“The Joy of My Life”: Seeing-Eye Dogs, Disabled Veterans/Civilians and WWI

On December 13, 1933, Captain A. J. C. Sington, then Chairman of the British Guide Dogs for the Blind, read a letter from an unnamed veteran of the Great War to the Northern Counties Association for the Blind. In the letter, the veteran described his life before and after receiving his guide dog:

Edwina is the joy of my life. I lost my sight during the war. Then I returned home. I was admitted to St. Dunstan’s and was trained to be a Poultry Farmer, but everywhere I wanted to go I had to have someone take me. But I have had the pleasure of having a guide dog and it has brought new life into me. I would not part with her for anything. She takes me all over, collects eggs, carries corn and chick mash, brings all my junior tools, brings all my poultry in … I think I cannot speak enough about her.1

The unnamed poultry farmer and veteran was not alone in his experience. In the interwar period, an increasing number of memoirs, pamphlets, and newspaper articles published in Europe and North America memorialized how the devoted guide dog transformed the worlds of their blind handlers. Today as much a signifier of blindness and disability as the white cane and wheelchair, the guide dog has a history that is deeply entangled with the broader histories of the First World War.

A brutal global conflict fought on multiple fronts, WWI resulted in unprecedented mortality and disability — 18 million people died, and millions more across the world were left permanently disabled by injury and infection. As the war came to a close, disabled soldiers and civilians returned home in substantial numbers, becoming a living testament to the horrors of the “Great War” on the human body and mind. Blindness certainly was one of the more serious corporeal consequences of the war.2 Scholarship on disabled WWI veterans has demonstrated how the war itself changed social attitudes and state policies towards the disabled.3

For instance, the Great War impelled transnational, large- and small-scale experiments in the rehabilitation of “war-blinded” soldiers across the world.4 In Europe and North America, as well as across the British Empire, these initiatives sought to reshape blind veterans into “productive” members of industrialized and urban economies. Dogs eventually became a central part of rehabilitating the Blind.

The idea of dogs serving as guides for the Blind was neither novel nor unusual before the First World War. There is substantial evidence from art history that dogs often accompanied blind beggars, panhandlers, and musicians.5 Taking Europe as an example, etchings, manuscripts, and paintings from the fourteenth century onwards portrayed dogs of all shapes and sizes as “leaders” of their blind companions. By the nineteenth century, there is evidence from both the UK and the US of the use of the phrase “guide dog” to describe the untrained yet devoted dogs who routinely accompanied blind people.6

A black-and-white illustration of a group of musicians (one seated) playing instruments such as violins, trumpets, and a drum, along with their two dogs.
A lithograph from 1828 titled, “A troupe of blind musicians and their dogs.” (Engelmann after Martin Sylvestre Baptiste/Wellcome Collection | CC BY)

However, the First World War constituted a dramatic shift in the breadth of roles that dogs could and did play on both the frontlines and the homefront, in part because handlers realized the vast potential of properly trained dogs.7 Described as “war dogs” and serving on both sides of the war, these animals patrolled the fronts wearing gas masks, and worked as couriers, guards, and attack dogs. They had been gassed, crushed, blown up and disabled alongside human companions and combatants.8

In the ambulance corps and in the Red Cross, they sniffed out the wounded and the dying among the debris of the battlefield. They pulled sleds and carts carrying wounded and dead bodies, machine guns and fuel, supplies and electric lamps. They brought warmth, comfort, and companionship to soldiers struggling with the horrors and hardships of life in the trenches.9

Germany was especially successful in training dogs, in particular German Shepherds, as “war dogs,” couriers, polizei-hund (police dogs), and rescuers.10 When blind veterans returned home from the front, these highly skilled dogs became guides. In “blind rooms” in some German factories, ex-police dogs spent their days under the workstation of each blind veteran and guided their humans around their workplaces and the cities. More importantly, they also restored their humans to “former confidence and independence,” according to Marion Feuchtwanger, an advocate for the Blind.11

By the 1920s, trainers systematically trained dogs as part of the multi-pronged efforts to rehabilitate blind veterans. The Potsdam school in Germany was a trailblazer in the “scientific” training of dogs as “leaders of the blind.” By the early 1920s, handlers instituted a systematic training program for the dogs, which enrolled carefully selected female German Shepherds into the national training school.12 Trainers considered the females more “maternal,” “dependable,” and responsible than the males, since the latter “forget their duties when they see a good chance for a fight.”13

