by Dorothy Harrison Eustis
To everyone, I think, there is always something particularly pathetic about a blind man. Shorn of his strength and his independence, he is a prey to all the sensitiveness of his position and he is at the mercy of all with whom he comes in contact. The sensitiveness, above all, is an almost insuperable obstacle to cope with in his fight for a new life, for life goes on willy-nilly and the new conditions must be reckoned with. In darkness and uncertainty he must start again, wholly dependent on outside help for every move. His other senses may rally to his aid, but they cannot replace his eyesight. To man's never failing friend has been accorded this special privilege. Gentlemen, I give you the German shepherd dog.
Because of their extraordinary intelligence and fidelity, Germany has chosen her own breed of shepherd dog to help her in the rehabilitation of her war blind, and in the lovely city of Potsdam she has established a very simple and business-like school for training her dogs as blind leaders. Inclosed in a high board fence, the school consists of dormitories for the blind, kennels for the dogs and quarters for the teachers, the different buildings framing a large park laid out in sidewalks and roads with curbs, steps, bridges and obstacles of all kinds, such as scaffoldings, barriers, telegraph poles and ditches -- everything in fact that the blind man has to cope with in everyday life.
Three forces work together to make this school the model that it has become: The German Government, the Shepherd Dog Club of Germany and the association of war-blinded soldiers. The latter is a splendid organization of some 3000 men which strives continually and successfully to keep its members in work and above pity or charity and out of the class of beggars and peddlers. The government furnishes the land for the school and further grants each blind man a subsidy for his dog's keep after he has left the school.
The dogs are supplied by the Shepherd Dog Club of Germany and are either donated or bought at the lowest price compatible with the qualities they must have, for these blind leaders are the distant cousins and the cinderellas of famous show dogs; they not only have the goods but they deliver them in the shape of courage, intelligence and service. The total cost of a dog, trained and ready to leave the school, is about sixty dollars, which includes the initial cost of the dog.
They must be young and healthy, with quiet, steady nerves and a good character. As a whole, they are a very nice looking lot, especially when you take into consideration that not more than ten or twelve dollars has been paid for one of them. Moreover, they have a certain expression in their eyes, a sturdiness and interest which is too often lacking in their fashionable cousins. As the qualities of courage and intelligence are characteristics of the German shepherd dog wherever he is found unspoiled by intensive show breeding, it is not so hard to collect groups of these leaders for the blind as it would seem, and after a few simple tests to prove he is fit for the service, the new recruit can go to work, and all his work is founded on obedience. It is little short of marvelous how a raw dog can be taken into the school and in four months be turned out a blind leader, and the miracle is that the dog so perfectly assimilates his instruction. From the very small beginnings of becoming absolutely house-broken, he is taken step by step upward to his life work of leading a blind man, of being that man's eyes and his sword and buckler. He is first let loose to run with all the other dogs and to learn to mind his P's and Q's and not to fight.
For any dog full of life and energy, this first step is an education in itself and of itself starts him thinking. After he has mastered his lesson, the park becomes a schoolroom; and here, with dogs running loose, people passing in all directions, laughing and talking, he has his first studies in concentration and learns to sit and lie down on command, to speak, to fetch, to carry; and he must learn good will and do it all cheerfully, gladly and with dispatch. This is the A B C, or kindergarten, of obedience, and if he is an apt pupil he learns it easily and graduates into the next class. Here he begins his work in the leading harness, which is more easily seen in the pictures than explained in words. He now learns that although in hours of play and exercise he can romp with other dogs in the park, from the moment the harness is put on him dogs must be anathema to him. Called from his play, a dog advanced in his work is ridiculously like a business man called to his office; you can almost see him lay aside his newspaper, settle his coat, straighten his necktie and take on an air of business affairs.
