History of Guide Dogs

Information was taken from several websites and compiled by GDUC's team of volunteers.

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. In the mid-16th century, the second line of the popular verse alphabet, "A was an Archer" was most commonly "B was a Blind-man/Led by a dog".

The first systematic attempt to train dogs to aid blind people came around 1780 at "Less 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 realized. 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 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. She wrote a first-hand account about a guide dog training school in Potsdam, Germany, that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. Earlier that same year, U.S. Senator Thomas D. Schall of Minnesota was paired with a guide dog imported from Germany.

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 her. Frank went back to the States with what many believe to be America’s first guide dog.

Frank and Buddy embarked on a publicity tour to convince Americans of the abilities of guide dogs and the need to allow people with guide dogs access to public transportation, hotels, and other areas open to the public.

The success of her experience with Frank encouraged Eustis to set up a guide dog school of her own at Vevey in Switzerland in 1928. The following year Eustis and Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye in Nashville Tennessee. Two years later the school relocated to New Jersey fairly near to its present day location. Eustis called the schools "L’Oeil qui Voit", or The Seeing Eye. (The name comes from 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 Eustis, who sent over one of her trainers. The first British guide dogs, German Shepherds named Flash, Judy, Meta, and Folly, completed their training and were handed over to four veterans blinded in World War I on October 6, 1931. These successful partnerships laid the groundwork for what was to become the Guide Dogs for the blind Association which got its start in 1934.

Since then, guide dog schools have opened all around the world, and more open their doors every decade.

In terms of the larger U.S. schools, Leader Dogs was formed in 1939, Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1942, and Guiding Eyes in 1956.

Historically speaking, Canada is still a relatively young country. Consequently, our guide dog training centres got off to a bit of a late start. On October 21, 1981, Eric St-Pierre proudly presented two blind individuals with the first two guide dogs trained in Quebec and the MIRA Foundation was born. In 1984, William & Jane Thornton moved from England to Canada to start a guide dog school. Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, CGDB, was established in Ottawa, Ontario, graduating its first guide dog team in July of that year. A year later, Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides opened its doors in Oakville Ontario as Canine Vision Canada.

There are now two additional guide dog training organizations in Canada which are focused on our two western most provinces. BC and Alberta Guide Dog Services trains guide dogs for residents of British columbia and Alberta. Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society, originally founded as the Western Guide Dog Foundation, services thos living in Alberta.

All reputable guide dog training organizations are affiliated with the International Guide Dog Federation and the Canadian training centres are members of the Canadian Association of Guide and Assistance Dog Schools. Proudly Canadian, these 5 training centres have and will continue to serve many of GDUC’s members and friends.

Thousands of people have had their lives transformed by guide dogs and the organizations that provide them. The commitment of the people who work for these organizations 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, partially sighted, and deaf-blind people the world over. The movement goes on!

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