Since the late 1800’s Labor Day has been the official end of summer. The three day weekend signals going back to school for many, but its original purpose was—and still is—to celebrate the American worker—the blue collar, we-make-America-happen worker. Less known is that since 2008, thanks to Dick Van Patten (of Eight is Enough fame and Natural Balance dog food), the entire month of September has been set aside to celebrate and honor another American worker: the service dog.
The guide dog (or more broadly, service dog), much like most Americans, did not originate here. While the earliest evidence of dogs leading the blind date back to the middle ages, it wasn’t until the late 1700’s that a man started to systematically train dogs for his patients at Les Quinze-Vingts hospital for the blind in Paris. And it wasn’t until the first world war that a German doctor, Dr. Gerhard Stalling, opened the world’s first guide dog school in 1916 to assist veterans who had been blinded by poison gas.
Dorothy Eustis is the woman credited with the guide dog’s immigration to the United States. Visiting a guide dog school in Potsdam, Germany, she wrote an essay and forwarded it to the Saturday Evening Post . It was published November 5, 1927. A blind man by the name of Morris Frank in Tennessee read the article and wrote to Dorothy, expressing his desire to have such a school in the United States.
In 1928, Morris went to Germany, trained with a guide dog who he named Buddy, and returned to the States to give press conferences showing what a lifesaver Buddy was. In less than a year, thanks to Morris and Buddy’s example and top notch PR, the country was ready, willing, and overdue for dogs like Buddy. Dorothy arrived in 1929 and Morris and Dorothy created The Seeing Eye, the first guide dog school on US soil.
Since then, guide dog schools have been established all across the country. The International Guide Dog Association sets standards for training, kennels, and procedures, and states have issued standard guidelines to become accredited. However, now that guide dogs have proven they are well up to the tasks of not just leading the blind but handling a variety of jobs for people with challenges, not all training for such dogs is closely regulated. The American Disability Act does not require a dog to graduate from a certain class or be acquired from a certain accredited school. All that is required is that they must be at ease in public to not infringe on others’ rights, and they must do a specific task for the human they assist.
Unlike an emotional support animal (ESA), whose ability to provide support is simply by being themselves, a service dog’s support is a learned skill. They are specialized in a variety of tasks and are not always obvious when they are working. A hearing dog, often small in size like a terrier, alert hearing-impaired owners of noises such as doorbells and phones. Mobility dogs help those bound by wheelchairs pick up dropped objects or retrieve items and navigate in their chair. Seizure alert dogs pick up on subtle signs right before a seizure and alert their person to get to a safe place. Seizure assistance dogs may offer protection while the seizure is happening (I.e. lie on top of the person, use a tool to call for help, etc.) A trained service dog for someone with PTSD may scout ahead to a crowded place and report back with an all clear to give their person a sense of security; or when a flashback is about to happen, they get their person somewhere private and safe.
A professionally trained service dog may cost an organization close to $50,000 to raise and train. However, seldom is that cost fully covered by the handler. Through donations, grants, and volunteer time, dogs are trained and matched with those in need. While guide dogs initially began with breeding specific pairs of dogs who showed promise, some organizations have expanded their pool of eligible trainees, greatly reducing the cost and time of caring for puppies and saving lives in the process.
Many people are now looking—and finding!—hidden talents in the untapped resources of the American animal shelter system. A dog once abandoned by his family can have a second life dedicated to assisting a veteran who suffers from PTSD. A dog born on the streets can find a new life among people, assisting a child with autism. Many service dog schools and individuals in need now scour the shelters, recruiting dogs that exhibit the drive to learn, the desire to help people, and that special something that makes a service dog who he or she is.
Dorothy’s article in the Post summed up a service dog’s temperament: “… A dog advanced in his work is ridiculously like a businessman 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.”
A service dog is much like any person who chooses a life in social work or health care. They must be kind, determined, intelligent, independent, and have a passion for the work. No dog is ever forced to be a service dog. Those that lack the spark and those who simply cannot or do not wish to offer the skills required, do not graduate from guide dog school. But not all is lost. “Career change dogs” as they are known, are put up for adoption and allowed a life of leisure despite being equipped with above-average skills. There is a long waiting list of people who wish to adopt these guide school drop-outs and make them a member of their family.
This month, after your Labor Day BBQ is over, the yard is cleaned up, and the kids are back to school, take a moment to thank those canines who serve us humans. They do what no robot or computer could ever do. They give people autonomy, as dog and handler become one, conquering the world together.
If you or someone you know could benefit from a service dog, find an accredited school in your area or a specialized trainer who has worked with service dogs before. Assistance Dog International and International Guide Dog Federation are global industry-wide organizations, holding schools and training to a high standard. Despite the prevalence of “service dog registry” sites online, there is no national registry for service dogs.
Just as not all heroes wear capes, not all service dogs wear vests. From leading the blind through a bustling city to using their bodies to supporting a person’s head during an epileptic seizure, service dogs give freely of themselves and their skills out of love and dedication to their human. Dorothy wrote of watching the change in the blind men the moment their hand wrapped around the handle of the harness. The sentiment holds true today: “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, shield and buckler! How many humans could fill those roles with the same uncomplaining devotion and untiring fidelity? Darned few, I think.”
Thank you to all the dogs who serve, and to the humans who train, foster, and provide these brilliant, loving animals to those in need. Happy National Service Dog Month!
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.