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The History of Seeing-Eye Dogs


Written by Adam Lee-Smith

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 01/07/2022, edited: 07/26/2022

For tens of thousands of years, dogs have been by our side. There's no doubt our canine companions make our lives better, whether they're warding off danger, keeping us company, or helping us stay active.

Amazingly, our barking buddies have even learned how to act as one of our senses. Guide dogs have been making a difference for decades — there are now thought to be over 10,000 guide dog teams across the US, according to Guiding Eyes for the Blind

January 29 is National Seeing-Eye Dog Day, so there's no better time to learn all about the history of these clever service dogs and how they've changed countless lives around the world.

When were the first seeing eye dogs trained?

There's evidence to suggest dogs have been leading people with blindness since prehistory. The earliest evidence of a dog leading a person with blindness comes from a first-century AD mural from the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum near Pompeii. 

You’ll find other centuries-old examples of dogs leading people with blindness across Asia and Europe. One example is a 12th-century scroll from China that depicts a dog leading a man with blindness. By the 16th century, descriptions and depictions of dogs leading people with blindness were common in literature and art. 

Organized attempts to train seeing-eye dogs didn't happen until the end of the 18th century. The earliest reported effort to train a seeing-eye dog occurred in 1780 at a Paris hospital. In 1788, a blind sieve-maker in Vienna successfully trained his Spitz as a seeing-eye dog. 

By the start of the 19th century, academics had begun writing about the potential use of dogs as guides for people who are blind. In 1819, the Institute for the Education of the Blind founder, Johann Wilhelm Klein, wrote about the benefits of guide dogs in an education book for people with blindness.

Who trained the first seeing-eye dogs?

The modern history of seeing-eye dogs didn't start until the early 20th century. In the wake of the First World War, many soldiers were left blind. A German doctor, Dr. Gerhard Stalling, saw the potential benefits of training guide dogs after seeing interactions between soldiers with blindness and their dogs. 

In 1916, Dr. Gerhard Stalling and the German Red Cross Ambulance Dogs Association opened the first seeing-eye dog school in Oldenburg. This was the first recorded attempt to organize and train multiple guide dogs according to a standard. Soon after, seeing-eye dog schools opened across Germany, teaching as many as 600 dogs annually. 

Dr. Gerhard Stalling's schools shut down by 1926 due to the lack of trainable breeds. However, an even more successful school had opened at the time in Potsdam near Berlin, training as many as 12 guide dogs a month.

The success of the Potsdam seeing-eye dog school led American dog trainer Dorothy Harrison Eustis to travel from Switzerland to visit for several months.

She was so impressed that she wrote an article about the school, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1927. This article would play a key role in establishing guide dogs in the USA.

Related: How to Train a Guide Dog for the Blind

golden retriever leading blind person down a path

Morris Frank was a key figure in the popularization of seeing-eye dogs in the USA. A man with blindness, Frank had heard about Eustis's article on guide dogs and believed it could change the lives of people with visual impairments across the country. 

Frank wrote a letter to Eustis, telling her how he'd like to help popularize guide dogs in the US. Frank traveled to Switzerland to train with Eustis and a guide dog named Buddy. He returned to the US with Buddy in 1928, who became America's first seeing-eye dog. During a press conference, Frank and Buddy astounded skeptical journalists by crossing a busy road without any issues. 

In 1929, Eustis established The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, the US's first seeing-eye dog school. Following the opening of The Seeing Eye, word of the benefit of seeing-eye dogs spread across the West. 

In 1930, British women Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond contacted Eustis about guide dogs, and she sent over one of her trainers to train the first 4 British guide dogs. This led to the formation of The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the UK in 1933. 

The Seeing Eye and The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association are still operating today, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of seeing-eye dog schools globally.

Looking for ways to support people with blindness? Check out our top 6 seeing-eye dog charities to support!

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