Guide Dogs Through the Ages

While there is evidence that man’s relationship with wolves stretches back 400,000 years, man’s domestication of dogs coincides with the evolution of early breeds of dogs about 150,000 years ago.

The first special relationship between a dog and a blind person is lost in the mists of time, but perhaps the earliest recorded example is depicted in a first-century AD mural in the buried ruins of Roman Herculaneum. There are other records from Asia and Europe up to the Middle Ages, of dogs leading blind men.

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 questioned whether he was blind.

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) and described his method for training dogs. A Swiss man, Jakob Birrer, wrote in 1847 about his experiences of being guided over a period of five years by a dog he had specially trained.

The modern guide dog story, however, begins during the First World War, with thousands of soldiers returning from the Front blinded, often by poison gas. A German doctor, Dr Gerhard Stalling, got 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 saw signs, 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 many new branches opened in Bonn, Breslau, Dresden, Essen, Freiburg, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Münster and Hannover, training up to 600 dogs a year. 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.

Unfortunately, due to a reduction in dog quality, 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. This school’s 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.

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 to be Dorothy Eustis’s energy and expertise that would properly launch the guide dog movement internationally.


Having heard about the Potsdam centre, Eustis was curious to study the school’s 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.

A blind American man, Morris Frank, heard about the article and bought a copy of the newspaper. He later said that the five cents the newspaper 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 the dog. Frank went back to the United States with what many believe to be America’s first guide dog. Eustis later established the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1929, but before this went back to Switzerland to do further work there. Meanwhile, an Italian Guide Dog organisation, Sculola Nazionale Cani Guida per Ciechi was also established in 1928.

The success of the United States experience encouraged Eustis to set up guide a dog school at Vevey in Switzerland in 1928. She called this school, like the one a year later in New Jersey, ‘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). The schools in Vevey, New Jersey and Italy were the first guide dog schools of the modern era that have survived the test of time.

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 in the UK.

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, thanks to the organisations that provide them. The commitment of the people who work for these organisations, and the people who financially support them, 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.

Timeline Major Events

79      Excavations in Pompeii reveal a wall-painting of a blind man apparently being led by his dog.

1200  A Chinese scroll, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York shows a blind man being led by a dog.

1260   An Irish reference, attributed to Bartholomew, of a dog guiding a blind man.

1500-1700  Similar references appear more frequently throughout the 16th Century in woodcuts, engravings and paintings throughout the world.

1715  The “Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green”  is a ballad about a knight who lost his sight in a battle and subsequently became a beggar.  His friends gave him a dog on a lead and, also, a bell.

1727  Gainsborough (1727-1788) painted “Blind Man on the Bridge”  which depicts a dog leading its master.

1755  William Bigg (1755-1828) depicts “The Blind Sailor”  crossing a narrow bridge with the help of his dog.

1790  Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) produced some engravings for his book “A General History of Quadrupeds”.  One engraving showed a blind man being lead across a bridge by a dog.

1813  An engraving was published in the magazine “Das Auge”  (The Eye) by George Joseph Beer, a leading Viennese eye specialist.  Beer wanted to highlight the man in the foreground wearing glasses, but in the background there is a blind man working a guide dog on a leash and walking with the aid of a walking stick.  Beer wrote a book that referred to well-trained dogs that were used prior to 1780 by the blind of the Quinze-Vingts hospital, because he had seen a painting by Chardin which was hung in the Louvre in 1752.

1819  The earliest surviving description of a systematic method of training guide dogs was published by Dr. Johann Wilhelm Klein in Vienna.  Klein became the Director of the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna.  His book describes a method of training the dogs with a stick attached to the collar and held in the left hand.  The stick had a crossbar, which may have given information about the sideways movement of the dog, as well as the forward movement.  Klein no longer had the dog on a leash and the blind man no longer used a walking stick.  Unfortunately the idea of using a primitive type of harness was not built upon and remained unused for almost 100 years.

1847   Jacob Birrer (blind Swiss man) published a book highlighting the use of training dogs as guides.  Once again the strategy was back to leads and walking sticks.  His ideas were not developed any further.

1864  In Trollope’s novel, “Can You Forgive Her”, Lady Glenorca tells the Duke of St. Bungay that she will lead him as “the little dogs lead blind men”.

1878  British Parliament exempts licence fees for “shepherds’ dogs and “those kept by the blind as guides”.

1899  A drawing from “The Graphic”  shows how dogs trained by the German Red Cross Ambulance Dogs Association were used to help the wounded on the battlefield.  The Director, Dr. Gerhard Stalling, used these same dogs in early attempts to guide blinded veterans.  This is the start of using larger breeds of dogs, mostly Collies, as guides.

1914-18      World War 1 re-sparked interest in guide dog due to so many young men being blinded following exposure to mustard gas or as the result of shell shock.  The German Red Cross Ambulance Dogs Association established a training centre in Oldenberg.  The first guide dog was issued in 1916 to a blinded veteran, Paul Feyen.  Within a year there were 100 guide dogs issued and 539 guide dogs had been issued by 1919.  In 1922, the first classes for civilian blind men commenced.  By that stage there were complaints that the quality of the dogs had fallen.  Eventually the Association refused to work with the veterans.  It continued serving civilians, only, for a few more years and then closed.


1923  Blinded Veterans were now dealt with by the German Shepherd Dog Association, which opened a training school in 1923 in Potsdam.  This group formalised the training methods that are common to most guide dog schools today, i.e. selecting good dogs, careful matching, following-up in the home environment.  By the 1930’s there were around 4,000 qualified guide dogs in Germany.

1925  The original school in Oldenberg was formally taken over by the German Association for the Blind.

1927   George and Dorothy Eustis, who were selectively breeding German Shepherd dogs in their Fortunate Fields kennels in Switzerland, visited the Potsdam School.  Highly impressed, Dorothy Eustis wrote to an American newspaper with her account of the visit.  This was published in November 1927.  Many letters flooded back from the United States, and one, in particular, from Morris Frank, stimulated Dorothy Eustis and Jack Humphrey, the head trainer at her Fortunate Fields kennels, to work with Potsdam trainers to prepare a dog for Morris.

1928  Morris Frank arrived in Switzerland in April and trained with Guide Dog “Buddy”.  Morris and “Buddy” returned to New York in June.  They faced sceptical journalists, but won them over by crossing a wide, busy street without injury, and this incident received wide press coverage.

1929   Mrs. Eustis established the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, New Jersey. Realising that the major problem would be training suitable Instructors, she returned to Switzerland.  There she established a training school near her Fortunate Fields kennels.  It was here that she also started training her own guide dogs.

1931   Mrs. Eustis trained and supplied ten dogs to Italy, eleven to France, and three to Switzerland.  Mrs. Eustis also qualified four Guide Dog Instructors that year.  Two went to the Seeing Eye School in New York one to Italy and one, Captain Laikhoff, went to the UK.  There, he established a centre in Cheshire where the first four British guide dogs completed their training.  Quarantine regulations hindered trained guide dogs being sent to Britain and a search commenced for other suitable breeds to train.  These were predominantly Labradors.

1932  Mrs. Eustis loaned Georges Gabriel (from Switzerland) to run the second guide dog class in Britain.

1933  Mrs. Eustis, again, loaned Georges Gabriel to run the third guide dog class in Britain.

1934  Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) was established.

1940 Leamington Spa opened as the first UK guide dog Training Centre.

Source: International Guide Dog Federation

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