Leader Dogs for the Blind Marks Eight Decades of Service

On April 4, Leader Dogs for the Blind Celebrated 80 Years, Here’s How it All Began

If you’ve lived in the Rochester area for a while, they’re a familiar sight – Leader Dogs in harness, walking the streets of downtown, visiting businesses, assisting the blind. Perhaps you remember, as a child, proudly depositing your spare change in the little can labeled “Whither Thou Goest” that nearly every Rochester business displayed near its cash register.

Leader Dogs for the Blind has been part of the greater Rochester community for 80 years. Its story began in October 1938, when the Uptown Lions Club of Detroit adopted a mission to train guide dogs for the blind. For several months before, club members had tried unsuccessfully to procure a guide dog for a local man who was blind. They were discouraged to find that the nation’s two guide dog training facilities – one in New Jersey and the other in Minnesota – were swamped with requests and unable to meet demand.

Four men stand outside with their four respective leader dogs, a crowd in the background watch

First Leader Dog class – William Joyce, with his dog Neitzie, Earl Morrey with Baron, Dr. Glenn Wheeler with Hilda, and Paul Brown with Van (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

As part of an organization whose mission was to assist the blind, the Uptown Lions decided to fill a need. They wanted to sponsor the training of guide dogs and partner with other Lions clubs around the country to shoulder the costs of doing so, in order to furnish dogs at little cost to the client. The club started its work with four Doberman Pinschers from a local kennel, and housed the program in donated space at a Detroit hotel. Soon thereafter, the Uptown Lions Club presented trained guide dogs to their inaugural class of four clients, including Glenn B. Wheeler of Detroit, the man they had originally sought to help.

A naming contest for the new program was conducted among Lions clubs worldwide, and the name “Lions Leader” was selected from more than 500 entries. The Lions Leader Dog Foundation was officially organized on April 4, 1939. Donald P. Schuur, who was president of the Uptown Lions at the time, also became president of the new foundation.

Early Leader Dog class in front of farm house at Avon & Rochester (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

Early Leader Dog class in front of farm house at Avon & Rochester (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

One of the first tasks of the new organization was to find a permanent home for its program. A remnant of the former Ira Fisher farm at Avon and Rochester roads in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) offered just what was needed: a farm residence to house the staff and clients, a barn to house the dogs, and room to expand. Leader Dog leased the property for $50 a month and then purchased it in 1942. Surrounding lots were added later, bringing the total size of the Leader Dog campus to 14 acres.

A year after the foundation was created, the Detroit Free Press announced that the Leader Dog facility had already trained and placed 21 guide dogs. The first trainers were Eugene Kelly and Fred Maynard, both of whom had learned to train dogs at the Seeing Eye institution in Morristown, New Jersey. The organization also adopted a new name: Leader Dog League for the Blind.

Leader Dog clients at unidentified soda fountain in downtown Rochester (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

Leader Dog clients at unidentified soda fountain in downtown Rochester (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

After World War II, Leader Dog began a large expansion project, which included a $21,000 kennel facility to house 56 dogs. More than a thousand visitors gathered in October 1946 to watch as Michigan’s former governor, Wilber M. Brucker, dedicated the new building.

In 1952, the Leader Dog League partnered with another Michigan institution training guide dogs and changed its name one more time, to Leader Dogs for the Blind. Growth continued throughout the decade of the 1950s; a dormitory was completed in 1954 and an administration building was added in 1957.

Rochester residents soon grew accustomed to seeing Leader Dogs with their trainers or clients on the streets downtown. Dogs learned to navigate pedestrian and vehicular traffic in Rochester, as well as in nearby cities such as Royal Oak and Detroit. Local businesses welcomed students and trainers with their dogs, and area schoolchildren learned that Leader Dogs in harness were not pets, but service dogs performing important work.

Leader Dogs training on Walnut Street in 1957 (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

Leader Dogs training on Walnut Street in 1957 (Courtesy of Leader Dogs for the Blind)

In 1958, a vital new program was begun when three puppies were placed with the Oakland County K-9 4-H club. The children in the club accepted the task of raising the puppies for one year and then returning them to Leader Dog for training. This partnership officially launched the Puppy Raising program.

As it marks its 80th year at the corner of Rochester and Avon, Leader Dogs for the Blind is proud to be a part of the greater Rochester community. The organization recently made a huge investment in its campus, completing a $14.5 million renovation project and construction of a Canine Development Center. Rachelle Kniffen, Leader Dog’s Director of Communication and Marketing, says Leader Dog has stayed in Rochester Hills because the location is central to a wide variety of training environments. Nearby are dirt roads, Stony Creek Metropark, and busy urban areas in southern Oakland County and Detroit, not to mention the very walkable City of Rochester. “Rochester has a great downtown,” Kniffen said.

Leader Dogs for the Blind outdoor sign

Future Leader Dog Puppy Raiser Program Needs Your Help

Leader Dog also invites the community to participate in its mission through the Puppy Raiser and breeding stock programs. Puppy raisers agree to raise a Future Leader Dog for one year. During that time, puppy-raising families socialize their dog by incorporating the puppy into all aspects of family life. At the end of one year, the puppy returns to Leader Dog for training. If the dog successfully completes training, it will be placed with a client who is blind or visually impaired. If the dog is not successful in training, Leader Dog explores career change options for the animal. These options may include entry into another service dog occupation, or permanent adoption by the puppy raiser family.

Volunteers are also needed to serve as host families for Leader Dog’s breeding stock. Breeding stock families care for the dogs that produce the program’s puppies, under the supervision of Leader Dog’s professional staff. After the breeding stock animals are “retired” from service, they are also eligible for permanent adoption by host families.

Front door of the Leader Dogs for the Blind building at Avon and Rochester Roads

Leader Dogs for the Blind Marks Eight Decades of Service

Leader Dogs for the Blind depends upon more than 500 puppy raisers and 100 breeding stock hosts each year. The program currently places about 200 trained dogs annually with clients who are blind or visually impaired, at no cost to the client. Support from the puppy-raising community is vital to the continued success of the Leader Dog mission. Anyone who is interested in being a puppy raiser or breeding stock host may receive further information from Leader Dogs for the Blind by calling 248-651-9011 or by visiting the Leader Dog website at www.leaderdog.org.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Janet Mills Dolan says

    My Father Kenneth Mills was a Rochester Lion’s Club member during those years. He shared his love for the school and what it was doing. A plaque was in the lobby in his honor. When he died in 1958, all contributions were made in his name to the Leader Dog for the Blind in Rochester. As I moved away in the 50″s I don’t know if the Plaque is still there or not. Know I have always had a love of the school and watched many dogs being trained growing up.

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