Dogs have come a long way since the beginning! Humans began taming wolves at least 15,000 years ago, transforming wild wolves into loyal companions and creating dog breeds for different tasks.
Dogs have had a variety of jobs since the beginning of domestication from guarding property, providing personal protection, herding livestock, ridding households of vermin, helping their masters hunt, pulling carts and sleds, and locating lost people. Over the years humans have discovered even more new ways dogs can be used – one of which is service dogs!
What Is A Service Dog?
Today, a lot of people think they know what a service dog is – and it’s not uncommon to see them while you are out running errands. But the definition is worth repeating.
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. This can be anything from alerting to a seizure, helping a child with autism, assisting someone in a wheelchair and even guiding a blind handler.
Service dogs are trained specifically for their handler and the possibilities are endless – but when did dogs first begin assisting people with disabilities?
The first evidence of a service dog
The exact date dogs started to be trained to assist people with disabilities and other challenges is still unknown.
The earliest evidence we have is a mural in which a blind man is led by his dog. This was discovered amid the ruins of the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, dating back to the first century A.D.
There are also other records from Asia and Europe up to the Middle Ages of dogs leading blind men.
We will probably never know exactly who the first service dog was – but perhaps we can assume it was probably a dog trained to help a human who was unable to see.
Early attempts at training service dogs
The first known formal attempt to train dogs as service dogs happened around 1780 at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital in Paris. Unofficially, Les Quinze-Vingts was the first school for guide dogs.
Building on the practice of using dogs to help the blind in 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein mentioned the concept of the guide dog in his book on educating blind people and described his method for training dogs.
Later, in 1847, a Swiss man, Jakob Birrer, wrote about his experiences of being guided by a dog he had specially trained, spanning over five years.
The modern guide dog movement
The modern guide dog movement started during World War I, which left a large number of soldiers blind, mostly from mustard gas and shrapnel. This had a large impact on the development of guide dogs.
During this time, a German doctor, Gerhard Stalling, was walking with one of his patients and his personal dog one day on the hospital grounds. After leaving them together for a short time, the doctor began to notice signs that the dog was helping the blind man. Dr. Stalling then began to investigate ways of training dogs to become reliable guide dogs. This led to the opening of a guide dog school for the blind in Germany in August 1916.
The school grew with new branches opening up across the country. They were training up to 600 guide dogs a year for blind handlers, many of which were ex-servicemen across Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada and the USA. The school closed in 1926, but by that time, another large guide dog training center had opened up in another city in Germany that was highly successful.
This school’s work broke new ground in the training of guide dogs – it was capable of accommodating around 100 dogs at a time and providing up to 12 fully-trained guide dogs a month!
America’s first guide dog
Having heard about the new guide dog school for the blind, an American woman, Dorothy Eustis, decided she wanted to learn the school’s training methods. She had previous experience training dogs for the army, police and customs service in Switzerland and spent several months at the school.
Ms. Eustis left so amazed that she wrote an article about it for the Saturday Evening Post in America in October 1927. Unbeknown to her at the time, she would be the one to launch the guide dog movement internationally!
A blind American man, Morris Frank, heard about this article written by Eustis about guide dogs and bought a copy of the newspaper. He was so excited to hear about guide dogs and wrote to Eustis telling her that he would like to help introduce guide dogs to the U.S.. Mr. Frank later said that the five cents the newspaper cost him “bought an article that was worth more than a million dollars to me. It changed my life.”
Excited about the opportunity, Eustis trained a German Shepherd for Frank – the dog’s name was Buddy. The two then went to Switzerland, where Eustin showed Frank how to work with his new guide dog. Frank returned home with what is believed to be America’s first guide dog!
Upon his return, Frank traveled across the country, demonstrating how well his dog could help him navigate obstacles and cross busy streets. It was so successful that the following year, Morris Frank and Dorothy Eustis launched The Seeing Eye in New Jersey.
The following decades saw a number of guide dog schools emerge such as Guide Dogs of America and Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.
The modern-day service dog
Today, dogs are trained to do many tasks to help people with disabilities. From seeing eye dogs to autism assistance dogs, they positively impact their handlers lives by increasing their opportunities and giving them independence. Service dogs have come a very long way since the beginning and we are still learning the incredible ways that dogs can be trained to help mitigate disabilities.
People many years ago paved the way for service dogs and their humans; if not for them, we might not be where we are today, and their handlers wouldn’t have the increased quality of life and opportunities their service dogs provide!