Lions and Leader Dog – Together for over 75 Years

Black and white photo of four early male Leader Dog clients standing in a semicircle outside with their Leader Dogs, all Doberman Pinschers

From left to right: William Joyce with Neitzie,
Earl Morrey with Baron, Dr. Glenn Wheeler
with Hilda and Paul Brown with Van.

It started with “$400 and a hatful of ideas.” - Donald P. Schuur

Leader Dogs for the Blind would not exist today if not for Lions Clubs International. Beginning with the support of one club, Leader Dog is now supported by Lions Clubs from all over the world.

It all began in 1938, when Charles A. Nutting, Donald P. Schurr and S.A. Dodge led the Uptown Lions Club of Detroit in establishing a school to train guide dogs for people who are blind. Their motivation was Dr. Glenn Wheeler, a fellow Uptown Lion whose attempts to be accepted by another guide dog organization proved unsuccessful. The first clients were housed at the Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit and graduated in the fall of 1938. Three Detroit Lions Clubs held a contest among all Lions Clubs for a new name for their venture. Over 500 names were submitted from around the world. The winning name “Lions Leader” was submitted by the Lions Club of Coulterville, Illinois.

On April 4, 1939, Lions Leader Dog Foundation was incorporated as a Michigan nonprofit. In May 1939, the Foundation leased a small farm in Rochester Hills, Michigan to house their new venture. Fifty dollars per month rented a farmhouse for the clients and staff, a barn for the dogs and a garage.

On October 8, 1939, the first class of the official Lions Leader Dog Foundation graduated. The cost to graduate a client/dog team was $600.

The house rented in 1939 would have over
12,000 students in residence until its demolition in 2003.

Soon after incorporation, the Lions International Board of Directors requested that the word “Lions” be removed from the name because they had not sanctioned official support of the organization. So on June 15, 1940, the new name “Leader Dog League for the Blind” became official. The remainder of the 1940s saw additional growth of the organization and increased involvement of local and nationwide Lions Clubs. Support came in the form of donations, identifying potential client and spreading the word of Leader Dog’s work and mission.

The decade of the '50s welcomed the first Leader Dog week (Dec. 3–9, 1950) in Michigan as proclaimed by Governor G. Mennen Williams. Leader Dog received a new Executive Director in 1951, Harold “Pock” Pocklington. Pock had been on the Board of Trustees since 1948 after he first visited Leader Dog while a District Governor-Elect. He would stay at Leader Dog until his death in 1986. Leader Dog’s global ties to the Lions began strengthening in 1953 when S.A. Dodge served as president of Lions International, bringing Leader Dog to the Lions at the highest possible level. Melvin Jones, founder of Lionism, gave Leader Dog his personal endorsement in 1958.

Many remember Pock for his dedication to Leader
Dog, to Lions and for his ever-present pipe. He is
pictured here with his dog Shane.

The 1960s brought continued growth at Leader Dog in terms of number of clients graduated, number of dogs trained and number of employees on staff. In 1963, Lions International President Jorge Bird of Puerto Rico became involved with Leader Dog when he brought a Spanish soldier, Francisco A. Garcia, who had been blinded by a shell explosion, to get a dog. Until this time, the Lions were unable to establish themselves in Spain because its leader General Franco opposed having international associations in the country. However, when Garcia returned to Spain he received much press and Franco became aware of him. When President Bird was finally able to get an audience with Franco, he provided approval for Lions to establish themselves in Spain. At this meeting, Franco recognized the Lions as the group that “gave the dog to someone in Barcelona.” The association of Lions of Spain and Leader Dog continues to this day. On May 10, 1968, Leader Dog received permission to use the Lions emblem by Lions International, formalizing the deep connection between the two organizations.

The Lions statue was moved to the
Downtown Rochester facility during one
of the many renovations of our facilities.

The Lions' sustained support of Leader Dog was celebrated in 1972 with the addition of a life-size Lion to the Downtown Rochester training facility. The 2,200 pound statue was installed by the Shelby Township Lions and was designed and constructed by Gan Jacobsen (who became a long-time Trustee of Leader Dog). During this decade, Pock, who was still serving as Executive Director of Leader Dog, was twice elected to the Lions International Board (1974–75, 1978–79).

In April of 2013, LION Magazine listed Leader Dogs for the Blind as one of the “10 Brilliant Breakthroughs in Service.” In November of 2013, Leader Dog, Lions Clubs International, and partners Purina Pro Plan and the Iowa Department of Corrections jointly received the Community Partnership Award from the Mutual of America Foundation for Leader Dog's Prison Puppy Raising Program. The program places Leader Dog puppies with inmates for their first year of life.

Lions Clubs throughout the world have continued to support Leader Dog and its clients financially, brought thousands of people who needed assistance through Leader Dog’s doors and have continued to serve on the Board of Trustees. They are puppy raisers, volunteers, breeding hosts and so much more. Many recipients of Leader Dog services have become Lions after experiencing their support and mission firsthand.

To this day, the mission of the Lions, “We serve,” perfectly complements the Leader Dog mission of empowering people who are blind or visually impaired with lifelong skills for independent travel.