How Seeing Eye Dogs Found Their Way to America

The Seeing Eye
The Seeing Eye / The Seeing Eye

In the 1920s, a journalist, a college student, and a German shepherd teamed up to change the lives of the blind.

American expat Dorothy Harrison Eustis was living in Switzerland in 1927 when she saw something incredible: specially trained dogs guiding blind German World War I veterans. It was an era when the blind were almost totally reliant on other people for help, and Eustis was so impressed by the veterans’ independence that she wrote a piece for The Saturday Evening Post extolling the virtues of their German shepherds. “Called from his play, a dog advanced in his work is ridiculously like a business man called to his office,” she wrote.

After the article ran, readers flooded Eustis with letters. One note in particular stood out. Morris Frank, a Vanderbilt undergrad, wrote: “Is what you say really true? If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others.” Frank offered Eustis a deal: “Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own.”

Eustis called Frank with an offer. If he’d trek to Switzerland—no small task for a blind man in that era—she’d set him up with a dog and trainer. Frank wasn’t daunted by the terms, yelling, “To get back my independence, I’d go to Hell!”

Both held up their ends of the bargain. Frank went to Switzerland, got a dog named Buddy, and returned home to much media attention. In New York City, throngs of reporters were astounded by the spectacle of Buddy and Frank crossing streets and navigating sidewalk traffic. True to his word, Frank traveled the U.S. and Canada demonstrating Buddy’s helpfulness. In 1929, Frank and Eustis teamed up to form the Seeing Eye, the first U.S. agency to train guide dogs. The program proved wildly successful and in its 84 years of operation has trained more than 15,000 dogs.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.