By Peter Zablocki
The Seeing Eye has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records for matching people in North America with nearly twenty thousand dogs. Yet many people do not realize that while the “Seeing Eye” term is a general term used to describe guide dogs for people who are blind, it is, in reality, a trademark for the Seeing Eye of Morristown, the first guide dog school in all of the United States.
The two American dog breeders Dorothy Harrison Eustis and Jack Humphrey lived in Switzerland when Dorothy first heard of a new school in Potsdam, Germany, that taught German Shepherds to work as guide dogs for blind World War I veterans. After being asked to write an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1927 about her breeding school, known for studying canine ethics and genetics, Ms. Eustis wrote about the Potsdam School for Dogs instead. The title for her article would become synonymous with helping thousands of people worldwide— it was called “The Seeing Eye.”
Not long after, a teenage blind Nashville resident Morris Frank convinced Dorothy to open her own school. Finding the initial Nashville location too hot for the dogs, Frank and Dorothy settled on opening their Seeing Eye school in Morristown on November 10, 1931. The positive letters and accolades regarding the new endeavor [the first of its kind in the United States] came in droves, keeping the Morristown Post Office busy.
The initial school covered fifty acres on Whippany Road, with its first class consisting of eight students and eight German Shepherds. First came the lesson on walking the dog; an instructor held one end of the dog harness while the student had the U-Shaped handle on the other. Then the student moved to learn commands, all while getting closer to their assigned dog, specially trained by Jack and Dorothy. While the people of Morristown found the school a curiosity, it took some getting used to having around town. Newspaper editors soon complained about getting their cars tapped by instructors who, during in-the-field lessons, would tap hard at any vehicle close to the dog to teach the animal not to get so close to cars when walking with their students. Another citizen complained about a dog having a bathroom accident at a local bank—the only place in town to have a revolving door, one which the manager kindly allowed the school to practice using.
After twenty-seven days, the Seeing Eye of Morristown had its first graduating class. Since then, the school has moved to a larger and more modern location, all while gaining worldwide popularity. The Walt Disney Company even made a television mini-series called “Atta Girl, Kelly,” in which it played a prominent role.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian, author, and educator. He can be reached at peterzablocki.com.