation. At the end of the program, participants not only know and love their new guide dog, but have reached a higher level of confidence in working with the dog and moving about independently.
If you or a loved one is still an active, healthy senior, but is facing the challenge of adjusting to life with vision impairment, a guide dog could be a great solution for maintaining independence and mobility, while also enhancing your life with a new daily companion. For more information on guide dogs, visit The Seeing Eye.
Celebrate Seeing Eye Dog Birthday on January 29th! January is also Walk Your Pet Month.