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Monika Bar University of Groningen

Guide Dogs for the Blind: a Transnational History

In this presentation I will discuss some aspects of the history of the training of guide dogs for blind people. I will show that the idea first emerged in Germany during the First World War, and later became introduced in several other European and non-European countries, of which I will discuss the United States and Great Britain. Afterwards, I will shortly comment on the difficulties which can arise when guide dogs are used in cultures which have an ambivalent or hostile relationship with dogs. Lastly, by way of conclusion, I will compare the use of guide dogs to other mobility devices: the white cane and robots. Before I start out with my story, however, I would like to explain very briefly what makes the partnership between blind people and dogs so special. When dogs are used by humans for various tasks, they need to learn to obey their masters commands. By contrast, guide dogs must learn not only to obey, but also to disobey commands if those are unsafe. For example, if the blind person instructs the dog to cross the street, but a car is approaching, the dog will not fulfill this command. Thus, the guide dogs have to learn to make independent decisions. The ability to perform this skill of intelligent disobedience makes the work of the guide dog blind master team the highest degree of cooperation known between animal and man. Dogs have always been treasured companions and protectors of the blind, frequently even assisting them to find their way around. Occasionally, individuals who were usually themselves blind succeeded in their attempts to train dogs to help them with orientation. But the professional and systematic training of guide dogs was embedded in the German governments effort to rehabilitate a huge number of young soldiers who had lost their eyesight during the First World War. Originally conceived in Germany, the idea quickly came to be introduced in Europe and North America, and then into some countries of the non-

Western world. In recent decades the positive experiences with guide dogs have also inspired the employment of dogs for a much wider range of services, such as hearing dogs for the deaf, service dogs for the disabled, as well as seizure dogs and therapy dogs. The success of such initiatives depended not only on individual efforts, but perhaps to an even greater extent on cultural and societal attitudes to blind people and dogs, to traditions of rehabilitation and philanthropy and concepts of citizenship in the individual countries. Numerous images, documents and a great deal of literary evidence attest that the blind man and his dog had been familiar figures since ancient times. They make appearances on an early wall-painting from Pompei and on a 13th century Chinese scroll painting. They feature on Thomas Gainsboroughs painting Blind Man on the Bridge and on an illustration in Thomas Benwicks once celebrated A General History of Quadrupeds (1790), a book that even comments on this creatures directing the steps of the blind man. 1 Moreover, an evidence for the different legal treatment of such dogs from ordinary pets can be found in the British tax regulations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which exempted the owners of guide dogs from paying dog tax.2 Images of blind people in the company of dogs were frequently associated with beggars, a condition which later acted as a hindrance in the popularization of the guide dog movement. Such images frequently evoked connotations of demonic rebellion, idleness, blasphemy and even syphilis (which often caused blindness).3 But even when not considered as beggars, blind people were typically treated with a degree of suspicion or superstition and carried the odium of guilt. In contrast to this standard perception of the immoral blind, people who had sacrificed their eyesight in the defense of their homeland were treated in very different terms; they were the heroic blind, who deserved recognition and perhaps even

Thomas Benwick, A General History of Quadrupeds, (1790), cited in Robson, 15. Ingrid T. Tague, Eighteenth Century English Debates on a Dog Tax, The Historical Journal, 51:4 (2008), 901-920, p. 919 . 3 Moshe Barash, Blindness. The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought (Routledge, New York, 2001) 142. Alternatively, blindness could be associated with unique qualities, such as the in ancient Greek mythology.

