Published March 12th, 2015 | Features
The History of Guide Dogs in Britain
Through the ages dogs have served and befriended men in countless ways as working partners, guards and companions. But perhaps the finest chapter in this long history opened over 85 years ago.
Guide dog training began in Britain in the late summer of 1931 in Wallasey, Cheshire. The pioneers started with little more than their enthusiasm and the generous support of a crusading American woman who had launched the guide dog movement in Switzerland and America. But when the first four guide dog owners returned home in October 1931 from the makeshift training centre in Wallasey, a trail had been blazed that was to be followed by thousands of others.
Six months after getting his guide dog, one member of that first course, Allen Caldwell, wrote, ‘Flash has revolutionised my outdoor life.’ It is a tribute that has been echoed down the years many times.
The British guide dog movement has come a long way since 1931. Primitive training facilities have been replaced by modern training centres and localised District Teams. A handful of supporters has become a network of over hundreds of voluntary fund-raising branches and many more individuals and groups that raise money for guide dogs.
A highly-organised breeding and puppy-walking scheme now ensures that the best possible dogs are available for training.
Looking back, it is perhaps surprising that organised guide dog training did not start earlier. Dogs have been associated with the blind as protectors and guides, in however primitive a form, for at least 1,000 years. There are innumerable examples in European art of the blind accompanied by dogs. Even the publication in Vienna in 1819 of a Textbook for Teaching the Blind, which describes the training of a dog with a rigid leash to lead the blind, failed to evoke a significant response. It was not until a century later that an event occurred which led to the growth of the modern guide dog movement.
During the First World War, a doctor looking after war-wounded in Germany, was called away from a blind man with whom he was walking in the grounds of the hospital. The doctor left his German shepherd with the man and was subsequently so impressed by the dog’s behaviour that he decided to start experiments in training dogs to act as guides for the blind.
By 1923 a guide dog training centre had been established at Potsdam which trained several thousand dogs in the next ten years. This work soon came to the attention of a wealthy American, Mrs Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who was breeding and training German shepherds in Switzerland for the customs service, the army and the police. After visiting the Potsdam centre, Mrs Eustis was impressed and wrote an article for the American Saturday Evening Post of October 1927.
A few days after the magazine appeared a young, blind American, Morris Frank, was told about the article. Frank bought a copy of the magazine. The five cents that it cost him, he said later ‘bought an article that was worth more than a million dollars to me. It changed my whole life.’
He was so excited by the article that he decided to approach Mrs Eustis in Switzerland, ‘I want one of those dogs,’ he wrote. ‘Thousands of blind people like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them.’
His enthusiasm infected Mrs Eustis. She immediately arranged for Elliott Humphrey, who was in charge of her kennels, to study the work in Germany and then return to train a dog in Switzerland. As soon as this was done, Morris Frank was sent for and a few weeks later, with ‘Buddy’ at his side, Frank became America’s first guide dog owner.
As a result of this experience, Mrs Eustis set up a guide dog centre, L ‘Oeil qui Voit (The Seeing Eye), at Vevey in Switzerland and later established the first school for training dogs in the United States. In the ensuing years she devoted herself, and much of her wealth, to the development of the guide dog movement. She travelled widely, lecturing about her work and soon, in 1930, articles about it began to appear in the British press.
Among those who became interested in the possibility of setting up a guide dog organisation in Britain were Miss Muriel Crooke, an German shepherd enthusiast who lived in Wallasey , Cheshire, and Mrs Rosamund Bond, a breeder and exhibitor of German shepherds. They decided to write to Mrs Eustis and after an exchange of correspondence the three women met in London on 23 September 1930.
Mrs Eustis said that she would lend a trainer to run a trial scheme in Britain. The latter part of 1930, and the first half of 1931, were now devoted to setting up the nucleus of an organisation and finding a suitable training spot. In February 1931, Miss Crooke and Mrs Bond, together with two new supporters, Captain Alan Sington and Lady Kitty Ritson, went to London for a meeting with the National Institute for the Blind. Here they discovered to their dismay that, strictly speaking, they had been acting illegally in raising £284 for their training scheme.
Nevertheless, the Guide Dog Committee, as it had become known, were determined to go ahead and a solution was found by affiliating the Committee to the Institute.
