Saturday, June 6, 2009

Seeing Eye Founder's Famous Saturday Evening Post Article Still Resonates

The first formal service dog organization in the United States was The Seeing Eye, founded by, among others, Dorothy Harrison Eustis and Morris Frank. Eustis was training German Shepherds in Switzerland after World War I and wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post (“The Seeing Eye,” November 5, 1927; the picture on the left is from the original article) about a program of the Shepherd Dog Club of Germany, which was training dog guides for blinded veterans of the Great War. Morris Frank was the first American for whom she trained a guide dog. Her article is famous for describing how guide dogs work, but it is also worth reading, and rereading, for its description of the effect the dogs have on the blind men who were paired with the dogs after they had been trained by skilled trainers. She describes how the initial encounters can be disappointing.

"In the four months of school [the dog] has become attached to his teacher and works perfectly for him and he is puzzled and thrown off by the exchange. The first days with the new master are difficult. The blind man is nervous, distrustful and supercritical, as well he might be. The dog works unevenly, often looking back at his old teacher, and the blind man has a disturbed mental picture that this is the way he is always going to be led and he states his opinion in no uncertain terms."

Then both man and dog beging to adapt to each other:

"Gradually the rehabilitation takes place. First, the uncertainty becomes less uncertain, a glimmering that perhaps here is eyesight; then the acknowledgment that here at least is ever pleasant, ungrudging companionship and protection. Then the putting out of feelers: "Can this really mean Independence?" And then comes the whole great realization that the future holds freedom. No longer a care and a responsibility to his family and friends, he can take up his life where he left it off; no longer dependent on a member of the family, he can come and go as he pleases; and as these thoughts and possibilities gather strength in his mind, despair and loneliness give way to happiness and companionship, and these qualities can be seen developing from day to day.

"A comparison of the men completing their course with those just commencing is the proof. The men arrive forlorn, with lined, anxious faces and drooping bodies, thin or over-fat from inertia. In four short weeks they are remade; life takes on a new interest; shoulders lose their droop, backs straighten up and feet forget to shuffle. The thin have won back their appetite through their daily exercising walks and have put on weight and muscle, and the fat ones have trained down. Occasionally, a chuckle is heard which is the opening wedge for a laugh, just as the birds' early morning twitter presages the full song to the sun."

The final paragraph of the article is the trumpet call to action that in many ways led to the creation of The Seeing Eye.

"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; and last, but far from least, that long, healthful walks are now possible to exercise off the unhealthy fat of inactivity and so keep the body strong and fit. Gentlemen, again without reservation, I give you the shepherd dog."

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