Nobody knows exactly when man's best friend began helping those with disabilities, but canine assistance goes back many centuries and millennia. Today, we estimate that there are at least 500,000 service dogs working in the United States alone. But when did people start using canines to assist? Below, we delve into a brief history of service dogs.

Early service dog history

We know that humans started to tame and train wolves for a number of tasks as early as 15,000 years ago, though hard evidence is lacking. Some stories tell of early humans training and domesticating wild wolves to produce specialized breeds that could perform different tasks. Others suggest that wolves developed a fondness for the luxury of campsites and orchestrated their own evolutionary development.

Perhaps the earliest evidence has been found within the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, when murals depicted a visually impaired man being guided by his dog. A frieze was also discovered in the ruins of Pompeii that shows a blind man being led by a dog. However, there are more recent examples of people training their dogs to assist in all manner of tasks.

Initial attempts to train service dogs for the blind

The very first formal and documented attempt to train guide dogs for the blind took place in 1750, within a Parisian hospital named Quinze-Vingt. Several decades later, an Austrian gentleman successfully trained his Spitz and Poodle to be his eyes. His success was so great, that others around him believed him to be faking his blindness.

Then, in the early 1800s, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Blind, published a training manual. The first of its kind, this training guide advised that poodles and shepherds could be taught to guide the blind using an adapted harness and pole.

The influence of the World Wars

The First World War spurred an enormous increase in those living with permanent disabilities. Thousands of soldiers were left blinded by mustard gas, and one early anecdote is tied to a doctor who was working in the field hospitals.

Some documented accounts point to a Dr. Gerhard Stalling, traveling with his German shepherd. Upon being left with a blind man while the doctor performed his rounds, it was said that his dog stood guard by the patient, never leaving his side. As it happened, the doctor presided over the German Ambulance Association. This organization had trained many canines to assist in the war efforts, tracking down casualties and ferrying messages.

Later, in around 1916, Stalling directed his association to retrain the dogs under their command. They were partnered with blind casualties, and while the program didn't last for more than a decade, he later opened a center in Potsdam that ended up training 4,000 service dogs by 1930.

Stalling's efforts caught the attention of Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who was an affluent American. In the 1920s, she commenced training service dogs to assist the army in Switzerland. In 1927, Eustis recounted her experiences in a national newspaper, praising the advances in independence that service dogs had brought to visually impaired people.

“No longer dependent on a member of the family, a friend or a paid attendant, the blind can once more take up their normal lives as nearly as possible where they left them off, and each can begin or go back to a wage-earning occupation, secure in the knowledge that he can get to and from his work safely and without cost; that crowds and traffic have no longer any terrors for him and that his evenings can be spent among friends without responsibility or burden to them; and last, but far from least, that long, healthful walks are now possible to exercise off the unhealthy fat of inactivity and so keep the body strong and fit. Gentlemen, again without reservation, I give you the shepherd dog.”
Dorothy Harrison Eustis, Saturday Evening Post –

In 1929, Eustis founded the first American Guide Dog School, called The Seeing Eye, with Morris Frank. This is why many people today still call service dogs “Seeing eye dogs”.

The post-war service dog movement

Following the work done by Dorothy Harrison Eustis, the movement spread to other countries. In 1928, an Italian training centre known as La Sculola Nazionale Cani Guida per Ciechi began training canines in Switzerland. Shortly thereafter, the Guide Dog Association for the Blind was founded in Great Britain, in 1931. It then took until 1967 for Japan to found the Japanese Guide Dog Association.

In France, the development of service dog training started with a textile worker named Paul Carteville. After befriending a blind person and hearing of the worldwide movements happening elsewhere, he dedicated his personal time to found the Association of Guide Dogs for the Blind of Roubaix, in France. Spain was the next country to follow, with a gentleman known as Mr. Picornell opening the first training center in Majorca.

Into the modern day

The 1970s were a vital milestone in the development of service dog initiatives and training. This includes the notable important moments that have continued to influence this movement, such as:

  • Bonita Bergin founding the Canine Companions for Independence program in France. She focused instead on the training of service dogs for people that weren’t necessarily blind.
  • The creation of the International Guide Dog Federation in 1988. This has grown from 25 schools to more than 90 in total today.
  • Elaine Smith, an American nurse working in Great Britain, who founded Therapy Dogs International.
  • Roy G. Kabat, an exotic animal specialist, who founded Dogs for the Deaf, which later became Dogs for Better Lives. These canines were trained to signal noises in the home to their owners.
  • The creation of the MIRA Foundation in Canada by Éric Saint-Pierre. This is the only organization in the world that assigns service dogs to blind children under six years of age.

Much of the work that took place until modern day focused on diversifying the abilities of service dogs. Today, they can forewarn their owners of issues including diabetic drops in blood sugar, and heart conditions. They're also involved in working with autistic children, PTSD, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

A happy golden retriever with dramatic lighting

Continuing the service dog movement

North America and Europe are leading the way with countless service dog training centers. Latin America and Asia have also begun to develop several initiatives of their own, though Africa has just one school at present, which is located in South Africa. Together, schools like these continue to build on the movement started millennia ago, helping people to regain their independence.