It was decided to conduct the trial scheme near Miss Crooke’s home in Wallasey, and a piece of land and a garage in Cardigan Road, New Brighton, were rented as a dog room and store. The trainer lent by Mrs Eustis, William Debetaz, arrived in England on 1 July 1931 accompanied by Elliott Humphrey, who selected seven of 28 German shepherd bitches that had been acquired from various sources. Humphrey returned to Switzerland and Debetaz began work.
The first class assembled in October. Writing to Miss Crooke from Switzerland on 19 October, Humphrey said, ‘I suppose the class will be finishing about the time you get this letter …tell them all they have my heartiest good wishes.’
‘Without you’ he continued, ‘the work could not have been done. I only hope that it has been done in such a manner that you will be glad to have been connected with it and that the men will have done their work so that as they go out with their new eyes you will have a real catch in your throat as you see the shuffle gone from their feet and their heads thrown back as they take a new outlook on life. No words of mine nor of theirs can thank you for your part in helping them to such new liberty as they may find.’
The liberty they found was eloquently described six months later by all four members of that first class.
‘Not only has my dog given me glorious freedom and independence, never known since pre-war days,’ wrote Allen Caldwell, ‘but delightful companionship.’
‘With Folly,’ wrote Thomas Ap Rhys, ‘I do not mind walking at the fastest pace or even running with her. ‘ He was to use guide dogs for the next 48 years and died in 1979 at the age of 82 while retraining with his sixth dog.
‘After negotiating a1:1 obstacle,’ wrote G W Lamb, ‘we went away merrily, the crowd saying what a good dog it was. ,
Musgrave Frankland declared simply, ‘ A guide dog is almost equal in many ways to giving a blind man sight itself Judith has been worth her weight in gold …I would not be without her for a day.’
There was clearly no looking back now , and Mrs Eustis continued to advise the embryo organisation and help financially. Earlier, in one of her many letters to Miss Crooke, she had written, ‘… you have got to make a firm decision whether you are starting a piece of work for the blind or a Society for the Prevention of Hurt Feelings.’ It would be fascinating to know what Miss Crooke had told her that led to this stern piece of advice. Other letters on the files give tantalising and often amusing glimpses of those early days. Replying to a letter from Miss Crooke, Elliott Humphrey wrote from Switzerland on 12 February 1932, ‘First about the false teeth which Meta has eaten up…’
On 27 March he was writing, ‘Can you give me an idea as to whether or not you are going to want a trainer this summer and if so when ? ,
A month later: ‘It now looks as if I could let you have a trainer to start early in July. You will like him (G A Gabriel), a very quiet but conscientious boy who speaks very little, if any, English now (fact is he does not speak much in any language…).’
Gabriel ran two courses, but with the scheme becoming established, there was clearly the need for a permanent trainer in Britain. Mrs Eustis was on the point of closing down her Swiss training school to concentrate on The Seeing Eye in the United States and she suggested that one of her best trainers,
Captain Nicolai Liakhoff, might be interested in the post. Captain Liakhoff was a former officer of the Russian Imperial Guard who, after leaving Russia, had been forced to earn a living as a taxi driver and waiter in Paris and from whatever casual work he could find, including painting and private chauffeuring.
But one day he encountered a guide dog at work in Potsdam and was so struck by what he saw that he went to work with Mrs Eustis in Switzerland. Faced with the choice of going to America or Britain to continue working with guide dogs he chose the latter because, according to someone who knew him well, it was a monarchy. He arrived in England in October 1933 and was to serve the Association as trainer, director of training, and finally as consultant until his death in 1962.
Although the training programme was now firmly established, finances were a problem. A broadcast appeal by Christopher Stone in 1933, which brought in £800, boosted the funds for a while, but by the following year the financial situation was again becoming difficult. A solution was found with the help of the Tailwaggers’ Club which had been formed in 1928. To reduce running costs, finance and committee work were carried out at the Tailwaggers’ office in London, and at the same time, in October 1934, the title The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was adopted.
Another landmark, at the end of 1934, was the loan by one of Wallasey’s town councillors of a big empty house to be used as a lodging for those being trained. Later, the Wallasey Corporation offered for a peppercorn rent what will always be thought of as the first real ‘home’ of the Association -‘The Cliff’. This was an almost derelict house on the seashore and with a fierce wind blowing off the Irish Sea piling sand feet high round it, the building hardly seemed ideal.
