Blind trust: Dogs for people who can’t live without them

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:

July 7 accident stunned New York City. Before dozens of
witnesses, a blind woman fell from the platform at
Pennsylvania Station, losing her grip on her guide dog’s
harness. As she scrambled back toward safety, and the
frantic dog barked a warning, the 9:18 southbound express
thundered into the station, and though the motorman threw
his full weight against the emergency brake, it knocked her
20 feet through the air.
Five minutes before 10:00 a.m., when she would
have reported for work, Vision Services for the Blind asso-
ciate executive director Pamela Schneider, 49, died of her
extensive injuries.

One of the most prominent and popular advocates
for the blind in New York, Schneider had traveled with
dogs since her teens. For years she had introduced children
who had lost their sight to the world of the blind, including
the necessity for many of trusting a dog to provide mobility,
security, and emotional comfort. As Vision Services for
the Blind executive director Nancy Weber remembered,
Schneider was “highly independent, someone who traveled
to every neighborhood” of an often quite hostile city “with-
out fear or second thought,” because she always had one of
a succession of good dogs with her.
Her guide the morning of her death was Pepper, a
four-year-old Labrador retriever personally trained for her
by Geoffrey Locke, one of the most experienced staffers at
Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Following the accident, Pepper
was returned to the family who raised him for the first 18
months of his life.
It was the first such fatality anyone could remem-
ber in the fifty years since Morris Frank and Seeing Eye Inc.
of Morristown, New Jersey, introduced the use of guide
dogs for the blind to the United States. Blind people and
their dogs have been killed together by speeding cars and
muggers’ bullets, but never before was there even a hint of
guide dog failure.
Why didn’t Pepper warn Schneider away from the
edge of the platform? He was walking on her left, as all
guide dogs are taught to do. And Lock and Schneider had
prepared him to react to just such an emergency.
“Because of Pam’s work situation,” explained for-
mer Guiding Eyes for the Blind president John Kullberg,
“she received home training instead of the three-week train-
ing usually provided to former students at the Guiding Eyes
residential training center. In home training, both dog and
student are trained in the actual work and travel routines that
the student daily experiences. As such, Pam’s training
emphasized more subway orientation than would otherwise
have been the case. Pam’s dog was performing as trained,”
Kullberg told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
But there were other circumstances. As pedestrian
traffic safety engineer John J. Fruin wrote to The New York
Times two days later, the 12-inch abrasive warning strip at
the edge of New York Transit Authority platforms is far
narrower than the three-foot strip the American National
Standards Institute has required since 1980. There are no
guard rails on the platforms. The Pennsylvania Station plat-
form has trains running on both sides, and is relatively nar-
row itself. According to Fruin, more than 190 people per
year are injured in New York City transit system track falls;
55 are killed.
“While all this could have led to some disorienta-
tion for the dog, of greater consequence to both dog and
caretaker was the heat and humidity,” said Kullberg. “Pam
was a diabetic, and the heat, humidity, and possible dia-
betic complications could all have been factors in this tragic
accident. Unfortunately we will never know for sure.”
For a few days the Schneider case focused atten-
tion on the whole issue of whether humans should literally
trust their lives to dogs, or any animal. But when the radio
talk show callers and letter-writers ran out of second guesses
and suggestions about training people on welfare to be
guides or inventing robots to do the job, the answer was
clear: blind people who have dogs wouldn’t choose to live
without them. And that includes 2,500 or more of the
25,000 blind residents of New York City, who form a quar-
ter of the mobile blind population of the United States.
Nothing else affords equal independence, privacy, protec-
tion, and companionship all at once. Seconding voices
came from deaf people who rely on hearing dogs to warn
them of danger; epileptics whose dogs somehow sense
when a seizure is imminent; and quadriplegics and para-
plegics, many of whom have discovered the value of a dog
in helping them with all the essential chores of life.
What’s in it for the dog?
Charges People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, in a position paper on companion animals, “Even
when people have the best of intentions, working dogs are
often used as a substitute for innovation and programs that
intelligently address human needs. They may…even be
treated cruelly in preparation for, and during their lives of
servitude. Some people with working dogs love
them––some don’t.”
