So how and when, did the use of dogs by the visually impaired first begin? Seeing Dogs’ Trustee, Neil Ewart, tells all
Guide Dogs are trained throughout the world, and it is sometimes tempting to assume that it is still relatively new.
This is not unreasonable, as it is well known that the first, truly scientific work training of dogs to lead the blind was undertaken in Germany during World War One and throughout the twentieth century the concept then spread across the globe. However, dogs have helped the blind and of course aided others with disabilities, for hundreds of years.
We can never know how effective many of these early dogs actually were, but they undoubtedly did serve a very useful purpose. I do think it is safe to surmise that many would have also acted as guards or an aid to begging, which incidentally is something that is strictly frowned upon today.
Incredibly, a very early wall painting was uncovered of a blind person apparently being led by a dog when Pompeii was excavated. It had been buried beneath a sea of ash and volcanic mud when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. The painting depicts a woman and her maid in the marketplace being approached by what seems to be a blind man with a staff and being led by a small dog which is seen turning to his master, as if asking for instructions.
There is an, admittedly legendary, story of the who was blind and lived around 100 BC. He is said to have had a guide dog!
Then there is a 13th century Chinese scroll and this also shows a blind man being led by a dog. It depicts thousands of busy figures and plain to see amongst them is a blind man walking through the crowd with a dog preceding him on a tight leash in a manner to indicate a form of prior training. The man holds the leash in his left hand while in his right he carries a staff. This scroll can be viewed in The Metropolitan Museum in New York.
These early pictures all show the dogs leading rather than walking alongside their handlers and a sturdy stick is inevitably evident.
Throughout the 16th century similar images became common. Gainsborough painted “Blind Man on The Bridge” which depicts a dog acting as a guide. William Bigg also shows a dog helping a man in his “The Blind Sailor”. It is not just paintings but woodcuts and engravings that illustrate comparable scenes.
Around 1715 there was a popular ballad “The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green”. This was the story of a knight who lost his sight in battle and then was reduced to begging. His fellow knights gave him a bell and a dog. It is quoted that the dog was ‘trained to the business and had before been the companion of a blind beggar now deceased. He trudged home with his tractable guide which ever after proved serviceable to him.’ Thomas Berwick actually confirms that a dog in one of his pictures really is leading his master as he wrote ‘some of the more common instances of this creature’s sagacity…amongst these, its care in directing the steps of a blind man.’
That’s my history lesson over for now! In Part Two of this blog, I will look at how guide dogs enjoyed greater acceptance by the end of the 1800s. Please come back and join me soon!