By 1932, the Potsdam school had trained at least thousand dogs.14 Voluntary associations and societies that advocated and provided services for the Blind funded the training programs. Soon, the civilian blind population in Germany also began using guide dogs. Between 1923 and 1929, German handlers had trained some 5,700 dogs.15

As newspapers across the world printed news of these German successes, the idea of training dogs exclusively to guide the Blind spread across western and southern Europe and even to North America; it also moved from the domain of disabled veteran into the world of the civilian Blind. This transnational guide-dog movement is remarkable because it was the product of the financial contributions and efforts of blind self-advocates, activists for the Blind, voluntary associations, and private philanthropic organizations.

In the US, for instance, the philanthropist and dog-fancier Dorothy Harris Eustis worked with blind civilian Morris Frank and established the pioneering Seeing Eye Institute in Morristown, New Jersey — the first of its kind in the country.16 Similarly, in London, Guide Dogs for the Blind was registered as a voluntary association designed to take over the “special systems of canine-human education and training from the voluntary organization known as the Guide Dogs for the Blind.”17 In Italy, too, private philanthropy and organizations for the Blind funded and supported the Fondazione della Scuola Cani-Guida, the first institute of its kind in the country to train German Shepherds imported from Switzerland as seeing-eye dogs.18

Training typically took three months and involved intensive exercises navigating obstacles, paths, and people in urban spaces with a sighted instructor. If the trainer deemed the dog a success, they then tested the dog with a sighted, but blindfolded instructor. Sighted instructors later trained the dogs alongside their potential blind handlers. Dogs also had to learn to disobey their blind handlers when necessary — for instance, if the handler was directing them into traffic or obstacles. Overall, the express aim of advocates for guide dogs had always been to hasten the rehabilitation and integration of the Blind into society by facilitating their mobility, especially in the crowded chaos of cities: “… accompanied by such a dog, a sightless man can walk as fast along crowded streets as a man with sight.”19

By the end of the 1930s, guide dogs for the Blind were working in the “congested traffic” of New York, Berlin, and Paris.20 But this path was not always smooth — the demand often outstripped the availability of appropriately trained dogs. Other obstacles also arose. Funding was frequently a problem for schools/institutions that trained guide dogs.21 In Britain, for instance, rehabilitation experts initially rejected the use of guide dogs for war-blinded veterans, although the use of dogs became more common by the Second World War.22

The independence that blind handlers received through their dogs was undoubtedly the biggest reward of these programs. Dogs functioned as intelligent and trained conduits between the Blind and the rest of the world, and their blind handlers were no longer dependent on their families or on human guides to navigate the world. Morris Frank, of the New Jersey Seeing-Eye Institute, had traveled across the US his guide dog and said of her: “Buddy has signed my Declaration of Independence.”23

Frank was not alone in his assessment — similar testimonials of the freedoms that guide dogs granted their blind handlers were ubiquitous in public discourse in Europe and North America in the interwar period. Further, anyone who understands dogs does not need to be told of the profound and lasting emotional bonds they build with their human companions, a bond that was perhaps best described by the director of the Italian Cani-Guida Institute, who commented that separating the dog from a blind man after they had bonded “would be like removing the light a second time.”24

However uneven or slow the initial spread of trained guide dogs was in the wake of the First World War, this transnational experiment had clear consequences for successive generations of blind veterans and civilians. The guide dog movement also illustrates the role of private actors, activists, philanthropists, and organizations in rehabilitating the war-disabled. Further, the guide dog movement transformed state responses to the blind veteran: when the Second World War resulted in another wave of disabled and blinded veterans, state and non-state actors both advocated and funded seeing-eye dogs.25

One thing is clear. There is no doubt that they were all good dogs.