In the beginning, all schooling went on in the park; but it was soon found that a dog might work perfectly there and be of no use in the bustle and distraction of a city, so the park was given over to obedience exercises and the advanced classes were moved into the city itself. From the moment a dog wears the leading harness his schooling is done under actual working conditions. He must go at a fast walk so that the slackening in his gait for an obstacle is instantly felt through the rigid handle of his harness. For curbs he pulls back and stands still so that his master can find the edge with his cane; for steps, approaching traffic and all obstacles barring progress, he sits down; and for trees, letter boxes, scaffoldings, pedestrians, he leans away from his man, who follows the pull and so is led safely around. He learns the direction commands of right, left and forward, and to pick up anything his master drops. He is taught to protect his master from violence and this instinct develops in bounds after he finally wins through to his own blind master. He must be ever watchful and protective, but never aggressive, and it is that quality of perfect balance in instruction that is the success at Potsdam.
He passes gradually from the lower to the higher grades of work and is not given advanced problems before he has mastered the simpler ones. His head is not bothered about approaching traffic, pedestrians or obstacles until he is ready for them. They are the higher mathematics of his course. His first days are spent learning to sit down before every curb. This later develops into half sitting down or pulling back, but in the beginning it is very definitely sitting down and having the curb brought to his attention. After a few days he is allowed to make the mistake of crossing without signaling. Then the teacher stumbles against the curb exactly as a blind man would and instantly corrects the dog, making him sit down in the proper place.
As he progresses in one exercise another is added, so that one by one he learns always to keep the middle of the sidewalk, to cross directly from one curb to another, to keep a slight pull on the harness handle and not to dawdle. Gradually he is warned from pedestrians and it becomes second nature for him to skirt them. Finally he learns his duty in street traffic, and the different strands of his education have been woven together into the finished fabric, each strand in its place and giving support to the whole.
The dog must have perfect obedience and yet he cannot be a machine; he must have certain initiative to take care of situations as they come up. He must obey all commands and yet be ready to take matters into his own realm if sudden violence threatens.
Fifty or sixty dogs are in school at a time, all in different stages of development, and they are at their studies all day long, with stated periods for recess. Four teachers give these scholars their education, and about fifteen dogs graduate every month. They have to pass a test before a committee of experts to win their guaranty of reliability, and then they are ready to take their place in the sun as worthy citizens. Next comes the question of placing the right dog with the right man, for different temperaments and characters need different handling and those of man and dog must complement each other.
Then, too, there is the difficulty of accustoming the dog to his new master. In the four months of school he has become attached to his teacher and works perfectly for him and he is puzzled and thrown off by the exchange. The first days with the new master are difficult. The blind man is nervous, distrustful and supercritical, as well he might be. The dog works unevenly, often looking back at his old teacher, and the blind man has a disturbed mental picture that this is the way he is always going to be led and he states his opinion in no uncertain terms.
I should like here to recognize publicly the tact and patience of the instructors of the school. They are obliged to have both in unlimited quantities. It is hard enough to find a man who can handle a dog well, but here are men who must handle both dogs and men with quietness and cheeriness to bring about that harmony and accord which are to go out with them from the school. It must be a very comforting thing to see the dogs you have worked over and taught able to make blind men happy.
The accommodations permit of twelve to fifteen men, who come the first day of every month, for four weeks. The building is made up of simple dormitories and a combination living and class room. Here the blind scholars listen to lectures on the care, feeding and psychology of the dog, study raised maps of the streets of Potsdam with their finger tips and memorize them. This gives them a clear mental picture, so that later they can go to any part of the city by the simple directions of so many blocks to the right, left or straight ahead.
This is all class work, as the man's real schooling commences with the practical work of brushing, feeding and making friends with the dog that has been assigned to him. On the man's arrival at the school the dog leaves the kennel where he has lived for four months and comes to live with his master in the dormitory. This helps enormously to smooth over the strangeness and difficulties of the first few days, as after kennel life the dog feels that he belongs to someone and the man dimly feels his companionship. The dog's home is under his master's bed and he instantly takes charge of all his master's property. Nothing can be touched or taken away without permission, and so from the first day his master has the feeling of protection -- a new little flutter of comfort that starts the ball rolling along the path of hope in the future.
The proud young scholar now turns teacher and through the same streets which have so lately served as schoolrooms, with the help of his own instructor, he teaches his new master the technic of a lead dog and shows him how he can guide him safely and surely. The course is all carried out in an atmosphere of cheeriness, confidence and security, and in two or three weeks even the most faltering has learned his dog's signals. Every day, under the direction of a teacher, the blind scholar carries on his dog's lessons in speaking, fetching and carrying, so that he may learn to put command into his voice -- a quality sadly lacking since his blindness -- and to gain authority over his dog, it being a proved fact that the dog knows the man is blind.
