School for Seeing Eye Dogs Promotes Independence

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The Seeing Eye school for training guide dogs for the blind in Morristown, N.J., is celebrating its 80th anniversary.

More than 300 graduates, spouses and their dogs came together at the school today, including Deborah Chandler, who attended with her dog, Lennon. "We have a tight bond, I've had him two years and he just turned 4 years old," she said.

The Seeing Eye school began back in 1928 when a blind man named Morris Frank was read an article about blinded World War I veterans being trained in Europe to use German shepherds as guides, a first at the time.

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Frank met the author in Switzerland and had a dog trained for himself. He flew the dog back to New York and called reporters to show off his new guide dog named "Buddy."

"And the reporters said, 'So show us what this dog can do, go ahead and cross West Street,'" school president Jim Kutsch said.

Frank and Buddy made it just fine.

And, so, Frank founded the first school to train guide dogs and their blind masters. Eighty years later, the school will soon match its 15,000th dog with a master.

It's almost counterintuitive. Living with another creature 24 hours a day can make one more independent. But that's exactly what the school promotes, Kutsch said. "Our dogs work for us because they love us," he said.

Ginger Kutsch, Jim's wife and an alumna of the Seeing Eye school, said, "I was never really that comfortable using the cane, I felt very vulnerable. And I like the fact that the dog can see obstacles ahead and just go around them."

The group has partnered with people who are blind who seek to enhance their independence, dignity and self-confidence through the use of Seeing Eye dogs, the group says.

About 14,000 specially bred and trained dogs have brought a new level of mobility, safety, and self-sufficiency to almost 8,000 men and women.

Today, the school has about 300 dogs on campus at any given time. But only about 50 percent of the puppies will have what it takes to become a guide dog. First, the dogs must be taught to ignore their own instincts.

"For a dog, it's fun to chase the squirrel but we want it to be more fun to lead the blind person," Kutsch said.

Doug Bohl, a trainer at the school, said, "We don't train the dogs, we teach the dogs. Because if you train a dog, you teach it to do a certain thing in a certain situation. We teach the dogs to think for themselves."

That can mean something called "learned disobedience," disobeying a command if it means trouble. "The decision on when to go is the person's," Bohl said. "They tell the dog to go, but the decision of refusal is the dog's."

The people are trained, too, spending 27 days studying at the Seeing Eye to qualify for a dog. It was in one of those classes that Jim Kutsch met Ginger Bennett. Both were receiving new dogs, and their dogs were kennel mates, and crazy about each other. Kutsch and Bennett eventually grew crazy for each other, too.

"The joke was we had to get together so our dogs could stay together," she said.

They got married and he's now the first blind president of the Seeing Eye.

"You look at these dogs and you think, boy, if I believe in reincarnation," Kutsch said, "I want to come back as a Seeing Eye dog."

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