But when things had been put into some sort of order, staff and students were able for the first time, all to be under one roof. The principle that was thus established of providing a ‘home’ in which the blind students are guests for four weeks is still the basis on which the training courses are run today, although some training at home is given in certain circumstances.
Work at ‘The Cliff’ went on steadily until the outbreak of war when the house was requisitioned for use by an anti-aircraft battery. Captain Liakhoff was not to be put off and continued the training, the students once again having to stay in lodgings. But with conditions for training becoming difficult, it was decided to move from the Wallasey area and in 1941 Edmondscote Manor, a large house in extensive grounds at Leamington Spa, was bought as a training centre. Now there are 29 district Teams covering the whole of the United Kingdom, working alongside Dog Supply units, a specialised breeding centre and dedicated lcoal fundarising teams.
During the war, arrangements had to be made to ensure that guide dogs could be taken by their owners into air raid shelters, and there were special allowances of 351b of cereal dog food per month. Feeding a dog was quite a problem and an article in the first issue of Forward, the Association’s magazine in May 1943 suggested the various foods that could be used. It is interesting to note that the writer was rather sceptical about the value of tinned dog foods, ‘they are quite good …useful as a “stand-by” when other meat is not obtainable. ‘ In a later edition there was a paragraph explaining that government regulations forbade dog food manufacturers adding new customers to their lists but they were willing to supply Captain Liakhoff with some ‘iron rations’ to be used by owners in an emergency.
After the war, in 1948, the Association moved from its shared accommodation with the Tailwagger’s Club to its own office at 81 Piccadilly. At the same time, Miss Lilian Shrimpton, who had been secretary since 1936 to both organisations and a dedicated worker for guide dogs, became the Association’s first full-time secretary.
A journalist once wrote of Captain Liakhoff that he had ‘by a rare blend of faith, knowledge and fortitude …brought the guide dog movement in this country to an impressive pitch of development.’ It was a well-deserved tribute and could justifiably have added ‘charm and devotion to the ideals he had set himself.’
The affection in which he was held was demonstrated at a luncheon presentation to him that took place on 17 October 1953, to mark the fact that he had devoted 20 years’ work to the Association. The speeches that were made, the personal tributes from guide dog owners present, and the messages and telegrams that were read out (including one from the Queen) all underlined the regard felt for the Captain. Lady Freda Valentine, who responded to the toast of the Association, reminded guests that they owed a great debt also to Lady Schuster (who had joic1’i4 the Committee in 1932) since it was she who had persuaded the Captain to come to England to train guide dogs instead of going to America as he had originally intended.
In 1954, Princess Alexandra agreed to become President (later Patron) of the Association, and in the following year visited both Leamington and Exeter training centres. Royalty’s support for the Association had been growing steadily ever since the Queen, when she was still Princess Elizabeth, had in 1948, personally given a guide dog to Mr D P Pretorius, a blind South African soldier. It was the first guide dog ever to be used in that country.
The number of dogs trained each year had been rising slowly and steadily. The figure for the year ending September 1956 vividly illustrated how much the organisation was growing. One hundred and two men and women were trained that year -almost equal to the total number trained in the whole of the six pre- war years. There were now seven trainers and, most significant for the future, 12 apprentices.
One of the constant aims in training dogs had always been to try to reduce the number which, after a lot of time and effort spent on them, proved unsuitable. A first step towards this goal was taken in 1956 when some specially selected puppies were purchased and placed with ‘walkers’ who looked after them and, most important, accustomed them to noisy traffic, crowds, restaurants, shopping areas and public transport of all kinds before sending them back to the training centre. By 1958 nearly 60 puppies were being walked. The scheme was still experimental. Some animals were still failing even at the puppy stage, but the foundations had been laid for a scheme that was to prove more and more important.
During the Sixties, puppy-rearing schemes developed at all the training centres, and a breeding programme was started at Leamington. The problem of breeding for guide dog work had been discussed for many years. A Dutch visitor to the Leamington centre in 1953 implied, in an article that he wrote for Forward, that the reason why so many dogs eventually proved unsuitable was that too many hybrid dogs were chosen.
