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Old January 29th, 2004, 03:23 PM
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Pair of eyes on four legs

Pair of eyes on four legs

By Anita Manning, USA TODAY

SWARTHMORE, Pa. Meet Vinnie. A typical guy's guy. Friendly. Ruggedly handsome. Crazy for ball games.
But when it comes to work, he's all business. Vinnie, a 6-year-old German shepherd, is a Seeing Eye dog.

As playful as any favored household pet, he is a product of the careful breeding and constantly refined training that exemplify dogs from The Seeing Eye, which today marks 75 years of helping blind men and women achieve independence.

The organization was founded in 1929 by Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy Philadelphian who lived in Switzerland, where she saw German shepherds trained as guides for blind World War I veterans, and Morris Frank, a blind ex-boxer from Nashville who became the first person to work with a guide dog in the USA.

Now the oldest of 10 guide-dog schools in the country, The Seeing Eye has matched more than 13,000 dogs with about 6,000 blind partners in the USA and Canada.

On a 55-acre campus in Morristown, N.J., 120 dogs are in training at any time, and housing is provided for 24 blind students who spend four weeks learning to work with their new best friends.

"One of the basic tenets of learning to use a dog guide is to trust the dog," says public relations manager Melissa Campbell. She tells of one Seeing Eye graduate in Florida who "tried to go down the street to get milk, and her dog would not go." After several attempts, the woman went back in the house and told her husband something was wrong. "He went out and saw there was a crocodile in the road." The moral, Campbell says: "You follow your dog's lead or you're lunch."

A real lifesaver

Ward Marston, 51, who has shared his Swarthmore home just outside Philadelphia with Vinnie for nearly five years, says he hasn't met any crocodiles. But he knows Vinnie has saved him from stepping into an open manhole at least once and from tripping over countless trash can lids or bicycles in his path. When Marston pulls the harness out of a closet, Vinnie jumps up, tail wagging and ears alert, ready to go to work.

But when the harness is off, it's playtime. Marston sips coffee as Vinnie hopefully deposits toys in his hands, leaping after them when they're tossed across the kitchen. Toys were an important bonding tool when the two met.

After having worked 16 weeks with a professional Seeing Eye trainer, the dogs are handed off to their new owners for the last month of training.

"They don't know who you are, so we use toys to take the stress off," Marston says. "At first he didn't want to play with them. Then, all of a sudden, he wouldn't leave them alone."

For independents only

Guide dogs are not for everyone. "Some people who are blind are happy to travel on someone's arm or to rely on paratransit," Campbell says. "We look for the motivation to be independent."

It costs $50,000 to match a blind person with a trained Seeing Eye dog, though the owners pay only $150 for the first dog, $50 for each dog thereafter. Endowments and donations make up the difference. "We look to make sure the person has a need for independent travel, that they're not going to have a $50,000 pet to walk around the house."

Seeing Eye dogs, Marston says, are "meant for people like me, who like to step out."

A band leader and accomplished musician, Marston has been playing piano since age 4. He's well known in music circles because of his in-home business, in which he transfers lost or forgotten classical and opera recordings from their original 78-rpm records to compact discs. He has a collection of 38,000 records and ships CDs to customers around the world.

Vinnie is the fourth Seeing Eye dog who has lived with Marston since 1971, when he was at Williams College in Massachusetts. A lifelong dog lover, Marston, who has been blind since infancy, knew he'd have a guide dog at some point, but what made him get one was the time he nearly was run over by a truck.

"It was a cold and snowy day," he says. He had taken a class in using a cane for mobility, and as he stepped out onto busy Route 2, which runs through Williamstown. "I slipped and fell right in the middle of the road. Before I could get up, I heard a big truck coming" Marston produces truck sound effects here "I was scrambling to my feet, the truck was trying to stop (more sound effects). ... Well, the next day I put in my application to The Seeing Eye."

The dogs German shepherds, Labrador and golden retrievers and Lab/golden mixes are specially bred for steady temperament, trainability, physical fitness and size.

"We've been able to breed the dogs a little smaller, which makes it more convenient for them to fit under a desk, on an airplane, under a table in a restaurant," all the places they're expected to go, Campbell says.

Music for man and dog

Like all Seeing Eye dogs, Vinnie was acclimated to noises, such as thunder and vacuum cleaners, during his first months of life.

Families associated with 4H programs bring future Seeing Eye puppies into their homes and raise them until they're 14 to 18 months old, giving them affection and teaching obedience and social skills.

In preparation for living with Marston, the dogs also were exposed to live music to make sure it didn't bother them. Marston's second dog, Holly, became hard of hearing later in her life, and though it may not have resulted from exposure to band music, he doesn't usually bring Vinnie along when he plays professionally.

At home, though, music is a part of life, as shown by an old gramophone in the front hall and a grand piano in the parlor.

Marston sits down at the piano, framed by a wall of photos, and plays. He chooses the Gershwin classic Someone to Watch Over Me.

Vinnie curls up and does just that.
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