some compensation. When King St Louis of France founded the Parisian hospital QuinzeVingts in 1254, to offer shelter to three hundred soldiers blinded in war by the Saracens, his gesture expressed gratitude towards the deserving blind. Visual evidence suggests that in this institution dogs were trained to guide the patients on the hospitals premises.4 Such dogs and their masters even feature on a painting by Jean-Baptiste Simon Chardin, which once had hung in the Louvre.5 The earliest surviving description of a structured method of guide dog training was published (in 1819) by Johann Wilhelm Klein, the director of the Institute for the Blind in Vienna. Established in 1804, the mission of this institute was identical with Valentin Hays trendsetting Paris Blind School founded twenty years earlier. The emergence of those specialized institutions testified to the increased faith in the potentials of the blind, and was influenced by Enlightenment scholars works, such as Diderots Lettre sur les aveugles lusage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind, 1749) which argued that the blind person was different from seeing, but not inferior to him because the absence of sight was compensated by an unusually developed sense of touch.6 Klein and his contemporaries sought to integrate blind people into society, but the issue of mobility remained an unresolved problem. Kleins proposal, as explained in his Lehrbuch zum Unterrichte der Blinden (Textbook for the Instruction of the Blind, 1819), was to train guide dogs for them and he suggested poodles and shepherd dogs for the job.

Guide dogs in Germany The most crucial momentum in the establishment of professionalized and institutionalized guide dog training in the early twentieth century was given by the

Georg Joseph Beer refers to it, in a book published in 1813. This institution continues to exist until today as an Eye Hospital. 5 In 1752 it was seen there. 6 Barash, 154.

unprecedented causalities of the First World War. In addition to an extraordinary death toll of 8, 5 million people and 7,7 million who went missing, approximately 21 million people returned home permanently disabled.7 People were afflicted by the most terrible injuries ever seen and novel changes in weaponry accounted for injuries to the eye: the use of artillery, hand grenades, gas attacks and small-arms fire. The use of poison gas left ten thousands of victims blinded.8 After the cessation of the atrocities governments were left with the enormous task of the rehabilitation of veterans. This task posed a particular challenge because due to the improvement of sanitary conditions, veterans returning home survived for much longer and in much larger numbers than ever before. German authorities recognized the crucial role of employment in the restoration of veterans dignity and sense of usefulness; it turned them into self-respecting tax-paying citizens. The government regarded work both duty and right, and the prerequisite to membership in society. It was therefore its crucial objective to enable the return of even the most seriously disabled people to work. 9 But the provision of the necessary jobs was not yet, in itself, sufficient. Blind veterans had a mobility problem: they either remained dependent on their wives, or someone who they paid to help them. If these options were not possible, they were not able to leave their homes. Thousands of dogs worked in the war as messenger-, rescue- and sanitary dogs and they saved the life of a large number of soldiers. Also, homesick soldiers on the front, in the absence of their families, developed a special bond with the animals in their surroundings, frequently even taking them home after the war. 10 Such experiences with working dogs were important, but equally crucial was the financial support which the welfare system of

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Martin Gilbert, The First World War (HarperCollins,1994). Anderson and Pemberton, Walking Alone, Aiding the War and the Civilian Blind in the Inter-war Period, European Review of History, 14:4 (2007, 459-79, 461. 9 Albour Ministrys Otto Wlz, quoted in International Labour Office, Employment of Disabled Men: Meeting of Experts for the Study of Methods of Finding Employment for Disabled Men, Geneva, 1923, 223, quoted by Deborah Cohen, 301. 10 Julia Fabienne Klan, Der Deutsche Verein fr Sanittshunde und das Sanittshundewesen in Deutschland (1893-1946), WB Laufersweiler, 2008, 211.

interwar Germany provided for blind veterans: they all became eligible for guide dogs free of charge and they also received support to cover the dogs feeding and medical costs. The first professional guide dog training school in the world was opened in the German city of Oldenburg in 1916. Most dog were German Shepherds, which German nationalist propaganda praised for their loyalty, bravery, strength and intelligence. Usually only bitches (=female dogs) were used. Guide dogs were considered as the nurses of the blind veterans and it was believed that just like in the case of humans, also in the case of dogs females were better suited for nurses because they were more reliable and caring. 11 The fundaments of guide dog training had been laid down in interwar Germany changed relatively little in the following decades. The dogs first learned to obey commands and then they were taught how to deal with obstacles on the street. When the dogs were proficient in this, the training with the blind person followed, and lasted for 2-3 weeks. Great care was given to the matching of the blind person and the dog which required knowledge both about the psychology of canines and of the blind. While in their physical qualities dog and master needed to correspond (a tall, fit person was matched with a larger, dynamic dog), in the psychological ones the choice of the dog was intended to enhance the blind mans character. Thus, insecure people were matched with confident dogs, nervous people with calm dogs and placid people with dynamic dogs.12 The experience of possessing guide dogs was so bonding that it led to the development of a distinct identity on the part of veterans. They were very satisfied with their dogs who brought them independence, confidence, companionship and the return of their joy in life. Veterans even started a campaign under the motto a guide dog for every blind!, so that even civilian blind people could get dogs free of charge. However, the authorities objected this on

