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Guide Dogs – A Brief History

guide dogs

Man and dog have had a close relationship for thousands of years. That special bond and their willingness to please has seen them come to our aid in numerous situations. Over the centuries there have been many examples from all over the world of dogs leading their blind owners. This includes one depicted in a mural found in the ruins of the lost Roman city of Herculaneum which dates back to the first century.

The origins of guide dog training

However, the first attempt to actively train dogs to help those with loss of vision happened in the 18th century at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital in Paris. This is the oldest institute for the blind in the world.  In 1788, a Viennese man named Josef Riesinger trained his Spitz dog so well that some people failed to notice he was blind at all.

During the 19th century there were various attempts at training seeing eye dogs. In 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein, who was one of the first pioneers for blind people to be educated, mentioned the idea of the guide dog a book he wrote (Lehrbuch zum Unterricht der Blinden). In it he described a method for training dogs so they could assist people who had lost their sight.

Guide dogs in Germany

The First World War, which saw a large number of soldiers returning blinded by mustard gas and shrapnel, had a significant impact on the development of guide dogs. A German doctor, Gerhard Stalling, was walking with one of his patients and his dog one day. Then after leaving them together for a few moments he noticed signs that the dog was aiding the blind man.

He then started to investigate ways of training canines to become reliable guide dogs. This led to the opening of a guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg, the world’s first such establishment, in August 1916.

The school grew with new branches popping up across Germany providing up to 600 guide dogs a year to blind people. This included ex-servicemen across Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada and the USA.

In 1927 there was a wealthy American named Dorothy Eustis who lived in Switzerland. She bred German Shepherds for use as service dogs. She wrote an article for a magazine which described a large guide-dog training school in Potsdam Germany. It provided dogs for blind veterans and where she had spent several months learning their training methods.

Guide dog schools emerge in America

This sparked a lot of interest. And a young blind man from America was keen to find out just what these special dogs could do.

Morris Frank booked a trip to Switzerland. And after a few weeks of intensive training returned home with his new four-legged friend “Buddy”. This highly intelligent German Shepherd bitch is widely believed to be America’s first guide dog. He has even been the subject of a book and film.

The two traveled widely across the US demonstrating how effective his dog could help him navigate obstacles and cross busy streets. They were so successful that the following year that Frank in partnership with Dorothy Eustis, launched The Seeing Eye. The ensuing decades saw a number of guide dog schools emerge such as Guide Dogs of America. And Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Eustis, Frank, and Buddy

guide dog

Originally German Shepherds were used as guide dogs and early on trainers recognized that certain breeds were more suited to this type of work. This was due to their trainability and temperament. Nowadays Labrador Retrievers are the most common breed used. Standard Poodles, Collies and Vizlas are used on occasion. There have even been Labradoodles trained as guide dogs for people who suffer from allergies.

5 interesting facts about Guide dogs

  • It costs over $40,000 to train a guide dog
  • It is estimated there are over 10,000 guide dog teams in the USA
  • You should never pet a working guide dog as it breaks their focus.
  • A seeing eye dog can go places other dogs can’t, such as restaurants, stores, theatres etc.
  • Approximately 45% of puppies don’t make the grade.

Nowadays there are guide dog schools throughout the world. Thousands of people have benefited from the dogs they provide. They have their own breeding programs and training methods are continually being developed.
The commitment of the people like Dorothy Eustis and others since, who are dedicated to improving the lives of those who suffer from visual challenges has resulted in blind people experiencing increased mobility and independence. Many who cannot leave the home alone discover a sense of freedom when partnered with a guide dog.

John Devlin
Owner –

Husband, father and avid dog lover. Currently the proud owner of George a pedigree Golden Retriever that barely leaves my side. However, cute this sounds a little break from the dog hairs every now and then would be nice!