Before spending a year at the head of Guiding
Eyes for the Blind, Kullberg served 14 years as president of
the American SPCA. Few people could be better positioned
to judge the relationship between the handicapped and their
canine helpers from a humane perspective.
“Some adoption agencies do better jobs than oth-
ers,” he admits. “Some guide dog schools weed out prob-
lems better than others. Most guide dog schools go adop-
tion agencies one better: they retain legal title to their guide
dogs, so that in the event they determine the guide dog is
not being properly cared for, the dog can be taken back. In
practice,” he continues, “this is an illusory protection, for
possession is very much nine tenths of the law. Thus what
is in it for the dog ultimately rests on an evaluation of the
environment the dog is placed in, and on the character,
sensitivity, lifestyle, and commitment of the caretaker.”
On those criteria, Kullberg believes, the blind
and perhaps other physically handicapped people are
uniquely well qualified to have dogs. “The blind are typi-
cally more suited to share their lives with dogs than those
such as myself,” he argues, “who have many obligations
away from our dogs. While many might object to the walk-
ing harness guide dogs wear,” more to enable the dog to
drag the blind person away from danger than to help the
person control the dog, “the fact is that both the dog and
the blind person share their lives as a general rule much
more fully and satisfactorily than the morning rushed walk
and the evening romp that many pet dogs are given by their
The blind and other people with helper dogs don’t
get them quickly or easily. “The screening, selection, and
training of blind people to work with a dog takes some four
months of continuous time,” Kullberg explains. “A very
small percentage of blind people want a guide dog, even
after they determine that a dog would do much to enhance
their lives. The principle reason for this is awareness of
stewardship responsibilities within a life situation that is
already typically more complex” than that of a sighted per-
son. “They must learn to live with dogs at their sides, exer-
cise the dogs, clean up after them, feed them, and attend to
their veterinary needs. These last two considerations are of
great significance to those blind individuals living on fixed
and typically small disability incomes. There is also a need
to display extraordinary consistency in voice and hand com-
mands. These realities probably discourage 90% of those
legally blind individuals who consider having a guide dog
from choosing to have one.”
According to Kullberg, “Because of this extraordi-
nary self-screening process, guide dog schools are able to
accommodate almost everyone who wants a guide dog and
is able to properly care for the dog and complete the train-
ing. Responsible guide dog schools do a thorough back-
ground check on each applicant, requiring personal refer-
ences, medical histories, and in-home evaluation visits.”
Blind people who have worked successfully with a
dog for eight to 10 years may get expedited screening and
training, as Schneider did.
In all, the nine institutions belonging to the
Council of U.S. Dog Guide Schools place about 1,400 dogs
with the blind per year. Each placement costs about
$25,000, all of it received through private contributions.
The U.S. government does not subsidize guide dog pro-
grams. At any given time, there are about 10,000 working
guide dogs in the U.S. (fewer than in England), a surpris-
ingly low number for an assistance program with such a
high profile. There were once more, but due to improve-
ments in occupational safety and medical care, blindness is
now mostly a condition of old age, accompanying other
serious debilities. As the number of young blind people
decreases, the demand for guide dogs is decreasing.
Hearing dogs
The use of hearing dogs is up, however.
According to Linda Hines, executive director of the Delta
Society, a 1990 survey by the Hearing Dog Resource Center
discovered 19 hearing dog programs (one of which has sub-
sequently been discontinued). Among them, they had
trained approximately 3,000 dogs, and were certifying 440
dogs per year.
“The dogs learn to respond to 10 sounds,” Hines
said, “with the most common being the alarm clock, smoke
alarm, door knock or bell, telephone, baby crying, the
owner’s name being called, and a timer or microwave
sound. If the owner needs custom training for other sounds,
most programs will provide this.”
