From predator to companion, dogs have grown into a very important part of our social and personal lives. For many centuries their only role was that of guard dog and companion. Starting around the 15th century it became more common for the visually impaired to use them as the sight they didn’t have. In the Civil War and World War I, dogs left abandoned on battlefields were adopted by the soldiers to lift their spirits and relieve the stress of combat.
The first school to train the blind along with first service dogs opened in the early 1900s in Potsdam, Germany. German shepherd dogs were chosen for their intelligence, disposition and size. Many of those sightless were the German war-blind of World War I. Over time the classes developed from the first lesson held in a park to better training at the school open-air courses with stairs, scaffolding and utility poles among other obstacles they might encounter in daily life.
A “Saturday Evening Post” article by Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy American who trained dogs in Switzerland, led a young man named Morris Frank to contact her about becoming the first American to use a guide dog. Eustis agreed to train Frank. He traveled to her academy where he promised to spread the word in the United States about service dogs bringing accessibility to the blind.
Frank returned home with Buddy, his new guide dog. Together, they successfully navigated the streets of New York City with throngs of news reporters watching. After the demonstration, Frank sent Eustis a one-word telegram. That one word was “Success.” Morris Frank and Dorothy Harrison Eustis formed “The Seeing Eye”, a non-profit devoted to the breeding and training of guide dogs in 1929. The Seeing Eye still located in New Jersey, is the oldest existing guide dog school in the world.
Since Frank and Buddy, the use of dogs and other service animals has evolved. In 1975, the first “hearing” dog program opened in San Francisco to serve the impaired with a companion to alert them to smoke alarms, the telephone and door bells. That same year, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the first non-profit opened their doors to train Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and Corgis to be specialized therapy dogs possessing the learned skills necessary to assist their human partners with difficult tasks. CCI was founded by a former special education teacher who, while traveling, saw disabled people use burros to assist them with everyday tasks they couldn’t complete.
A year later, the first “therapy” dog nonprofit opened its doors in New Jersey. Handlers and the dogs chosen showed a gentle temperament that allowed them to be brought into care facilities to lift the spirits of patients. Therapy dogs can come from many breeds or even mutts from the local shelter. An Oklahoma City example of this is Whiskey, the Deaf Therapy Dog. Whiskey is actually a special needs dog born deaf who volunteers with children and adults who may be very sick or have special needs. Whiskey also advocates for other dogs that have special needs. Whiskey is a regular at Dale Rogers Training Center and we love the visits.
Now service animals offer a broad range of physical and emotional support to those who need assistance in their day-to-day lives. Since the advent of the practice, service animals are now employed to assist their owners with everything from physical disabilities to mental and emotional disorders. Not all are dogs, either. A service animal may be anything from a parrot to an alpaca. They have found amazing ways to provide comfort and support to those with special needs.