Gradually the rehabilitation takes place. First, the uncertainty becomes less uncertain, a glimmering that perhaps here is eyesight; then the acknowledgment that here at least is ever pleasant, ungrudging companionship and protection. Then the putting out of feelers: "Can this really mean Independence?" And then comes the whole great realization that the future holds freedom. No longer a care and a responsibility to his family and friends, he can take up his life where he left it off; no longer dependent on a member of the family, he can come and go as he pleases; and as these thoughts and possibilities gather strength in his mind, despair and loneliness give way to happiness and companionship, and these qualities can be seen developing from day to day.
A comparison of the men completing their course with those just commencing is the proof. The men arrive forlorn, with lined, anxious faces and drooping bodies, thin or over-fat from inertia. In four short weeks they are remade; life takes on a new interest; shoulders lose their droop, backs straighten up and feet forget to shuffle. The thin have won back their appetite through their daily exercising walks and have put on weight and muscle, and the fat ones have trained down. Occasionally, a chuckle is heard which is the opening wedge for a laugh, just as the birds' early morning twitter presages the full song to the sun.
The dogs were running loose and romping about in the park for their half hour before working as I stood near by talking with Mr. Liese, the director. I had come to the school a skeptic, but he laughingly excused me on the ground that I belonged to the majority. I had seen so many so-called trained dogs which, put to the test, did mediocre work accompanied by many excuses that I was more or less prepared to hear reasons for poor work. I had expected possibly to see an instructor with eyes bandaged give an exhibition with one special dog to the running accompaniment of: "He's off his work today -- didn't eat this morning; he was not exercised yesterday; that's funny, he usually does that perfectly; there must be something distracting him: and so on -- all kinds of incidents that would go to prove my contention that, intelligent and full of courage as this grand breed of dogs is, it is too much to ask of him to take the entire responsibility of a blind man's life.
I had read of the blind man who crosses the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin with his dog twice a day, going to and from work, and had seen a photograph of him there, but knowing how much the Potsdamer Platz would resemble Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street if all the traffic were allowed to circulate at the same time, I put it down to a good story and a better photograph. Consequently I was not prepared to have one little incident open wide the door to my conversion. It was nearly the end of a course and the men were gathering by twos and threes outside their dormitory, canes and harnesses in their hands, before their afternoon walk, and the tears came into my eyes as I watched them go down the little path leading from their dormitory straight to the park inclosure. The men, during the four weeks, must have gone along it eight or ten times a day, and yet their feet still faltered and shuffled as they felt their way uncertainly. As each man called his dog, that dog came, regardless of what absorbing game of tag was going on; and not another dog gave heed until he, too, was called; and, then, all eager, with tail wagging and eyes shining, up he came to have his harness put on, each dog laying his head in his master's hand to let him know he was here.
I shall never forget the change that came over one man as he turned away from that gate. It was as though a complete transformation had taken place before my eyes. One moment it was an uncertain, shuffling blind man, tapping with a cane, the next it was an assured person, with his dog firmly in hand and his head up, who walked toward us quickly and firmly, giving his orders in a low confident voice. That one quick glimpse of the crying need for guidance and companionship in the lonely, all-enveloping darkness stood out clearly before my swimming eyes. To think that one small dog could stand for so much in the life of a human being, not only in his usual role of companion but as his eyes, sword, and shield and buckler! How many humans could fill those roles with the same uncomplaining devotion and untiring fidelity? Darned few, I think.I quickly asked permission to follow him on his walk, first getting a few details about him. He had never before owned a dog, and since his blindness had been led everywhere by a member of his family; on arriving at the school he had been particularly nervous, helpless and lacking in confidence. He was a man of about forty-five, thickset and husky, who had evidently been accustomed to lots of exercise and had become overfat through lack of it. He passed us whistling through his teeth and feeling for a cigarette, his dog looking us over with an appraising eye. I turned quietly and followed. Walking at a good pace, the pair went down the street to the first crossing, where the dog pulled back to indicate the curb. The man's cigarette was apparently his last, as he gave orders to be led to the tobacco shop, went in, made his purchases and then continued his walk.
