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Spotlight On Seeing Eye Dogs

January 15, 2024

Some very amazing dogs are going to be celebrating their birthday on January 29th: it’s the official Seeing Eye Dog celebration day! Seeing Eye Dogs, or guide dogs, as they are also known, are pups that have been specially trained to serve as the eyes of their owners. These amazing dogs have helped thousands of people with visual impairments live independently. A local Burlington, ON veterinarian discusses seeing eye dogs in this article.

What Tasks Can Seeing Eye Dogs Perform?

Guide dogs assist their humans in a variety of ways. They help with crossing streets, navigating obstacles, and safely traversing changes in elevation like curbs. Additionally, they guide their humans around objects such as parking meters, lamp posts, and open manholes, while also steering them away from hazards like low-hanging awnings or branches. These well-trained pups can even navigate to entrances and exits to buildings or rooms, locate elevators, and find empty seats or benches. They also can retrieve specific items like mail, medication, or clothing.

How Do Guide Dogs Do Their Jobs?

Much of it boils down to intelligent disobedience. When a guide dog sees a potential hazard, he will refuse to move forward, regardless of what commands his owner gives. If something dangerous approaches, such as a car or bicyclist, or if he and his owner approach an obstacle, such as a curb, stairwell, or another barrier, he may stop or sit suddenly. 

For instance, when crossing roads, the human will listen to the traffic flow and wait until the flow is moving in a parallel direction, then tell the dog to proceed. Fido will only move forward if it is safe.

How Did The Seeing Eye Dog Come To Be?

Seeing-eye dog schools first emerged during the 20th century, but Fido has been supporting visually impaired individuals since long before that. In fact, our canine companions have likely been aiding humans in this capacity for over two millennia. Evidence found in ancient Roman art from Herculaneum, a city destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., depicts a dog guiding a blind man. Similar depictions exist in records from Asia and Europe, some dating back to the Middle Ages.

More evidence of dogs guiding the blind can be found in 16th-century literature. For instance, an old alphabet rhyme contains the line, ‘B was a blind man led by a dog.’ Charles Dickens mentioned Fido in A Christmas Carol.

After World War I, German guide dog training schools were set up to help veterans blinded by mustard gas. That is the beginning of the modern history of the Seeing Eye Dog.

Here’s what happened: while out for a walk with his dog and a patient, Dr. Gerhard Stalling received an urgent call and had to leave unexpectedly. He left the patient and dog together briefly. When he came back, he was amazed to find that the animal had been assisting the human. This piqued his interest and led him to explore the idea further. 

His research and drive resulted in the establishment of the first guide dog school in 1916. The school quickly grew in popularity, with branches soon opening in Bonn, Breslau, Dresden, Essen, Freiburg, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Münster, and Hannover. At its peak, they were training up to 600 dogs every year for people not only in Germany, Britain, and France, but also in Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union. While this particular group of schools closed down, it paved the way for other similar institutions to emerge.

Why Is The Seeing Eye Dog’s Birthday On January 29th?

Dorothy Eustis established the Seeing Eye training center on January 29, 1929, along with Morris Frank, a blind man. Frank had tragically lost his vision in separate accidents: he lost the vision in one eye to a tree branch, and the other in a boxing match.  Interestingly, Frank’s mother had also experienced a similar fate, losing sight in each eye to unrelated incidents. 

After reading an article Eustis had written about guide dogs, Frank reached out to her and requested her assistance in training a dog for him. They two worked together to train an exceptional canine companion, whom they then fittingly named Buddy.

When the team arrived in New York City in 1928, the media was stunned to see Buddy guiding Frank around the city’s busy streets. (Fun fact: Frank owned three guide dogs over the course of his life, all of whom were German Shepherds named Buddy.)  Eustis and Frank later founded The Seeing Eye, and the rest is history.

What Is the Training Process for Guide Dogs?

For a pooch to become a guide dog, he needs to begin training when he is very young, long before meeting his prospective owners. Fido usually starts working around the age of one and a half. The process of partnering a dog with his human can be quite time-consuming. Making the right match is crucial! 

How Do Guide Dogs And Seeing Eye Dogs Differ?

It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t know this, but the term The Seeing Eye dog is trademarked, and should only be used for dogs trained by The Seeing Eye. Pups trained by other schools should be referred to as guide dogs. Aside from that, there is no significant distinction between them. 

In contrast, there is a clear contrast between guide dogs and emotional support animals. Guide dogs are classified as service dogs, and are therefore granted federal legal protection. They also have access to nearly all locations, with the exception of certain sterile environments like laboratories and specific hospital units.

What Breed Of Dog Are Guide Dogs?

The most prevalent are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Other pups in this field include Border Collies, Standard Poodles, Vizslas, Australian Shepherds, Boxers, and Airedales. Though they aren’t officially recognized breeds, Doodle dogs, such as Labradoodles and Goldendoodles are also popular choices, in part due to their hypoallergenic coats. (These guys aren’t technically hypoallergenic, but they are easier for people with allergies to cope with. However, that’s another topic.)

What Do Seeing-Eye Dogs Cost?

Expenses associated with Fido’s training and care can add up to $50,000 per year. Unfortunately, Medicare, Medicaid, and other insurance plans do not typically cover these costs. However, there are alternative funding options available, such as utilizing FSA or HSA accounts. Crowdfunding, grants, personal savings, and loans are also viable options. Some charitable guide dog institutes may offer assistance, although eligibility requirements may differ.

Is It Okay To Pet A Guide Dog?

Fido may be very, very cute, but if you see him out and about, that means he’s working. His focus needs to be on helping his person. Seeing-eye dogs are protected by federal law, so it’s illegal to interfere with their work. The only exception is if a service dog comes to you. That may signal that the dog’s owner is in trouble. Call 911 and then follow the dog if you can do so safely. Ask your Burlington, ON veterinarian for more information. 

Do you have questions about dog care? Is your canine buddy due for an exam? Contact us, your Burlington, ON local pet hospital, today! 

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