Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Service Animals and Dorothy Harrison Eustis

Today we take the concept of service animals for granted but it's easy to forget that, less than 100 years ago, impaired individuals had no such support. That was the situation following WWI when countless young men, blinded by mustard gas in the trenches of Europe, were trying to re-acclimatise to society. One woman, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, believed that with a helping hand -- or more accurately, four helping paws -- these individuals could find their place and become contributing members of their communities.

Dorothy Leib Harrison was born in Philadelphia in 1886 and raised in an upper middle class household. She married Walter Wood in 1906. Wood was a businessman who operated an experimental farm for the selective breeding of dairy cattle. Dorothy had a German Shepherd on the farm. The dog's exceptional intelligence and loyalty encouraged Dorothy to begin thinking about how dogs could be used to help humans.

Wood died in 1917 and Dorothy moved to Vevey, Switzerland. In Vevey she established a kennel and began to experiment with the selective breeding of dogs. In 1923 Dorothy married George Eustis, a horse breeder, and together they continued Dorothy's project. By the late 1920s the pair had succeeded in creating a strain of loyal and intelligent German Shepherds and word of their endeavours spread. The Swiss army and a number of European police units acquired some of the Eustis's dogs and integrated them into their work.

In 1927 the Eustises heard about a school in Germany that trained dogs as guides for blind veterans. Dorothy Eustis wrote an article about the school for the Saturday Evening Post which was brought to the attention of Morris S. Frank, a blind man from Nashville, Tennessee. Frank corresponded with Dorothy. He asked her to train a dog for him and promised that he would return to the United States and spread the word about the wonderful programme of providing blind people with dogs who could help them create independent lives. After he completed instruction in Switzerland Frank returned to New York. Word of the project had proceeded him and he was met by a throng of news reporters who were enthralled with the abilities of his dog, Buddy, and the new life that it gave to Frank. Frank sent a one-word telegram to Dorothy -- “Success.”  With that telegram The Seeing Eye program was born with the goal of making the entire world accessible to people who are blind.

In 1929 Dorothy returned to the United States and incorporated The Seeing Eye, Inc. She established a training school for dogs and owners in Nashville Tennessee. In 1932 the school moved to Whippany, New Jersey.

Dorothy invested a great deal of her own fortune in The Seeing Eye and established a foundation that allowed the school to function independently. She served as the school's president until 1940 even while continuing to serve as president of L’Oeil Qui Voit, a Swiss training school for dogs and instructors. She believed in restricting the dogs to individuals of sufficient maturity, strength, ambition, and financial means that would allow them to fully benefit from the freedom that a guide dog could make possible. By the time that Dorothy passed away in 1946 The Seeing Eye had supplied more than 1,300 guide dogs to the blind.

Dorothy Eustis is the acknowledged pioneer of seeing eye dogs -- a concept which has exploded in recent years to service animals of many different types and for people with many different physical, mental, health and other types of challenges. However, until recently, very little was known about her or her involvement in the world of service animals.

Recently a group of Panama City Florida first-graders embarked on a project to ensure that Dorothy's efforts would be recognized and honoured. The class worked together to research Dorothy Eustis and create an "Unsung Heroes" project about her that is now featured at the Lowell Milken Center. The children partnered with a local dog-training programme where they observed the training process and created materials that could express their thoughts as they learned about Dorothy and observed the training facility. As a part of the LMC the students were able to gain knowledge about the program and respect for individuals with disabilities while they learned about how one person can make a difference in the lives of many.

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