Guide dogs

Job description

Guide dogs help people with visual disabilities with traffic, location of doorways and stairways, and avoidance of obstacles.

History of guide dogs

In relation to immemorial use of guide dogs: "As archaeologists pull back the curtain of ruin and time it is quite probable that more will be known than now about the universality of ideas of all kinds and it is to the excavators of Pompeii that we are indebted for the first representation of a blind man with his dog," observed Nelson Coon, Librarian of the Blindiana Reference Library, Perkins Institute for the Blind, Watertown, MA, in his monograph A Brief History of Dog Guides for the Blind (Morristown, NJ: Seeing Eye, 1959; 48 pp., illus.) p. 12. "An actual color photograph of this mural painting," Coon continued, "may be seen on page 140 of the Skira publication of 1953--Roman Painting." In the Chinese scroll painting, "Spring on the Yellow River" (ca 1250 AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art), among many thousands of figures, a blind man is led by his dog (ibid., p. 13). "Turning to the West, perhaps the earliest (as well as the best) evidence we have of the use of dogs as guides to the blind are a few paragraphs written in the thirteenth century (ca 1260) by a commentator on contemporary life, a monk--Bartholomew: 'The blind man is often brought to such a circumstance that, in order to pass over and escape the perils of a bridge or a ford, he is compelled to trust to a dog more than to himself...'" (Ibid., 14. Also please see St. Hervé.)

Pictorial evidence indicates that these dogs were worked at a "controlled pull" on a leash in combination with a staff. For example, see the painting of Isaak van Ostade (1621-1649), Aveugle et son chien, at the Louvre in Paris, in which a blind man holding a staff follows a small white Poodle on a lightly-held leash attached to the dog's collar. (Item #97DE9191/MNR 459 Agence photographique de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux).

See also the illustration at left; guide dogs are still taught this controlled pull, which gives the handler much information about the position of the dog when out of harness.) A technical improvement was to substitute a rod for the leash (please see the headpiece for this section), which transmitted yet more information to the handler. The harness with a rigid handle--with which we are familiar today--represents an additional, 20th century, improvement.

Dual-purpose guides

Blind men's dogs often aided in the entertainment by which the team might earn a living (the job of travelling storyteller and/or musician, and including performance of sacred music in churches, was a time-honoured profession for blind men; it would be unjust--because their dogs may have been used to entertain the general public--to downgrade the excellent job these dogs evidently did as guides.) The disk shown at right represents an early form of motion pictures (French, ca 1850); the round card was revolved on its axis in front of an opening, and this created the illusion that the man played his violin vigorously while the dog alternately sat and assumed the begging position. It was customary for the dog to hold the dish into which alms might be placed:

'L'aveugle [blind person] au basson qui pleurniche
L'écorche, en se trompant de doigts;
La sébile aux dents [the alms-dish held between his teeth], son caniche [his poodle]
Près de lui le grogne à mi-voix.'
--Théophile Gautier (1811-72). Barbet: Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIX Siècle Larousse (1867)

Poodle guides

In relation to use of specifically Poodles as guides, a 17th century (wood?) engraving, apparently one of a series illustrating French-language proverbs, shows a barbet labeled "[cro]tté comme un barbet" (see Poodle Lit. 101) leading a blind man, and a second blind man is guided by holding onto the first's left shoulder. (The two men are labeled with additional proverbs; Coon, p. 16.)

Joseph Reisinger (born ca 1755 in Vienna) lost his sight at the age of 17. When 25, he trained his own first guide dog; 16 years later this dog died and "'Forseeing this (and well in advance) he had secured a poodle and proceeded to train him as he had the first. He decided on a poodle as being easier to train and as one who might become more attached to the master. This second dog was very quick to learn and in fact was a much better dog than the first.... This poodle was so faithful to his master that he was never distracted from his work by other dogs nor was he tempted by proffered bones but should he, doglike, be in the slightest distracted, a slight pull on the leash would bring him back to duty.'" Leopold Chimani, "entitled in translation" Curiosities of Lands, States, and Peoples of the Austrian Empire (Vienna: Doll, 1827), quoted in Coon, pp. 42-4.

It is likely that Reisinger's experiences lie behind the following statement: "'...dogs can ... be prepared to serve as guides to such of the blind as are accustomed to walk about. For this, the poodle and shepherd dogs are the most useful...'" Fr. Johann Wilhelm Klein, Lehrbuch zum Unterrichte der Blinden (Vienna: 1819), p. 371, as quoted in Coon, p. 9.

"'Probably among all the domestic animals that serve man there is none which performs as many services as the dog.... Especially for the blind this animal performs most effective services: he functions excellently for those who have been robbed of their eye-sight.... Some four or five years ago [ca 1835] I learned that in Paris...many a blind person has a poodle as a guide...'" The author (who was blind) related how he trained a spitz as guide, and "'Just to say a word about the poodle; I am ready to admit that this is the best species for training since they can also be taught other amusing tricks; but they require a special type of training.... The poodle is very sensitive and does not react well to punishment....'" Jacob Birrer, the story of his life, as told to H. Nageli (from a book published in 1845) as quoted in Coon, p. 46-7.

