Blind people have travelled with dogs as companions and protectors for thousands of years. As far as we know, the first person to train dogs, specifically to guide the blind, was Johann Klein, who founded the Institute for the Blind in Vienna. He published a textbook on how to train and use a guide dog, back in 1819.
The first systematic training of dogs as companions and guides for people who had lost their sight, began after the World War I. A specialised school dedicated entirely to training Guide Dogs was founded in Germany to help rehabilitate many thousands of people blinded during the war.
By 1925, the success of this school supported by the German Red Cross received international acclaim.
An American living in Switzerland, Mrs. Dorothy Eustis, who specialized in breeding and training of dogs for police work, visited the German school. She was very impressed and wrote an article for the influential Saturday Evening Post. In 1929 she assisted a young blind American to travel to Switzerland and acquire a dog. Finally, with the support of Mrs. Eustis a Guide dog school was founded in New Jersey: two of the graduates of a Lausanne school went to America, one went to Italy and another one went to work in a Guide Dog school that already existed in Great Britain. It is noteworthy that a Russian emigrant officer Captain Nikolai Liakhoff was instrumental in setting Guide Dog training in Great Britain. A book was written about it and the British highly appreciate his contribution.
Professional training of Guide Dogs in Russia started after the WWII (in Russia it is called the Great Patriotic War). Lots of young and otherwise physically healthy people lost their sight because of the wounds on the front lines. Many of them were highly qualified workers. However, for them it became a problem to get a job and get back to normal life. Special schools and vocational colleges were opened for their social and occupational rehabilitation. While acquiring new skills, vision impaired people had to gain independence in personal mobility, learn not to constantly rely on other people's help and receive an opportunity to walk freely, not just along memorised routes. Only specially trained Guide Dogs could provide such mobility and independence. First Guide Dogs were trained in 1947 in the Central School for Service Dog Breeding and Training, for the WWII veterans.
It was only in 1960, that the Board of the All-Russian Organization for the Blind ("AROB") created a Central Republican Guide Dog School ("School"). Experts in dog breeding were invited to participate in creating this School – military people who went through the war and had a unique experience in training and using dogs at the war front. These people could train dogs for mine-search, medical aid, rescue of the wounded from the frontier line, ammunition delivery. Of course, those skills suggested a completely different type of training, however even today we cannot underestimate the potential of these valuable techniques and knowledge accumulated. The military trainers prepared dogs for practical work in the army. Guide Dogs of today perform in the environment which is peaceful but just as challenging and constantly changing. This is important because news training methods had to be practically invented on site. This legacy was vital for the future Guide Dog training practices in Russia.
At first the school was based on the outskirts of Moscow, in a village of Veshnyaki. Later it moved to the Kupavna village, Moscow Region, where it operates today as the Republican School for Rehabilitation of the Blind and Guide Dogs Training. Nikolay Orekhov was the first director of the School, Nikolai Latushkin, Afanasyi Kupriyanov, Nefyod Gnenkov were the team of his trainers. They will always remain as a part of the school’s history. It is their ambition, knowledge and experience that made possible the creation of such a unique organization. They inspired and brought their vision to life. Then the fresh trainers joined the School – Victor Machkov, Mikhail Rybkin, Ekaterina Ushkova, Tatiana Makeenko. After Nikolay Orekhov retired, the school’s management shifted three times. None of the new directors was a professional dog breeder, which somewhat held back the school’s progress. (Photo: Nikolay Orekhov with the German Shepard and Afanasyi Kupriyanov, one of the dog trainers)
However a lot has changed in the past several years. The changes were for the better. The site with cold wooden cages and single wooden hut, which served as an office and a meeting point for trainers and vision impaired people, evolved into a spot with a modern computerized office and dog-ward with spacious warm kennels. The new generation of trainers revised the old dog training techniques and education methods for vision impaired people. The German training technique, used at the beginning, was adapted to the Russian specifics, we also added our own professional experience and requests of vision impaired people, as well as accumulated experience. The school developed its own training programs and tests, dog breeding and raising program, training programs for the vision impaired people. We also learned modern training techniques from our overseas colleagues. The school has trained a few guide dogs for the Swedish people. We are that generation of dog trainers.
The person who was the driving force for our work for more than a decade was Svetlana Bochkovskaya. She worked at the school for almost 20 years, at the end of her career there as the Deputy Director. She launched and was actively involved in most of the school’s projects and united the staff of dog trainers. She unfortunately passed away a few years ago, but only thanks to her our work goes on.
For a long period of time, the school was the only provider of trained Guide Dogs for the Russian blind, as well as for vision impaired people in other republics of the former Soviet Union. At its best times, we trained over 100 Guide Dogs simultaneously. There was a tremendous demand for Guide Dogs. Some vision impaired people were waiting for their Guide Dog for years.
The number of dog trainers also increased. 1990’s financial crisis led staff redundancies and decrease of work volume. However the school survived that difficult period and continues to successfully work.
Training of dogs for people with special needs was in such demand that in 1998 a new organisation was set up. The core group of its staff were dog trainers that have worked for many years in the Kupavna school. In the beginning we trained dogs purely on a volunteer basis. In February 2003 the organisation was legally registered in Russia and became Autonomous Nonprofit Organisation “Dogs as Assistants for the Disabled” Training Centere. they set their own centre that trains dogs for disabled people. For the first years we trained dogs purely on volunteer basis. Today our Centre is training Guide Dogs and Therapy Dogs and Canine Therapy classes for children with special needs.
In 2012 our Centre got a permanent base in a town of Zheleznodorozhny in the Moscow Region. This is where we train the dogs and where our offices are.
In 2015 our Centre became a member of the International Guide Dog Federation. The main work of the Centre is still training of Guide Dogs, the demand for them is always there. Guide Dogs are not just used for work as they have been in the past but they are also an important part of psychological rehabilitation of vision impaired people. For many of their owners Guide Dogs not only provide mobility but become their link to the world of ordinary people. The importance of Guide Dogs for social adaptation and rehabilitation of vision impaired people is now accepted worldwide. More and more people ask us to train Guide Dogs for them.
Since the day they first appeared and to this day Guide Dogs changed lives of countless people with vision impairment. Guide Dogs schools exist in many countries. We are proud continue such incredible history of Guide Dogs here, enabling visually impaired people to live safely and independently in Russia.