Saturday, October 1, 2011

Seeing Eye - Guiding Light

Today I started my day by sitting on the station platform with my Guide Dog puppy, Kristal, watching trains go by and people embarking and disembarking. I'm a puppy walker for Guide Dogs and today is the start of Guide Dogs Week. A celebration of 80 years of providing guide dogs for people in Britain who are blind or partially sighted.

The idea that dogs could be used, on a large scale, to guide blind people sprang from the experiences of German soldiers trying to locate their blinded comrades in the trench warfare of the First World War, where, like British soldiers, many were blinded by mustard gas. However, there are several much earlier indications and documented evidence of individuals having trained pet dogs as guides going back to the first century AD... in fact there is a depiction of a blind man being guided by a dog in a fresco in Roman Herculaneum. Dogs were being trained to guide blind people at Les Quinze-Vingts hospital for blind people in Paris in 1780. In 1788 Josef Riesinger, a blind seive maker from Vienna, trained his pet dog to guide him so successfully that people doubted he was blind. In 1847, a Swiss man, Jakob Birrer, wrote about his experience of being guided, over a five year period, by a dog he'd trained himself. However, it's from experiences that sprang from mustard gas and the blinding of soldiers in the trenches during World War I that the modern Guide Dog story begins. A German doctor, Gerhard Stalling, treating blinded soldiers at a re-habilitation hospital, observed his own pet dog, untrained and working purely on instinct, clearly guiding a blinded patient. From this, in 1916, sprang the first formal training programme. Soon, there were nine major training centres in Germany providing 600 trained dogs a year for clients in many countries.

In 1927, a wealthy American lady, Mrs Dorothy Harrison Eustis, living in Switzerland, heard of the German successes and went to observe their methods, following this up with an article for the Saturday Evening Post magazine (November 1927). Considering that this might be an answer to his prayers, a blind American man, Morris Frank, wrote to Dorothy encouraging her to think of introducing guide dogs to America. Dorothy Eustis saw this as an opening and trained a dog for Mr Frank who journeyed to Switzerland to work with the dog. Training completed, he returned to America with his guide dog, Buddy. The pair were followed by reporters and photographers convinced that an accident was bound to happen... but no, the partnership was a huge success. Frank was reported as saying that the 5 cents he'd spent on purchasing that magazine was worth a million dollars to him. The Seeing Eye organization was launched in America and encouraged two British women, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond to embark upon their own training programme. This was the origin of guide dog training in Britain. In 1931, the first four British dogs completed their training.

Now, 80 years later, the Guide Dogs Association produces about 1,300 puppies a year. They have just over 5000 working guide dogs. Many more are required. There are over a million people in Great Britain registered blind or partially sighted and of these, over 250,000 would benefit from a guide dog partnership. However, Guide Dogs is a charity and receives no government funding so can only produce the number of working dogs it can support. (Support being in the form of breeding, training, veterinary costs, feeding, equipment etc.) Under the guidance of the 900 or so staff, Guide Dogs is supported by over 11,000 volunteers who take on a wide range of roles such as fundraising, puppy walking, assisting kennel staff, speaking at functions, driving dogs from one end of the country to the other and many more.   

Although training dogs is Guide Dogs main role, many people will be unaware that the organization also contributes a large amount of its funds towards research into eye disease and it is second only to the RNIB as providers of mobility and independence training for blind and partially sighted people with or without a dog.

You never know when you might need the services of an organization like Guide Dogs. We're told we can expect to live longer these days. The problem is that our bits and pieces are wearing out at different rates...  

That said... I think it's walkies time!

   For further information: www.guidedogs.org.uk  


  1. Lovely Blog and so informative. I understand the problems with severe eye problems, we have two members of the family, one registered blind and the with chronic eye sight. Love the doggies and how wonderful to know how helpful they will be when they grown up. Take care x

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