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A. H. Die Ausbildungstelle fr Blindenhunde, Die Hundewelt, Berlin 1. Jahrgang, 15 Januar 1925, p. 81. Heinz Brll, Der Blindenfhrund, ein Leitfaden fr seine Abrichtung und Zuteilung an Sptgeblindete , Zeitschrift fr Hundeforschung XIX, 1951, p. 27, 387 veterans were included in his research, see also Oheil, Leiter der Meldestelle Mnster, Der Kriegsblindenhund, seine Dressur und praktische Erfahrungen, 211-222.

the grounds that guide dogs were very expensive and they were not an absolute necessity. In other words, in interwar Germany guide dogs were intended as a special service for blinded veterans, a sort of compensation for their sacrifices in the war.

Guide dogs in the United States The German experiment proved an instant success. Enthusiastic visitors came to Germany and some of them left with the intention to introduce the scheme in their home countries. As this process of internationalization unfolded, people were more and more often referring to the initiative as the guide dog movement, or even a great humanitarian movement. With such new initiatives, the fundaments remained much of the same. But when the idea was instilled in new environments, it had always had to be adjusted to local peculiarities. In the United States the idea was introduced by Mrs Dorothy Eustis was a an American breeder of German Shepherds, at this time residing in Switzerland, where she trained working dogs for the Red Cross, the police and the Swiss and Italian armies. Earlier on she visited a guide dog school in Germany and published an article about her experiences in the Saturday Evening Post in 1927. Eustis intention with the article was to merely alert people to a wonderful opportunity. But the publication had unintended consequences: a large number of letters written by blind people started to pour in, and all were requesting such dogs. Apparently, some of them seemed to have believed that guide dogs could be delivered to their doors by post for immediate use. Eustis felt uncomfortable about having had raised, however inadvertently, hopes that she could not fulfill.13 One day she received a letter that stood out from the rest. It was sent by a certain Morris Frank, a 20-year old college student and insurance agent from Nashville, Tenessee asked for a dog and in return promised to help her to set up a training centre. Eustis agreed to this, and the young man had the opportunity to train with a dog. After this he traveled around the US to show his navigational abilities on the

Senator Schall of Minnesota already owned a guide dog, which he purchased from Munich.

busy streets of New York, Philadelphia, Cinncinati and other big cities. Morris also gave a memorable speech in the radio, famously stating that the blind man was excluded from his American birthright by his dependence on family or friends to guide him. He then went on to characterize his new life declaring that I have signed my Declaration of Independence and enjoy it to the fullest with my dog, Buddy. 14 In 1929 Eustis opened a nonprofit school, The Seeing Eye, and it was because of the name of the school that in the United States guide dogs generally came to be known as seeingeye dogs. The training techniques in the new school followed German models, but unlike the German schools, which served primarily veterans, The Seeing Eye catered for the entire spectrum of the blind population and most of its clients were civilians. But just as in Germany, veterans were eligible to obtain guide dogs under special conditions. The most dramatic difference between the German and American circumstances was that in the United States, the state did not contribute in any way to the initiative. The Seeing Eye operated as a private charity, which meant that it had to enter a capitalist market for attracting contributions, in stiff competition with comparable organizations. Eustis launched an extremely successful fundraising offensive: in 1943, the school assets surpassed one million dollars, and by 1959 it exceeded 10 million dollars and even continued to grow. In other words, the fundraising strategy proved to be embarrassingly successful and created an awkward publicity problem. As a result The Seeing Eye declared a moratorium on fundraising, which was only lifted in 1985. Media appearances ensured not just an enlarged pool of potential contributors, but also increased the number of applicants and sympathizers. Guide dogs had an immense photogenic appeal and the fresh and unconventional nature of the idea turned them into media magnets. In addition to regularly featuring in popular magazines