"Le barbet est, de tous les chiens, celui dont l'intelligence parait le plus susceptible de développement; il est extrêmement attaché à son maître, et l'on sait que c'est, par excellence, le chien de l'aveugle [dog-quide for a blind person]....Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIX Siècle, Larousse (1867). "The many examples by French artists [showing a blind person with a dog]...suggest the not uncommon sight of blind people on the streets of Paris, many of whom were surely members of the community of the blind at the Royal Institute of Quinze-Vingts," Coon, p. 26.

Elzéar Blaze (1846) thus describes guide-Poodles: "Parlons à présent du chien d l'aveugle, de cet admirable chien, providence visible du malheureux: c'est ordinairement un caniche [ordinarily a Poodle]. Voyez avec quelle patience, avec quelle immobilité de cariatide il garde la sébille dans sa gueule; regardez l'air de tristesse répandu sur toute sa personne, on dirait qu'il compose sa figure pour attirer plus facilement l'aumône. S'il reçoit un sou à votre porte, il en gardera le souvenir; il la reconnaîtra toujours et ne manquera jamais de s'y arrêter. Une voiture arrive, le chien aussitôt prend à droite ou à gauche pour que son pauvre maître ne sout point blessé. [Job description of a guide Poodle: help gather alms by looking pathetic, guard alms, ensure master doesn't get run over.]"

Blaze then quotes briefly from the following passage in Montaigne's Essays (1. II, ch. 12): "I thinke every man is cloied and wearied, with seeing so many apish and mimmike trickes, that juglers teach their Dogges, as the dances, where they misse not one cadence of the sounds or notes they heare: Marke but the divers turnings, and severall kinds of motions, which by the commandement of their bare words they make them performe: But I wonder not a little at the effect, which is ordinary amongst us; and that is, the dogs which blind men use, both in Citie and Country: I have observed how sodainly they will stop when they come before some doores, where they are wont to receive almes; how carefully they will avoyd the shocke of Carts and Coaches, even when they have roome enough to pass by them selves. I have seen some, going along a Towne-ditch, leave a plaine and even path, and take a worse, that so they might draw their Master from the ditch. How could a man make the dog conceive, his charge was only to looke to his masters safetie, and for his service to despise his owne commoditie and good? And how should he have the knowledge, that such a path would be broade inough for him, but not for a blind man? Can all this be conceived without reason?" Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne (1533-92),The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne, tr. John Florio (London: 1603; republished, London: 1893), vol. 2, chapter XII ("An Apologie of Raymond Sebond"), p. 159; a modern translation is cited from Essais, 1580, and reprinted in John Richard Stephens, The Dog Lover's Literary Companion (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1992), p. 112.

Blaze continues: "A Rome, les chiens des aveugles promènent chaque jour leur maître là où il y aura le plus de monde. Ils sont en route pour aller à telle église; mais si chemin faisant ils recontrent une maison riche parée pour des funérailles, ils ne manquent jamais d s'y arrêter. Donc ils déduisent cette conséquence nécessaire que là il y aura profit pour le maître. [In Rome, guide dogs stop funeral processions to receive alms for their masters.]

"Je voyageais dans une diligence; au relais je vois un bon chien caniche qui vient à la portière, se met sur ses deux pattes de derrière, et a l'air de me demander quelque chose. 'Donnex-lui un sou, me dit le postillon, et vous verrez ce qu'il en fera.' Je jette la pièce, le chien la ramasse, court chez le boulanger, et rapporte un morceau de pain qu'il mange. C'était le chien d'un pauvre aveugle mort tout récemment; il n'avait plus de maître, et il demaidait l'aumône pour son compte personnel. [Personal experience in this context: Poodle had belonged to a recently-deceased blind person; was now begging for himself; took the money to a bakery, received a piece of bread for his money, and ate it.]" Elzéar Blaze, Histoire du Chien (Paris, 1846), pp. 59-60.

In relation to Poodles used as guides in our own time, see: New Zealand Kennel Gazette, June 2000 cover: 3/4 view of alert black SP in guide harness; this issue features a detailed 24-page supplement on the Poodle.

See: Dogs in Canada, October, 1994, p. 98: "Poodle" for information about Dorian Ebony II ("Ebony"), Standard Poodle graduate of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind at Manotick, Ontario, and guide of the Hon. Judge James Lunney of North Bay, Ontario.

See: Poodle Variety, June/July 1994, p. 14: "Poodles as guide dogs" for information about Falkirk Achy Breaky Heart ("Billy Ray"), Standard Poodle graduate of Leader Dogs for the Blind at Rochester, Michigan, and guide of Rosalie Hagel.

