Nothing else within the last quarter century has emphasized the value of the dog to mankind so much as has the use of the dog as a guide for the blind. Here is a work so worthy that it clearly makes the dog an invaluable part of society.
Today when one sees a dog doing his good work as eyes for a blind person, we often hear the phrase: “There goes a Seeing Eye dog.” The remark may not be entirely true, for not all guide dogs are Seeing Eye dogs. Such dogs must come from the training school of the Seeing Eye, Morristown, N.J.
It was our privilege and pleasure in May, 1939, to visit the school, if it may be termed a school. It really is located at Whippany, N. J., but very little of the training is done on the grounds. Usually the dogs and the blind are taken by truck to Morristown four miles away, and with the permission and cooperation of the authorities of that city, go thur their “lessons” on the busiest streets of Morristown; the traffic is heavy and dangerous on a number of thorofares. Here are a few notes concerning the school and its work.
A charge of $150 is made to each blind person. The charge is made in order to create in the blind person a spirit of confidence and earning ability.
Blind persons between the ages of 16 and 50 are accepted for training. There is little difference between blind men and women in receptivity to training. For women, dogs of short step are chosen. For men, the choice is mostly in the height of the dog-a tall man, a tall dog. Dogs under 14 months are not taken for training. In sex, about 60% are female, 40% male. Pedigrees are not furnished with the dogs. The papers are retained by the school. It is thus aimed to discourage the breeding of dogs and the resulting interference in the use of the dog, with distraction of the dog’s attention.
The breeds used are shepherds, boxers, dobermans, the first greatly in preponderance. Dogs of extra long coat or with long feathering are hardly suitable on account of the dampness they may carry, particularly on a muddy day. Dogs are chosen for good feet, sturdiness, and intelligence. Shy, nervous and disobedient dogs are promptly discarded. A torpedo is exploded to test reaction to sudden noise.
Dogs, regardless of sex, are referred to as “she” and the blind person as “he”.–this to avoid confusion in reports, for instance-“He wrongly stopped in the middle of the street.” Here the he might be man or male dog.
Three months time is required to train the dog, one month to train the blind person to work with the dog, and 3 to 4 years to train a trainer. The trainer must spend the first month blindfolded, not even removing the blindfold to wash his face. He lives as a blind person. Replacement of dogs lost by death is an increasing obligation. The life of the dog is figured at eight years of service.
Dogs are trained to walk fast in order to give contrast to a warning stop.
The four commands the blind person gives to the dog are “forward, right, left and down.” The dog stops at an obstruction; if the blind person insists on going forward, “she” leads the person around the obstacle.
In turning, the person remains still, the dog turns, then the person.
A person both blind and deaf can not be accepted. The aging dog, becoming deaf, must be replaced also.
Very little trouble is had thru dog fights-dogs on the street fighting the guide dog.
The blind person gets most of the contact from the dog thru the long U-shaped stiff handle running from the dog’s breast back to the left hand. The lead is held in the same hand.
If the blind man shows the least hesitation or lack of confidence in his dog, this is communicated to the dog and the results may be disastrous. Dogs are colorblind. They decide whether or not to cross a street by watching human traffic, and chiefly by deciding whether or not they can cross safely before an approaching car arrives.
Most all railways and buses permit blind person and guide dog to ride as passengers. The excess baggage rate may be charged for the dog.
We were amused to see several cats walking about the kennels. Their presence is a part of the training so that the dogs do not pay attention to them on the street.
When dogs are received, they are kept in isolation for three weeks to guard against possible disease; then dogs whether of the same sex or not are permitted to run together in order to lessen the desire to fight. During the last part of the training each dog is kept in a separate stall.
An increasing part of the work is the checkup on graduates, not the dogs but the blind persons. Now and then a blind person may cause a bit of trouble in his home town in one way or another and it becomes necessary for the manager to catch a train, go to the town, and have a heart-to-heart talk with the blind person.
It is to be borne in mind that the school must concern itself with dogs for a short time and then with human character for many years.