The Association’s first brood bitch, a German shepherd named Reiner, was bought in 1959, and over the next ten years the quantity and quality of pups coming from the breeding programme grew steadily. Fewer puppies were having to be bought from outside sources and the proportion finally qualifying as guide dogs was showing a significant increase. In 1970, the breeding and puppy- walking organisation moved into its own premises at Tollgate House, not far from the Leamington Spa training centre.
The number of breeding bitches was increasing steadily and it was therefore decided to ease the workload at Tollgate House by farming most of them out to people who, for want of a better term, have become known as ‘brood bitch holders’. Today, as many as 80 per cent of the puppies bred in this way qualify as guide dogs -a very different picture from the early days. Many of the animals that fail for one reason or another as guide dogs are, nevertheless, admirably suited for other tasks and finish up with the RAF, the prison service, the police and HM Customs.
In the very early days German shepherds had almost exclusively been used and were usually dogs that had been donated or bought for two or three pounds apiece. Later, other breeds came to be preferred. The essential characteristics were that they should be willing workers, used to people and other animals and not afraid of noise or crowds. Today, the breeds mainly used are labradors crossed with golden retrievers, labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds. There is a breeding stock of about 250.
No association can succeed without the hard work of its members, organisers and supporters and The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has been particularly lucky in this respect. From the very earliest days people have worked unselfishly to promote the cause of the Association, many over a long period of years. Lady Schuster, who joined the Committee in 1932, worked tirelessly for it until her death in 1950. Her husband, Sir Victor Schuster, who succeeded Captain H E Hobbs as honorary treasurer in 1935, was chairman for two separate periods until 1953 and continued as vice-chairman until his death in 1963. It was his generosity that enabled the Association to survive the financial problems encountered during the Second World War. Lord Lanesborough has served the Association since 1953, first as chairman and then as president. He was succeeded as chairman in 1965 by Sir Joseph Napier, who held that office for 10 years and continued to serve the Association as a vice-president. In 1975, the chairmanship was taken over by Mr Kenneth Butler, and he handed over at the beginning of 1981 to Mr Ian Findlay. Mr Colin Macpherson succeeded in 1987, but his chairmanship was cut short by his death the following year. Mr Dennis Armstrong, previously vice-chairman, was elected chairman in 1988, serving until 1993, when he was succeeded by John Robertson. The current Chairman is Barry Wetherill.
Lady Freda Valentine served the Association for over 40 years, acting as honorary treasurer from 1939 to 1977. She retired from the General Council in 1982. Her great contribution to the guide dog movement was recognised by the award of a CBE in 1979. She died aged 93 in 1989.
But it is not only those at the head of the Association who have worked unceasingly to keep it on the right road. It has always been a basic principle of the Association that lack of money should not prevent a blind person from becoming a guide dog owner. When the work began, the cost of training a dog and its owner was only £50. Year by year, the cost has risen steadily, but fortunately, year by year, the number of people in the local branches actively engaged in raising money has also grown. The Association receives no financial aid from the State so voluntary support is essential. It comes from youth organisations, senior citizens’ clubs, sports clubs and pubs, from industry and HM Forces. The different ways in which money has been raised would fill a book. There have been fashion shows, gymkhanas, the sponsoring of schoolchildren for a multitude of tasks, wine and cheese parties, dances, flower shows, garden parties, rummage sales, collections in factories and offices. The collection of silver paper and milk bottle tops has for many years been a moneymaker for the Association (although even in 1954 it took 22 million tops to raise enough money to train a dog). The Association no longer collects silver foil but used stamps, mobile phones and inkjet cartridges instead. The success of all these events has been due to the devoted work of the voluntary branches. There are now around 400 of these, scattered throughout the country.
One of the most successful means of giving publicity to the Association and explaining its aims, and so indirectly helping its finances, has been for the guide dog owners themselves to give talks about their experiences to women’s institutes, towns-women’s guilds, rotary clubs, round tables, schools, church organisations and other similar bodies. Thousands of talks have been given by the speakers’ panel, which now numbers several hundreds.
Over the years the Association has faced and overcome immense difficulties, not merely financial and physical. As Captain Liakhoff once wrote in Forward, ‘Neither the blind people themselves nor the seeing public were ready to believe in the seriousness of the work, or to recognise its psychological value.’ One of the greatest changes has, indeed, been the development of an entirely different attitude of the public towards the use of guide dogs. In 1931 there were not even any dogs in England working for the police, the Army or the RAF. The public was strongly against the idea of making a dog work. Miss Muriel Crooke once described how the first trainers were daily exasperated by the way people physically tried to stop them doing their work, abusing them and declaring that what they were doing was cruel, silly and useless. It was only when people saw the obvious delight of the first trainees at being able to walk freely and fast that they began to realise the importance of guide dogs.
