A blind man is led by his guide dog in Brasília, Brazil.
A blind woman learns to use her guide dog in a test environment.

Guide dogs (colloquially known in the US as seeing-eye dogs[1]) are assistance dogs trained to lead blind or visually impaired people around obstacles. Although dogs can be trained to navigate various obstacles, they are red–green colour blind and incapable of interpreting street signs. The human does the directing, based on skills acquired through previous mobility training. The handler might be likened to an aircraft's navigator, who must know how to get from one place to another, and the dog is the pilot, who gets them there safely. In several countries guide dogs, along with most other service and hearing dogs, are exempt from regulations against the presence of animals in places such as restaurants and public transportation.


A blind man with his guide dog in Montreal, 1941

References to service animals date at least as far back as the mid-16th century. The second line of the popular verse alphabet "A was an Archer" is most commonly "B was a Blind-man/Led by a dog".[2] In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 19th-century verse novel Aurora Leigh, the title character remarks, "The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls / And so I answered."[3] Guide dogs are also mentioned in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol: "Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, 'No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!'"

Evidence suggests that dogs may have been used as guides for the visually impaired based on depictions of a blind-man being guided by his dog on the wall of a house in Herculaneum, buried when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE.[4][5] This and other visual depictions indicate that dogs have been common companions for the blind for thousands of years. Additional material evidence would be required to positively assess their use specifically as guides.

The first service dog training schools were established in Germany during World War I, to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat. Interest in service animals outside of Germany did not become widespread until Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog breeder living in Switzerland, wrote a first-hand account about a service animal training school in Potsdam, Germany, that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. That same year, United States Senator Thomas D. Schall of Minnesota was paired with a service animal imported from Germany,[6] who was trained by the owner of LaSalle Kennels, Jack Sinykin of Minnesota.[7]

The service animal movement did not take hold in America until Nashville resident Morris Frank returned from Switzerland after being trained with one of Eustis's dogs, a female German shepherd named Buddy.[8] Frank and Buddy embarked on a publicity tour to convince Americans of the abilities of service animals and the need to allow people with service animals access to public transportation, hotels, and other areas open to the public. In 1929, Eustis and Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye school in Nashville, Tennessee (relocated in 1931 to New Jersey).[9]

The first service animals in Great Britain were German Shepherds. Four of these first were Flash, Judy, Meta, and Folly, who were handed over to their new owners, veterans blinded in World War I, on 6 October 1931 in Wallasey, Merseyside.[10] Judy's new owner was Musgrave Frankland.[11][12] In 1934, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in Great Britain began operation, although their first permanent trainer was a Russian military officer, Captain Nikolai Liakhoff, who moved to the UK in 1933.[12]

Elliott S. Humphrey was an animal breeder who trained the first guide dogs for the blind used in the United States. Humphrey was hired to breed German shepherds at a centre in Switzerland that had been set up by Dorothy Harrison Eustis of Philadelphia and began the work that led to the Seeing-Eye Dog program.

The first dogs produced at the centre, known as Fortunate Fields, were used for military and police work and for tracking missing persons. Then Humphrey trained German shepherds to guide the blind.

The Germans had developed a guide dog program during World War I, but Mr. Humphrey devised different procedures and it is his that are followed in the United States.[13]


Important studies on the behaviour and training methods of service animals were done in the 1920s and 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll and Emanuel Georg Sarris. They studied the value of service animals and introduced advanced methods of training. There have also been important studies into the discrimination experienced by people that use service and assistance animals.[14]


Labrador Retriever guide dogs resting
Labrador guide dog standing with its handler

Guide dog breeds are chosen for temperament and trainability. At the moment Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, and Golden Retriever/Labrador crosses are most likely to be chosen by service animal facilities.[15]

The most popular breed used globally today is the Labrador Retriever. This breed has a good range of size, is easily kept due to its short coat, is generally healthy and has a gentle but willing temperament.[16] Crosses such as the Goldador (Golden Retriever/Labrador), combine the sensitivity of the Golden Retriever and the tolerance of the Labrador Retriever. Also common are Labradoodles, i.e., Labrador/Poodles, are bred to help reduce allergens as all breeds shed but levels vary.

Some schools, such as the Guide Dog Foundation, have added Standard Poodles to their breed registry.[17] Although German Shepherds were once a common breed used for guide work, many schools have discontinued using these dogs due to the skills and unwavering leadership role required by the handler to keep the breed active and non-destructive.[15]


A guide dog-in-training in Israel

Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, service animals are protected by law and therefore may accompany their handlers most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:


Further information: Islam and dogs

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Since some schools of thought in Islam consider dogs in general to be unclean,[44] Muslim taxi drivers and store owners have sometimes refused to accommodate customers who have service animals, which has led to discrimination charges against them.[45] However, in 2003 the Islamic Sharia Council, a British organization that provides non-binding guidance on interpreting Islamic religious law, ruled that the ban on dogs does not apply to those used for guide work.[46]

Benefits of owning a guide dog

Social psychologist Elliot Aronson and his guide dog, Desilu, whom he received in January 2011

Studies show owning a pet or therapy animal offers beneficial effects psychologically, socially, and physiologically, and guide dogs are no exception. Some blind people report experiencing increased levels of confidence, a greater sense of security, and a cherished friendship from owning guide dogs. Some also state that owning a guide dog has encouraged them to exercise more, especially by walking.[47] This is attributed to a willingness to venture outdoors facilitated by a sense of independence.[48] Some blind people claim meeting others and socializing is easier with a guide dog, and people are more likely to offer assistance when there is a service animal present.[47] The animals may also lead to increased interactions with other people, providing an easy topic of conversation.[48] Guide dogs may be more deliberate than the use of a long cane when leading their handlers in an unfamiliar place. The animal directs the right path, eliminating the trial and error users may experience with a cane. Some report that guide dogs make the experience of the unknown more relaxing.[47] Many blind people using a guide dog report travel is much faster and safer.[48]

Owners of guide dogs share a special bond with their animal. Many report that the animal is a member of the family and, often, the handler goes to their animal for comfort and support. The animal is not seen as a working animal, but more as a loyal friend.[47] However, it is important to remember that guide dogs are working animals and should not be distracted or treated as a pet while they are on duty.

People often have misconceptions about guide dogs, including believing they work all the time. In reality, the dogs usually work only when their handler leaves their residence. The handler tells the dog where they want to go, and the dogs are taught intelligent disobedience—blocking the handler from proceeding when there is an unsafe situation.

See also

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  2. ^ Opie, Iona (1952). Opie, Peter (ed.). The Webster Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh, Book V.. Vol. ll. pp. 1028–9.
  4. ^ G. A. Fishman, "When your eyes have a wet nose: the evolution of the use of guide dogs and establishing the seeing eye", Survey of Ophthalmology, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 452–458, Jul. 2003, doi:10.1016/S0039-6257(03)00052-3.
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