Notes

  1. A.J.C Sington, “Guide Dogs for the Blind,” in Minutes of the Northern Counties Association for the Blind, December 13th 1933, 10-13. Return to text.
  2. See David Castleton, In the Mind’s Eye: The Blinded Veterans of St. Dunstan’s (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Press, 2013). Return to text.
  3. For additional readings on disability and the First World War, see Beth Linker, War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Julie Anderson, War, Disability and Rehabilitation in Britain: ‘Soul of a Nation’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016); Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism and the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Heather Perry, Recycling the Disabled: Army, Medicine and Modernity in Germany (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017); Anita Magowska, “The Unwanted Heroes: War Invalids in Poland after World War I,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 69, no. 2 (2014):185-220. Return to text.
  4. See, for instance, Frances A Koestler, The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States, Second Edition (New York: AFB Press, 2004); Serge Marc Durflinger, Veterans with a Vision: Canada’s War Blinded in Peace and War (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2010); M. Reiss, Blind Workers against Charity: The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970 (London: Springer, 2015). Return to text.
  5. Monika Baar, “Prosthesis for the Body and For the Soul: The Origins of Guide Dog Provision for Blind Veterans in Interwar Germany,” First World War Studies, 6, no. 1 (2015): 81-98. Return to text.
  6. Francis Trevelyan Buckland, Log-Book of a Fisherman and Zoologist (London: Buckman and Hall, 1876), 110-117; Thomas Jackson, Our Dumb Companions: Or Conversations of a Father with his Children about Dogs, Horses, Donkeys and Cats (London: SW Partridge, 1865). Buckland described his encounter with a blind man James Stocks and his ‘guide-dog’ Puss. Puss, a ‘very ordinary-looking, half-bred little Scotch terrier’ helped guide Stocks through the city of London. Stocks reported training Puss on his own, and the dog was especially vigilant in navigating cabs and perambulators on the streets. Return to text.
  7. John Kistler, Animals in the Military: From Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the US Navy (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2011); “War Dogs,” The Sketch, June 6, 1900, p. 298. The use of dogs in conflict is of course much older than the First World War, but the war escalated the scale of canine involvement and participation in the war. Return to text.
  8. E. H. Richardson, British war dogs, their training and psychology (London: Skeffington and Sons Ltd, 1920) Return to text.
  9. Andrew McEwen, “He Took Care of Me”: The Human-Animal Bond in Canada’s Great War,’ in Susan ed. The Historical Animal (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015): 256-73. Return to text.
  10. Elliot Humphrey and Lucien Warner, Working Dogs: An Attempt to Produce a Strain of German Shepherds Which Combines Working Ability and Beauty of Conformation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1934), 24.Return to text.
  11. Elsie Roberts, “Miss Marion Feuchtwanger Tells of New Methods for Educating Blind After Summer’s Special Study in Europe,” Clippings from the Perkins Blind School: Guide Dogs for the Blind, 1923-1925. Return to text.
  12. “Dogs Trained in School to Guide Blind Soldiers,” New York Tribune, July 10, 1924 in Clippings from the Perkins Blind School: Guide Dogs for the Blind, 1923-1925. Return to text.
  13. Ibid. Return to text.
  14. “Dogs for the Blind,” Weekly Times (Melbourne), Sat 17 September, 1932, p.56. Return to text.
  15. Baar, “Prosthesis for the Body.” Return to text.
  16. Miriam Ascarelli, Independent Vision: Dorothy Harrison Eustis and the Story of the Seeing Eye (Purdue, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010). Return to text.
  17. “Dogs for the Blind,” Evening Star, 30 October 1934, p. 16. Return to text.
  18. Argo, January-March 1935, XIII, p. 19-22 Return to text.
  19. “Dogs for the Blind,” Evening Star, 30 October 1934, p. 16. Return to text.
  20. Humphrey and Warner, Working Dogs, 24-25. Return to text.
  21. Mark Ostermeier, “History of Guide Dog Use by Veterans,” Military Medicine, 175, 8(2010):587-93. Return to text.
  22. Julie Anderson and Neil Pemberton, “Walking Alone: Aiding the War and Civilian Blind in the Inter-War Period,” European Review of History 14 ,4 (2007): 459–479. Return to text.
  23. Arthur C Bartlett, Skipper, the Guide Dog (Boston: WA Wilde Company, 1933), 6. Return to text.
  24. Argo, XIII (January-March 1935), p. 239. Return to text.
  25. Ostermeier, “History of Guide Dog Use.” Return to text.

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