The ownership of a guide dog brings freedom and independence, often to an extraordinary degree. This is borne out by the remarkable diversity of employment of guide dog owners. Sometimes the work may even mean special training for a dog since it will have to become accustomed to an unusual environment. Gone are the days when the only work of the blind man was associated with such activities as basket making. Guide dog owners can be found in almost any activity in factories and workshops, offices and the professions, as farmers and salesmen. There are computer programmers, civil servants, clergymen, lecturers, teachers, solicitors, writers, broadcasters, physiotherapists, doctors, stockbrokers, librarians, museum officials, social welfare workers, typists and telephonists, fitters, storemen and engineers.
Today, the Association remains true to the basic philosophy of the founders. This was expressed very clearly in the fifties by Captain Liakhoff and another trainer G F Sheppard. Liakhoff wrote:
‘Many people consider that the Association’s main work is in training dogs and that once the dog is trained everything is practically accomplished. This is not so. The preparation of the dog …may be compared with the making of a surgical instrument; it is very necessary, but in itself only a preliminary. The joining of the man and dog into one inseparable unit is the Association’s real work, comparable not with tool-making but with skilled surgery, because it brings …healing and relief.’
Sheppard, describing the way the dogs are trained, went on to say: ‘The second, more difficult part, comes when the blind owner has to be trained with the dog at the completion of the dog’s own training. Pairing the people and the dogs is a matter which calls on the trainer’s skill in both canine and human psychology. There is more to it than giving a big dog to a large man, and a smaller one to a little woman; temperaments have to be blended as well. The man and the dog at the end of their month’s training together are beginning to form one unit rather than two separate entities and it is at this stage that they are ready to go to the man’s home.’
This stage is followed by the most critical one of all, when the guide dog owner is at last on his own. But the Association never loses touch with the guide dog owners and this after-care is an essential part of its work. At first it was necessarily on a very limited scale but by 1962 regular visits were being made to guide dog owners throughout the country. Special attention is always paid to any owner with problems and to seeing guide dogs which are nearing retirement age. The visitor may interview an owner’s employer if there are problems accommodating the dog at work or he may advise a dog owner on the need for a refresher training course. Some idea of the scale of aftercare work can be envisaged from the fact that there are now over 5000 guide dog owners in Britain. Replacing the dogs when they reach the end of their working lives is always given priority and accounts for about half the output of the distrcit teams.
The Association can also provide other help to guide dog owners, present, past and potential -for example long cane training, daily living skills advice. And vital ophthalmic and veterinary studies aim to improve the quality of life for vision-impaired people and their dogs and Guide Dogs is committed to educating the public about caring for their eyes.
The growth of the Association has put an increasing strain on the head office. In 1967 the administration moved from 81 Piccadilly to Uxbridge Road, Ealing, but this eventually proved too small and in 1978 a move was made to Alexandra House -part of a Georgian terrace in Park Street, Windsor, almost in the shadow of the Castle. In 1987, the director in charge of training and his department moved to the Association’s breeding centre at Tollgate, because the Windsor building no longer had the space to accommodate them. In 1992 the headquarters was re-united in a single new base at Hillfields, Burghfield, near Reading.
Today, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is the world’s largest breeder and trainer of working dogs. Thanks to the work of dedicated staff and volunteers, some 21,000 blind and partially sighted people have experienced the independence that a guide dog can bring. The Association changes to meet the needs of more people and the introduction of new services in 1999 brought independence and mobility to more vision impaired people than ever before.
Looking back, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association can be seen as a monument to the efforts of countless willing hands. It is almost invidious to mention names, although key figures stand out -Muriel Crooke, Lady Schuster, Captain Liakhoff, Lady Freda Valentine. But the name for which every guide dog owner must be thankful above all others is unquestionably that of the American Mrs Dorothy Eustis, whose vision, energy and generosity inspired so many others, in Britain and elsewhere, to follow in her footsteps.
[Article reproduced with kind permission of Guide Dogs]