Putnam, Love in the Lead. The Miracle of the Seeing Eye Dog, sec.ed. (University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, 1997),50.

such as the New Yorker, a three-part Walt Disney television series, Atta Girl, Kelley (1967) further enhance the guide dogs popularity. The Seeing Eyes overwhelming financial success was not the only aspect that irritated the rival blind welfare agencies. Those rivals were also unhappy about the Seeing Eyes philosophy because it conveyed a message that radically clashed with conventional welfare policies. Perhaps unwillingly, but such traditional policies encouraged blind peoples dependence by compelling them to confirm the stereotype of helplessness. This attitude was necessary in order to justify the very existence of those agencies in the first place. Guide dog ownership had a liberating effect to the extent that graduates frequently compared their new experience to the feeling of being released from prison, having been sentenced for life. 15 With their newly found freedom, new opportunities opened up and they were often able to leave sheltered workshops for more attractive positions. But this also meant that they no longer had to rely on those agencies to the same extent which was also the reason why most agency workers were ambivalent (if not even hostile) towards guide dogs and did not promote them among their clients. By contrast, The Seeing Eye was purposefully designed not as a traditional charity, but a service to offer guide dogs to deserving blind people at cost. They wished to challenge students by expecting them to pay for the dogs according to their means (scholarships were also available), so that they do not look upon the service of the organization as something due to them, accepted in the same spirit as favors received from other blind organizations.16

III. Guide dogs in Britain British visitors in Germany were also impressed by the work of guide dogs, but at the beginning, they had to face several difficulties. In Britain most people simple did not have
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Putnam, 157. Putnam 142.

enough confidence in the dogs ability to safely navigate its masters in modern road conditions; they thought that to expect this was the tempting of providence.17 As in Germany and the United States, for many people, the guide dog symbolized nothing else than dependence; it conjured up the prejudice associated with the image of the pathetic blind beggar. Among those people was Arthur Pearson, a philanthropist who founded St Dunstans Institute, a rehabilitation centre of blinded veterans in 1915.18 The tenets of rehabilitation which Pearson had devised for St Dunstans blind veterans considered work an essential requirement of citizenship.19 Consequently, just like in Germany, veterans in Britain were encouraged to make a contribution to the world by learning a trade, rather than just passing their days as depressed pensioners. Guide dogs could have been thus very useful for them. Nevertheless, the directors strategy of rehabilitation was to try to teach blind people to walk on their own without any help, so initially, he rejected the use of guide dogs. He also believed that the dog had an emasculating effect on the veterans, which was particularly unfortunate in light of the Institutes attempt to restore their heroic clients masculinity.20 However, at the end, the leaders of the Institute became convinced and in 1931, when the first five people were trained with guide dogs, three of them were war veterans from St Dunstans Institute. This was not because preference was given to the war blind. The situation merely arose because veterans received pensions and could therefore more easily find the time for the three weeks of training than civilian blind people, who were dependent on their earnings.21 Fundraising was a crucial necessity, because like in the United States, the British Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was a private charity, entirely dependent on contributions and not even veterans could enlist support from the state. In the fundraising initiatives, some scenarios

Dickinson Hartwell, Dogs Against Darkness, The Story of the Seeing Eye. 1944, Rich/ Cowan, London, New York, Melbourne, Hartwell, 159. 18 By 1938, 2000 pensions were being paid to British ex-servicemen who were totally blind and 8000 to the partially blind. Macdonald, The Roses of No Mans Land, 340. 19 Blind Soldiers Friend, The Times, 30 July, 1923 ), cited in Anderson and Pemberton, 406. 20 Pemberton/Anderson 463 21 Ireson, 49.