Like the average guide dog, hearing dogs typically
work for eight to 12 years. The screening of recipients is
similar. But the similarities end there. Deaf people usually
enjoy a great deal more physical independence than the
blind, even without a dog. The training period for the dog
is correspondingly shorter, and the training itself less
rigorous. The dogs themselves also differ. Guide dogs
have to be big enough to pull a blind person away from
danger. For hearing duty, says Hines, “A small to
medium-sized dog is preferred, one weighing under 30
pounds. Since the dog must place his or her paws on the
person or jump on the person to alert the person to
sounds, a large dog could knock down or injure an
owner unintentionally. The most common hearing dogs
are terrier/poodle mixes. A few programs prefer pure-
bred Welsh Corgies, border collies, Shetland sheep-
dogs, or poodles.”
Where the dogs come from
“In almost all cases,” PETA charges, “seeing-eye
dog programs contribute to overpopulation by breeding
dogs, whereas programs providing dogs for the deaf often
rescue dogs from shelters.”
Indeed, confirms Hines, “about 85% of hearing
dog programs obtain dogs from shelters, 65% accept donat-
ed dogs, 30% receive dogs from breeders, and 15% breed
their own dogs. Over half the programs will train a suitable
dog already owned by a recipient, and half will train an
owner to train his/her own dog.”
Founded in 1956, Guiding Eyes for the Blind and
many similar programs began by attempting to train shelter
dogs. But, explains Kullberg, “whereas hearing dogs who
are shelter-sourced have a very good track record, shelter-
sourced guide dogs do not. The obvious reason has to do
with the characteristics that make for a dependable guide
dog: even, calm temperament; focused; patient; of appro-
priate strength; of general good health and bone structure;
typically attached to one person. Even suitability of coat is
a guide dog consideration,” because the blind person must
be able to identify the dog by touch. “When any one of
these characteristics is deficient, the dependability factor is
weakened. And, particularly for a totally blind person who
greatly entrusts his or her safety to a guide dog, a lack of
dependability means an inevitable risk of serious, even life-
threatening injury.”
There are good guide dog prospects in shelters,
but accurately identifying them under shelter conditions has
proved difficult, and each mistake costs a training school
thousands of dollars in time and effort.
“As a consequence,” continues Kullberg, “almost
all guide dogs are specifically bred for the work. Concern
for the blind person and concern about liability dictate this.
And the best of the guide dog schools breed with great care,
compassion, and safeguards, including programs that
achieve optimum humane placement for any dogs who are
rejected from training because they do not meet all of the
standards that the program requires.”
As head of the ASPCA, Kullberg tended to
oppose all breeding (although the ASPCA itself never took
that position). Through his work with Guiding Eyes for the
Blind, he discovered a need “to jump beyond the ‘do not
breed’ ideal to the reality that recognizes a defensible need
that responsible breeding meets.”
What becomes of the dogs?
“When seeing-eye dogs become too old to work,”
accuses PETA, “they may be separated from their human
companions and either ‘retired’ with another family, always
wondering no doubt what they did wrong or where their life-
long human companion went; returned to the training cen-
ter; or even be destroyed.”
In fact, like Pepper, most guide dogs who leave
service for any reason return to the families who socialized
them for a year to 18 months before their formal training
began––people they know and trust. They leave most often
because of the death of their person. Otherwise, most work
until, as with most pet dogs, their mobility fails due to fail-
ing health, and they must be euthanized.
Typically a blind person who loses a guide dog
responds comparably to someone who loses a spouse.
Severe depression and prolonged grief are common.
Schneider used to counsel bereaved guide dog owners, hav-
ing been through the experience several times herself. (Few
Americans had relied on guide dogs longer.)
Because of purpose-breeding, relatively few guide
dogs flunk screening and training. About half of all poten-
tial hearing dogs flunk the screening, but up to 90% of those
who pass are then trained successfully. According to the
NDRC survey, 79% of the failures are placed in new
homes, while 21% go back to the shelters they came from.
September 29, in Garden Grove, California, a
six-year-old Labrador retriever named Mercury alerted
Pamela Reed, 43, to a midnight apartment fire begun when
Reed, who can only see intense light, accidentally left a
burning 200-watt bulb in a pile of clothing. For the second
time in a year, Reed lost everything, including her Braile
typewriter. Her previous fire, caused when she knocked
over a lamp, killed her human companion, Angie Gardner.
Perhaps Reed shouldn’t be living independently. But if not
for the dog, rescuers agreed, she wouldn’t be living at all.
––Merritt Clifton
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