The first special relationship between a dog and a blind person is lost in the mists of time, but perhaps the earliest known example is depicted in a first-century AD mural in the buried ruins of Roman Heculaneum. From the Middle Ages, too, a wooden plaque survives showing a dog leading a blind man with a leash.
However, the first systematic attempt to train dogs to aid blind people came around 1780 at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital for the blind in Paris. Shortly afterwards, in 1788, Josef Riesinger, a blind sieve-maker from Vienna, trained a spitz so well that people often doubted that he was blind.
Then, in 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Education of the Blind (Blinden-Erziehungs-Institut) in Vienna, mentioned the concept of the guide dog in his book on educating blind people (Lehrbuch zum Unterricht der Blinden). Unfortunately, no records exist of his ideas ever actually having been realised. Nevertheless, a Swiss man, Jakob Birrer, wrote in 1847 about his experiences of being guided over a period of five years by a dog he himself had specially trained.
The modern guide dog story, however, begins during the First World War, when thousands of soldiers were returning from the Front blinded, often by poison gas. A German doctor, Dr Gerhard Stalling, had the idea of training dogs en masse to help those affected. While walking with a patient one day through the hospital grounds, he was called away urgently and left his dog with the patient as company. When he returned, he got the distinct impression from the way the dog was behaving that it was looking after the blind patient.
Dr Stalling started to explore ways of training dogs to become reliable guides and in August 1916 opened the world’s first guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg. The school grew and new branches opened in Bonn, Breslau, Dresden, Essen, Freiburg, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Münster and Hannover, turning out up to 600 dogs a year. According to some accounts, these schools provided dogs not only to ex-servicemen, but also to blind people in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union.
Sadly, the venture had to shut down in 1926, but by that time another large guide dog training centre had opened in Potsdam, near Berlin, which was proving to be highly successful. Its work broke new ground in the training of guide dogs and it was capable of accommodating around 100 dogs at a time and providing up to 12 fully-trained guide dogs a month. In its first 18 years, the school trained over 2,500 dogs, with a rejection rate of just 6%.
Around this time, a wealthy American woman, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, was already training dogs for the army, police and customs service in Switzerland. It was Dorothy Eustis’s energy and expertise that was to properly launch the guide dog movement internationally. Having heard about the Potsdam centre, Eustis was curious to study its methods, and spent several months there. She came away so impressed that she wrote an article about it for the Saturday Evening Post in America in October 1927.
One man, a blind American called Morris Frank, heard about the article and bought a copy of the magazine. He later said that the five cents it cost him “bought an article that was worth more than a million dollars to me. It changed my life”. He wrote to Eustis, telling her that he would very much like to help introduce guide dogs to the United States.
Taking up the challenge, Dorothy Eustis trained a dog, Buddy, and brought Frank over to Switzerland to learn how to work with him. Frank went back to the States with what many believe to be America’s first guide dog.
The success of this experience encouraged Eustis to set up guide dog schools of her own at Vevey in Switzerland in 1928 and shortly afterwards in the United States. She called them ‘L’Oeil qui Voit’, or The Seeing Eye (the name comes from the the Old Testament of the Bible – ‘the hearing ear and the seeing eye’, Proverbs, XX, 12), and they were the first guide dog schools in the modern sense.
In 1930, two British women, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, heard about The Seeing Eye and contacted Dorothy Eustis, who sent over one of her trainers. In 1931, the first four British guide dogs completed their training and three years later The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was founded.
Since then, guide dog schools have opened all round the world, and more open their doors every decade. Thousands of people have had their lives transformed by guide dogs and the organisations that provide them. The commitment of the people who work for these organisations is as deep today as it ever was, and the heirs of Dorothy Eustis’s legacy continue to work for the increased mobility, dignity and independence of blind and partially-sighted people the world over. The movement goes on.