It took the generosity of one woman and the loyalty of one breed of dog to change life for thousands of visually impaired people.
Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1886, Dorothy Harrison learned the importance of philanthropy from her parents. At twenty Dorothy married Walter Abbott Wood, Jr. and moved with him to Hoosick Falls, New York. There, they set up an experimental cattle farm. On a later trip to Europe, Dorothy discovered a German Shepherd who exhibited tremendous intelligence. She named the dog Hans and brought him back to New York. While Dorothy helped her husband on the cattle farm, Hans never left her side. She thought about the possibility of breeding other dogs like Hans, combining canine intelligence with loyalty.
Walter died in 1915 from complications of typhoid fever. Dorothy was twenty-nine and the mother of two young children, so she moved back to Philadelphia. She remained a widow for eight years and then married George Eustis, a professional polo player, who shared her love for dogs.
The couple decided to train dogs in earnest. They acquired a home in Switzerland belonging to a family member. The move gave them easy access to travel to Germany and observe a unique school which trained dogs to accompany German war veterans blinded by mustard gas.
Captivated by what she witnessed at the training school, Dorothy convinced George to help her set up a dog breeding operation in Switzerland, and she named it Fortunate Fields Kennel.
She became passionate about training her dogs to accompany visually impaired owners. In 1927 she wrote an article entitled “The Seeing Eye” about her kennel and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post in America.
Her mailbox soon become flooded with requests from all across America. One letter stood out. It was from Morris Frank, a young blind man from Nashville, Tennessee. He asked to be brought to Switzerland and go through the training with one of the dogs. He promised that he would bring the dog back to America and use his resources to set up a similar program in the U.S.
At Fortunate Fields, Dorothy paired Morris with a female German Shepherd named Kiss. Morris promptly renamed the dog, Buddy, and they soon became inseparable. Morris trained with Buddy for four months, under the supervision of a specialized animal trainer and Dorothy.
Morris returned to the states and began to seek out other blind individuals who could benefit from a guide dog. But Americans were skeptical. Morris contacted a few journalists and took Buddy to New York City. In full view of the newspapermen, Morris tried to cross busy Broadway. Buddy stopped him until the traffic noise had subsided, indicating that it was safe to venture into the street.
With that one act, Buddy made history, and Morris Frank began soliciting candidates for a guide dog. Two years later Dorothy moved back to the U.S., and she and Morris set up The Seeing Eye Foundation. Dorothy remained its president until 1940, generously supporting it financially and leaving a monetary legacy for its future.
The cost to obtain a guide dog and go through the three weeks of training in New Jersey has remained the same since the 1930s. The $150.00 fee also includes the equipment and airfare from anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Military veterans pay $1.00. The Seeing Eye Foundation absorbs the remainder of the costs. No qualified person has ever been turned away because of a lack of funds.
Dorothy Harrison Eustis died in 1946 at the age of sixty, and Morris Frank died in 1980 at the age of seventy-two. He continued to use guide dogs his entire adult life, and named each one, Buddy, in honor of the first dog who brought him unprecedented freedom.
To date, 16,000 guide dogs have been matched with grateful owners.
Strong women often collaborate with strong men, and sometimes, strong dogs.
If you feel so inclined to make a donation to The Seeing Eye Foundation, check their website: www.seeingeye.org.
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Cut From Strong Cloth, the novel about Ellen Canavan who tries to break the glass ceiling of the Philadelphia textile empire in 1861: www.amzn.com/1940553024.
Last Curtain Call, the novel about Annie Canavan who fights the ruthless coal company preying on the most vulnerable women of her village: www.amzn.com/1940553067.