See: Poodle Variety, April/May 1995, p. 53: advertisement for Avalon Kennels (Dr. Mary Skog, DVM), announcing the graduation of Avalon's Higher Learning ("Prince") from Leader Dogs for the Blind (second working Poodle in the US trained by Leader Dogs), guide of Bill Isaacs.

See: Dogs in Canada, April 1996, p. 59, "Poodle", for information about Moncheri Heart of a Gambler ("Reno"), graduate of Canine Vision Canada, and guide to Bill Brown. See also: Dundas Star News, Wednesday, 14 February 1996, p. 3: "Special dog helps blind resident to lead active life". 16/07/98: conversation with Bill Brown, led to an introduction to George Robert Mayor, of Dundas, Ontario, who owns a black male Standard Poodle, Jordan, bred by Michelle Scott, of Guelph, Ontario, and trained for Mr. Mayor at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Jordan was received by Mr. Mayor on 7 July 1996, is now five years old, and is a "great dog; he gives me so much freedom!"

See: Rosa Engler, Pudel (Cham: Muller, 1995), p. 84; photograph of a Standard Poodle guide whose handler is an older woman.

See: Side by Side (newsletter of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind), vol. 12, no. 1, Spring/Summer 1997, p. 2, "Graduate Guide Dogs. The following dogs have graduated with their new partners since August 31, 1996... [among a list of 21 dogs] Raven (SPM) Halifax, NS."

Also, Christmas card received 2002: photo on the front shows six dogs wearing guide-harnesses lined up in Sit Stays facing the camera: German Shepherd, Black Labrador, Yellow Labrador, Chocolate Labrador, black Standard Poodle, and Golden Retriever. Inside: "Season's Greetings/Meilleurs voeux"; on the back: "Proceeds from the sale of this card support the work of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, National Office and Training Centre, P.O.Box 280, 4120 Rideau Valley Dr. N., Manotick, ON K4M 1A3, Canada. Breeds used by Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind... Photo courtesy of Roy Grogan."

See: "Shedding the Fifi image," by Mike Harden, [Columbus, Ohio] Dispatch, 15 March 1998, about Pilot Dogs' placement of Standard Poodles as guides: "In 1996, Pilot Dogs' first year placing poodles, two standard poodles were put into service. Last year [1997], seven were placed. As for 1998...[by the end of April] '22 standard puppies [placed] for training next year.'" Pilot Dogs is in Columbus, Ohio.

See "Diamond -- a loyal Standard Poodle is Deming blind man's new best friend," from an article by Sylvia Brenner in the Deming Headlight, and reprinted in Versatility in Poodles Bulletin, June 2000, vol. 8, no. 3, p. 14, about Deming, NM man with a new guide, white SP Diamond, a Pilot Dog.

We note, but have not yet tracked down, two additional Standard Poodle (Dorian/Doris Grant) guides working in western Canada, and we await a reference for a Poodle, Spats (Ellery/Kathy Brulée), graduated from Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. On the grapevine, in 2/2000, word of yet another guide from Doris Grant, Funky, working in Southern Ontario.

RE the above, Susan Armstrong writes: "A day or two ago [14 July '99] I noticed a beautiful black Standard Poodle working as a seeing eye dog [sic: the generic term is 'guide dog']. I was on the street near to the Patterson SkyTrain station in Burnaby [BC], and I happened to glance up (wayyy up) at the platform, and that'sh ow I spotted dog and person. I had a very fine miniature poodle when I was a kid. (A smart, brave, even-tempered dog -- he added a lot to our family. He died back in 1985 at age 15.)...." Thank you, Susan! We'd love to hear more from the people who use these Poodle-guides nowadays, as well as the people who are otherwise delighted by them!

See "News from and for our Alumni", Leader Dogs for the Blind Update, issue 1, 2008, p. 11: "Congratulations to Wanda Scroggins..." who recently graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelors Degree in Communications with a minor in Rehabilitation Services, and who "was led across the stage to receive her diploma by her Leader Dog, 'Gibson,'" a Standard Poodle.

See AKC Gazette, October 2007, vol. 124, no. 10, p. 35, photo of a white (cream?) Standard Poodle in harness stopped at a street corner. Photo courtesy Guide Dogs for the Blind (San Rafael, CA). Accompanies article about intelligent disobedience by Matthew Schenker, "Just say no" (pp. 32-5).

If you wish to support the work of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and to receive Side by Side, write to: Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, PO Box 280, 4120 Rideau Valley Drive N., Manotick, ON K4M 1A3, Canada; tel. (613) 692-7777.

Leader Dogs for the Blind, 1039 Rochester Road, Rochester Hills, MI, 48308, USA; tel. (810) 651-9011 or (888) 777-LDFB, is actively requesting Standard Poodles to be donated for training.

Go back to Guide...