strongly resembled the American experiences. A conflict of interest with the major blind welfare organization, the National Institute for the Blind was predictable. The Institute had suspicions from the very start, because they were afraid that the attractive idea and the image of dogs will be very successful and will financially damage the appeals of other charities for blind people. At the core of Guide Dogs for the Blinds popularity was its great appeal to the public. Unlike in the United States, where professional fundraisers were employed, in Britain, amateur supporters performed this task, and the guide dog owners themselves have played an important role. Moreover, every age group has been involved, including children. Since 1965 guide dogs have regularly featured on BBCs legendary childrens programme, Blue Peter. This was not only a good educational opportunity, but the schoolchildren viewers raised a considerable amount of money for the association by collecting, among other things, milk bottle tops and scrap paper. The next thing to convince the council about was the necessity for the school to breed its own dogs, specifically keeping in mind the specialized and demanding work they need to perform. Another novelty, further increasing the popularity of guide dogs in Britain was the gradual introduction of two new breeds: Labradors and Golden Retrievers, which have now become by far the most widely used guide dog breeds.

Guide Dogs Conquer the World The guide dog movement secured a stronghold in several European countries in the 1930s, and the disastrous effects of the Second World War made the training of guide dogs even more necessary than ever before. The war also had a beneficial consequence, however, as the acute manpower shortage led to the employment of thousands of blind people. This caused a breakthrough in the barrier between the blind and sighted worlds, as blind people were finally given the opportunity to show that they were just as capable of doing many jobs


as their ordinary colleagues. In some countries there was markedly less interest for guide dogs. In 1954 an article in the journal of German veterans, Kriegsblinde (War Blind): Guide dogs are not used in France asked the question why guide dogs were absent from the streets of a country which had 35000 blind people. The same article reported about a public demonstration of twelve war veterans in the streets of Metz, accompanied by dogs, who called attention to the necessity of the organization of institutionalized guide dog training in France. Upon hearing the news, the president of the French boxer dogs club offered dogs for future training.22 At the end, even in France the first guide dog was trained in 1952, and later, a proper organization was established. In our days, guide dogs are being trained in the majority of European countries, as well as a number of other countries: Australia and New Zealand, Israel, South Africa, Korea, China and Japan. Occasionally, cultural peculiarities have made the use of guide dogs difficult. For example, China has been criticized internationally for not accommodating the needs of disabled people. Guide dogs are banned from public transport, except such propaganda occasions as the Paralympic Games in 2008. It is true that at present there is only one training institution in the country, so the number of guide dog owners is minuscule. Most people would probably associate Chinese attitudes to dogs with a great taboo in Western culture, the eating of dogs. It is less commonly known that during the Cultural Revolution Mao ordered the systematic slaughter of all dogs (but those kept for the police, laboratory research etc.), so they virtually disappeared from the street. He claimed that dogs ate too much and in a country chronically short of food, it was necessary to get rid of them. Attitudes towards smaller dogs have become more relaxed in recent times, and keeping certain smallersized luxury dogs is fashionable with the nouveau-riche. But guide dogs belong to the largersize breeds and therefore cannot benefit from these new developments.


Kriegsblinde, 1954.


Since the 1950s the use of the long cane was developed in the United States to cater for the mobility needs of blinded veterans. It represented a considerable improvement on the white stick. The basic technique involves swinging the cane from the centre of the body back and forth before the feet, which allows for the detection of obstacles, albeit only below shoulder-level. The introduction of the long cane gave a weapon to the hands of insurance companies and blind welfare organizations, which never failed to point out that it was much more cost-effective than guide dogs. In the 1960s-1970s, this argument was sometimes used to cut the funding of some guide dog organizations. They had to prove that while the white cane is a very useful mobility aid and its prize was very affordable, they are much more stressful to use than guide dogs. Another alternative, developed by Japanese scholars, is a robot which imitated the guide dog. The robot is comparable in size and shape to a dog (it even has four legs) and the greatest challenge that scientists are facing at the moment is to make the robot capable of making independent decisions in the same way a guide dog does. Although in the 1970s scholars predicted that very soon robots will be to take over the tasks of dogs, until the present days this did not happen. Thus, these intelligent animals are likely to remain in the service of blind people for a long time. Moreover, no robot will ever be able to offer the companionship and emotional support which dogs can mean to guide people.