As I followed him it seemed impossible to believe that the man wasn't taking the dog for a walk and stopping for traffic of his own a ccord, so quietly and evenly did they work together. I had to pull myself up pretty sharply once or twice to realize that the man was blind and that the only thing that kept him from pitching off the curb into the street was the intelligence and faithfulness of his dog. For not once through the whole hour that I followed them did that dog's attention wander.
The walk lay through the crowded shopping street with all the traffic of a big city, its noises and distractions, its scents and stray dogs on mischief or business bent. Understanding responsibility and never-failing protection radiated from that blind leader as he went about his work. His attitude was, "You mind your business and I'll mind mine," as he threaded his way along the street, and the pair went much more quickly without interference than I, who continually bumped into people in my efforts to keep up. I was amazed at the pace; I had started by walking briskly, but found the distance ever widening between us and the need to make it up every so often on a jog trot.
The streets in German cities are wide and in many places lined with two or three rows of trees and paths. To keep cyclists from riding along these paths barriers have been put up at intervals with narrow openings for pedestrians. The barriers are of one bar each and about the height of a man's waist. I had been told at the school that one of the hardest things to teach a dog was to pass between these barriers and not under them, the way being clear for the dog but not for the man, who would receive full force of the bar across his middle without warning, so I was interested to follow the pair into one of these wide, shady lanes on the homeward leg.
A couple strolling ahead had dropped a coat directly in the path but man and dog skirted it and the dog immediately came back to a line that would lead him between the barriers, although for him it would have been simpler and shorter to go under. There was a big catch in my throat as I saw them turn into the school grounds together with other pairs coming from different directions and knew that I was converted. It had not been a particular exhibition staged for my special benefit, but just one of the many dogs turned out every month with his blind master. There were no fireworks, no display, no excuses, no muddling, but honest work done by honest dogs, and my hat was off to those who had worked out and perfected such a method of sympathetic training. As always happens when you are interested in some one thing, you find examples all around you, and the day after my visit to Potsdam I was taking a respite from a big dog show and quenching my thirst with a lovely long, cool glass of beer in a great public garden across the way, when along came a blind man and his dog, threading their way between the tables. The man had apparently told his dog to take him to a table, as she stopped beside one with her master next to the chair.
I watched them for some time. The waitress could come and go as she pleased, and people could pass close by in all directions as long as they did not show any interest, but let someone stop and look curiously at them and a low warning growl issued forth immediately.
Captain Schoenherr, of the Instruction School for Police Dogs at Gruenheide, was with me and he invited the man to take a glass of beer with us, which he accepted very pleasantly. Picking up his harness handle and his cane, he gave the dog the order to follow Captain Schoenherr, who, to test him, took a curving course between the tables. Step for step and curve for curve, the dog followed him, saw her master safely into his chair and lay down quietly beside him. The man told us that he had had her for three years and only once in all that time had she run him into anything, and then he said it was largely his own fault. Man and dog had such understanding that they worked as one. Once, while the man was talking, Captain Schoenherr got up and crossed in front of the dog so close as almost to step on her paws without bringing forth a complaint, but when he stopped back of her master and stood there without speaking, the grievance came swiftly into her throat -- just a quick warning "Hands off!"
Her master laughed, patted the head always ready for his hand and said, "I never have a moment's anxiety." That from a blind man! Later he went with us to the entrance to show us how beautifully she worked, and after he'd said good-bye gave the order to take him back to his table. She took him quietly and without hesitation back to the same table and the same chair, although the way led across the whole garden, up some steps, through a pergola and between tables crowded with people.
The future for all blind men can be the same, however blinded. No longer dependent on a member of the family, a friend or a paid attendant, the blind can once more take up their normal lives as nearly as possible where they left them off, and each can begin or go back to a wage-earning occupation, secure in the knowledge that he can get to and from his work safely and without cost; that crowds and traffic have no longer any terrors for him and that his evenings can be spent among friends without responsibility or burden to them; and last, but far from least, that long, healthful walks are now possible to exercise off the unhealthy fat of inactivity and so keep the body strong and fit. Gentlemen, again without reservation, I give you the shepherd dog.
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