Shilohs At Work ┬╗Guide Dogs

Although there are ancient references to blind men being led by dogs, the first organized attempt to train and provide canine "eyes" originated in Germany after World War I. The breed chosen for this specialized job was the German Shepherd Dog.

In 1929, the guide dog movement migrated to the US, with the establishment of The Seeing Eyes in Morristown, NJ. In the years that followed , nine more schools began this important work. The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. in Smithtown, New York started in 1946 as the fourth school in the United States.

Early dogs were obtained from public donations and pound rescues, so the sources were both sporadic and unpredictable in quality. German Shepherd Dogs were used, as were Collie/Shepherd crosses, Boxers and any other animal which could do the work. In the 1960's the large British guide dog system began breeding Labrador and Golden Retrievers, which proved adept at meeting the challenges of guiding blind people. When the Foundation established it's breeding program in 1969, Labs and Goldens were the dogs chosen.

The Fidelco organization in Connecticut, specialists in the German Shepherd Dog, augmented their breeding program with females raised by their own volunteers. In 1981, they experimented with Shepherds from various sources, being unsuccessful in combining the physical and mental soundness required of an animal entrusted with a human life. So they turned their attention to producing the best Labs and Goldens they could, although never giving up on the idea of having good Shepherds in the program.

By sheer coincidence, I was delegated to appear on a local cable television program to talk about the Guide Dog Foundation. Taping the program before me was a young woman with a BEAUTIFUL dog which appeared to be a coated German Shepherd. Later I found out that Sylvester was a Shiloh Shepherd, a breed I hadn't heard of, and I was immediately interested in the breed as potential guide dogs. Randy Hanwerger, Sylvester's "mother" was very happy to tell me about Shilohs and point me toward Wendy Fullerton. A phone conversation with Wendy got me the name and number of Dorothy Piscitelli, who graciously allowed my husband and I to come to her home and meet Allegra and Atlas.

My husband, John, who has put in 30 years at the Guide Dog Foundation and is the Director Of Training, isn't easy to impress. He and I both loved working with GSDs, but we had just about given up hope of ever finding solid dogs. Well, if Dorothy had only left the room for a moment, Allegra and Atlas would have been on their way to the Guide Dog Foundation! We were so pleased at the unique combination of calm temperament, obvious intelligence, and physical soundness!

Dorothy followed up by bringing Allegra for our whole staff to meet, and the Foundation was a-buzz with hopes and dreams of adding Shilohs to our program. John and I traveled to Gainesville to meet Wendy and her fabulous dogs. We left hours later with a 3 month old male puppy in tow.

For those of you who know and love this breed, this will come as no surprise...Radar curled up in the crate and slept until we stopped for the night. After relieving himself on leash, he had supper and settled down to sleep again. The next morning, he rode quietly on the 5 hour journey back to Long Island. And within minutes of entering our home, had made friends with our 6 Labs, and our Maine Coon Cat. I swear that he was housebroken and could navigate open-back steps, up and down, with no problem. Wow! Exactly 10 days have passed from the time I saw Sylvester until now...10 days full of excitement, curiousty, and gratification. In my heart, I believe our long search is over; although Shilohs have to prove themselves, I know their fine qualities are just what we need in guide dogs.

The next few years will be exciting as we work to bring the Shiloh Shepherd's unique qualities to the work of guiding the blind and enriching people's lives.

~by Emily Beagle, Asst Director, The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. in Smithtown, NY