The idea of using dogs as guides for the blind may seem like a modern idea, but the history of guide dogs stretches as far back as the first-century AD. While the formalized training of dogs to lead the blind wasn’t until the late 1700s, a mural found in the buried ruins of Roman Herculaneum and other records from Asia and Europe up to the Middle Ages suggest that this practice began much earlier.
The formal training of dogs to lead the blind really took hold in Europe around the 1780s, beginning at “Les Quinze-Vigts” hospital for the blind in Paris and slowly making its way East to Austria. In 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein, the founder of the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna made significant progress in the field when he included the idea of guide dogs in his book on education for the blind. He even went so far as to include details about his method for training these dogs.
These early events were important in shaping the story of the modern guide dog, which began during the First World War. The use of poison gas on the front lines meant that many soldiers returned home from war blinded.
After seeing how his own dog began looking after his blind patients, a German doctor by the name of Gerhard Stalling began teaching groups of dogs the skills necessary to guide these blinded veterans. Stalling’s work led him to open the world’s first guide dog school in Oldenburg, Germany, in August 1916.
The work that Dr. Stalling was doing with these dogs was well received and the school grew, eventually opening branches across Germany. Collectively, the different branches were able to train up to 600 dogs each year. These numbers allowed them to provide dogs not only to the veterans who inspired the movement, but also to the blind across the world.
Unfortunately, training dogs in these numbers each year lead to a decrease in quality, and just ten years after opening the schools were forced to shut down in 1926. But as you know, this isn’t where the guide dog story ends. Just as Dr. Stalling’s schools were closing, another large guide dog training centered had opened in Potsdam, near Berlin, and it was quickly proving its worth. Without sacrificing quality, this new school was able to train around 100 dogs at a time, with an average of 12 fully trained guide dogs graduating each month.
Up until this point, the training of guide dogs was focused in Europe, with ready-to-serve dogs being shipped for work abroad; that is until a wealthy American woman by the name of Dorothy Harrison Eustis heard about the work the Potsdam school was doing.
Dorothy was living in Switzerland, training dogs for the army, police, and customer service and she became intrigued by the work the school was doing and soon made the decision to move to Potsdam for several months to learn more about their methods. Each day that Dorothy spent at the training center she grew more and more impressed with the work being done with the dogs, inspiring her to write an article for the Saturday Evening Post in American in October, 1927.
After hearing about article, a blind American man named Morris Frank contacted her, sharing his interest in introducing guide dogs to the United States. Excited by the challenge, Dorothy personally trained a dog named Buddy and brought Morris over to Switzerland to learn how to work with him. After their training period was complete, Frank headed back to the United States with what is believed to be the country’s first guide dog.
In 1928, Dorothy’s training with Frank inspired her to open her own guide dog school in Vevey, Switzerland called The Seeing Eye. This same year, the idea of training guide dogs had spread to Italy, resulting in another guide dog school being opened there. Dorothy’s Switzerland venture proved to be so successful that she opened a second school in Morristown, New Jersey a year later in 1929.
Dorothy’s schools in Switzerland and New Jersey, along with the independently owned school in Italy, are recognized today as the first guide dog schools of the modern era to have survived the test of time. Through the hard work of these pioneering organizations, countless guide dog schools have been opened around the world. Today, thousands of blind and partially sighted people worldwide have had their lives changed by guide dogs, allowing them to live with dignity and independence.