A History of Guide Dogs

We all know the ancient Romans left an incredible legacy in the development of art, language, literature, technology and more. But who knew their culture also played a role in the history of guide dogs?

In fact, there is evidence that people with vision loss have been working with canine companions, protectors and guides for centuries. The earliest recorded example of the guide dog/human bond comes from the Roman city of Herculaneum (now located in present-day Italy), which was buried along with Pompeii in AD 79. Herculaneum’s ruins, still being unearthed today, contain a mural showing a blind figure being unmistakably guided by a dog.

The Middle Ages offer us a similar record, in the form of a wooden plaque depicting a blind man being guided by a dog on a leash.

The first known attempt to train guide dogs happened at a hospital for the blind in Paris in 1780. And in 1788, a sieve-maker in Vienna was said to have trained a dog so effectively for his own use that people thought he was sighted.

In the 19th century, the concept of guide dog training made it into print. Johann Wilhelm Klein, the founder of a school for the blind in Vienna, wrote an 1819 textbook that describes the training of a guide dog using a rigid leash, although no one knows whether his theories were ever used.

The modern guide dog movement, however, began with one remarkable German Shepherd (whose name seems to be lost in the annals of history) in the early 1900s.

Wartime heroes, on four legs

The story begins during the First World War, when thousands of soldiers lost their sight, usually as a result of poison gas.

One day a German doctor named Gerhard Stalling was walking the grounds of a veteran’s hospital with a patient who had lost his vision. Called away suddenly, Stalling left his German Shepherd with the man to keep him company. When he came back, he got the distinct feeling his dog was trying to help the man, and Stalling was impressed. By 1916, Stalling had opened the world’s first guide dog school, and soon there were branches all over Germany. Some accounts state the school matched dogs not just to German war veterans, but also to people in Britain, France, Spain, the United States and Canada.

Stalling’s facility shut down within a decade, but in 1923 another large school opened in Potsdam, near Berlin. And it was this school that attracted the interest of Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy American who was training and breeding dogs for the customs service, army and police in Switzerland. Eustis spent several months studying at the Potsdam school, and wrote about it in an article for the Saturday Evening Post, published in the United States in 1927.

Little did she know, she was setting the groundwork to bring great joy and independence – on a large scale – to people with vision loss all over the world.

Guide dogs abroad

Morris Frank, a young man in Tennessee, read Eustis’s article, and was tremendously excited at the prospects a guide dog seemed to offer. He wrote to Eustis immediately, saying that “Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own.”

His enthusiasm was infectious. Eustis asked her kennel manager to go to Potsdam and return with a trained dog. Later she invited Frank to Switzerland, and he and “Buddy” learned to work together as a team. Back in the United States, Frank kept his promise, establishing the first guide dog school in America with Eustis’s backing in 1929.

Eustis also founded a guide dog school in Switzerland and went on to travel and lecture widely about her work. She published another article in Britain, attracting the attention of Muriel Crooke and Rosamond Bond, who started the first guide dog school there in 1931.

Over the next few decades, schools sprung up over the world, bringing guide dogs to many grateful handlers – including many veterans who lost their sight in the Second World War.

Famous Guide Dogs

Of course every guide dog is inspirational and many of us know one who has become our favourite. But check out some of these hard-working pooches who have distinguished themselves in guide dog history.

  • Millions of people in the United Kingdom were introduced to the idea of guide dogs in 1965, when a guide dog named “Honey” became the subject of a popular BBC children’s television show. Viewers followed Honey through her training and collected donations of aluminum foil to fundraise for the dog’s education.
  • American horror and suspense novelist Dean Koontz owns a retired guide dog named “Trixie Koontz.” The bestselling author even published one of his books, Life is Good: Lessons in Joyful Living, using Trixie Koontz as a pseudonym in 2004.
  • Two heroic dogs brought their handlers to safety after hijacked airplanes struck the World Trade Centre on September 11, despite working in the most noisy, dangerous and chaotic conditions imaginable. Omar Riviera and his yellow Labrador retriever “Dorado” climbed down 70 stories just before tower one collapsed. Riviera even tried to release Dorado so the dog could have a better chance at survival, but found the dog would not leave his side. Another dog, “Roselle,” led handler Michael Hingston down 78 stories in the same building.

Guide dogs today

Today of course, guide dogs are working all over the world – there are currently 10,000 dog and handler teams in North America alone. And dogs are now helping people who have many different disabilities, acting as hearing dogs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and retrieving items, operating light switches and opening doors for people with mobility issues. Assistance dogs can even help with seizure response, psychological illnesses and autism.

Countless people through history have been transformed by the special relationship that a guide dog provides and the freedom it allows them.

“Man’s best friend”? We think so. In more ways than one.