The incredible benefits a service dog can offer is no secret. These amazing animals improve the quality of life for their handlers immeasurably, increasing the handler’s confidence and ability to navigate the world around them. This is particularly true for guide dogs (or seeing-eye dogs), who help visually impaired individuals to experience the world safely.
If any story shows the inspirational abilities of guide dogs, it’s the story of Trevor Thomas. Diagnosed with a rare eye disease which left him completely blind, Thomas decided to pursue hiking to maintain his independence. With the help of two guide dogs – first Tennille, then Lulu – Thomas has been able to complete some of the most challenging trails in the United States. He solo-hiked all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail, before tackling the notoriously difficult Colorado Trail and several other trails across the country.
The second episode of Season Two of A Life of Dogs – Zero/Zero – explored the Trevor Thomas story in detail. You can listen to the podcast episode below:
According to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, it is estimated that there are around 10,000 guide dog teams in the United States. By themselves, guide dogs are inspirational purely through the service they provide to their handler. However, there are a handful of notable stories involving guide dogs which warrant special attention.
In this article, we’ll focus on some of the unusual and moving stories involving guide dogs – starting with Buddy, who started it all almost one hundred years ago.
Buddy - The First Seeing-Eye Dog
Back in 1927, Dorothy Harrison Eustis was an American dog breeder who was living in Switzerland. Eustis wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post which talked about a guide dog program in neighboring Germany, where dogs were being trained to help retired German veterans who had lost their eyesight in World War I.
Morris Frank’s father read the article to him. Frank, who had lost one eye in a childhood accident and the other in a boxing match when he was 16 years old, wrote to Eustis and appealed to her to train a dog who could help him. Eustis accepted the challenge and invited the 19-year-old Frank to come to Switzerland.
The following year, Frank returned to the United States, accompanied by Buddy, a female German Shepherd who was trained to guide him. Frank made it a priority to tour the country and tell people about the amazing abilities of Buddy and similar guide dogs. Together, Frank and Buddy logged 50,000 miles, and they were featured in a 1936 interview in the New York Times where Frank spoke about his work for the visually impaired.
After the original Buddy passed away, he also named her replacement Buddy – and kept the same name for all subsequent guide dogs he handled.
Roselle - The 9/11 Survivor
Like many Americans, the morning of September 11, 2001 had started off as a normal one for Michael Hingson. Working from his 78th floor office of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, Hingson was accompanied by his faithful guide dog companion, Roselle. Blind since birth, Hingson had partnered with guide dogs since he was a teenager.
As American Airlines Flight 11 rocked the North Tower, chaos ensued all around Hingson’s office. After directing his employees and visitors to safety (Hingson was the highest-ranked executive in the office that morning), he says he felt a sense of calm as he prepared to walk down the 78 floors to the foot of the building – with Roselle guiding the way.
As Hingson recalls, Roselle did exactly what she was supposed to do that day, and the two made it out of the building safely – but it still highlights the phenomenal capabilities of guide dogs to work, even under the most extreme pressure.
“Our survival was dependent on our teamwork, in every sense of the word,” said Hingson. “That human-animal bond, that trust and faith, helped me live another day.”
Figo - The Protector
Audrey Stone was standing at a crosswalk in Brewster, NY, with her 8-year-old Golden Retriever, Figo. As Stone and Figo crossed the street, a mini-school bus turned the corner – straight into their path.
Acting on protective instinct, Figo threw himself in front of his owner, absorbing most of the impact from the bus, which braked to slow its speed upon making the turn. Both Stone and Figo fell to the ground. Stone sustained three broken ribs, a fractured ankle and a fractured elbow in the accident. As for Figo, despite the impact, he only suffered relatively minor injuries with a wound to his right paw.
Figo was hailed a hero, and a Washington Post report indicated that he was “resting comfortably and recovering nicely” in the aftermath of the accident.
This wasn’t the first time Figo had jumped to his owner’s aid. “In the grocery store, when a shopping cart rolls down the aisle, he’ll go between me and my cart to stop the cart,” explained Stone in an interview with lohud.com. “He’s done that before for me.”
Venice and Rodd - The Matchmakers
In 2012, Mark Gaffey attended a two-week residential training course in Shrewsbury, a small town in the United Kingdom. Mark had been matched with a guide dog, Rodd – but little did he know that the course would eventually match him with his future wife.
Also attending the same course was Claire Johnson, who had been matched with a guide dog named Venice. As the introductions at the course were taking place, Mark and Claire realized they were from the same place in the UK – Stoke-on-Trent, living literally less than two miles apart.
As the course progressed, staff commented on the close friendship building between Rodd and Venice. This coincided with the budding friendship of Mark and Claire. When the course concluded, Claire asked for Mark’s phone number, and after several coffees and lunch meetings, it became apparent that there was more than just friendship between the two!
Fittingly, on the wedding day itself, Rodd and Venice had a very special part to play for their owners – by taking on the role of ringbearers.
Westley, Waffle and Gus - The Half Marathon Runners
At the 2019 New York City Half Marathon, Thomas Panek became the first blind runner to complete the distance with guide dogs. His three Labrador Retrievers, Westley, Waffle and Gus, took turns in helping Panek to run the 13.1 mile route.
An avid runner, Panek lost his eyesight in his early twenties, but had no intention of stopping. He had completed 20 marathons with the help of human guides, but wanted to complete a race with guide dogs to help regain a feeling of independence.
As the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Panek has developed a ‘Running Guides’ program which helps to match guide dogs with runners. As of March 2019, 24 dogs have graduated from the program.
Panek and his four-legged companions finished the half marathon in a time of two hours, twenty minutes and fifty-one seconds.
Thai - the mischievous guide dog who takes himself (and his handler) to the pet store
We all know that dogs are really, really smart. But Thai – a guide dog who helps his handler, Danielle – took things to a new level.
On a previous trip to the mall, Danielle’s father noticed that Thai had taken a liking to one store in particular – Cool Dog Gear. On the next trip, he advised Danielle’s sister, Michele, to pay attention – as he suspected Thai might do the same thing again.
Michele captured the moment on camera:
Danielle confirmed that Thai has always had a mischievous streak. Just one week after she got him, he jumped onto a cake. She said that Thai was smart and full of energy, but that she preferred a mischievous dog over a perfectly behaved one. “Those are the dogs that cause more trouble,” Danielle told Buzzfeed. “Just because they’re so smart.”
In their own way, each of these stories is inspirational and highlights the amazing capabilities of guide dogs. Intelligent, loyal and devoted – these animals do so much to improve the quality of life for their owners.
In the mood to listen to an inspirational story about guide dogs?
Listen to the second episode of Season Two of A Life of Dogs, entitled Zero/Zero! You’ll hear how blind hiker, Trevor Thomas – with the help of his two guide dogs, Tennille and Lulu – has hiked some of America’s most fearsome trails.