MS Royal 10 E IV, f.110 - Guide Dog
The earliest depiction of a guide dog in Western Europe may be in a wall painting preserved from Pompeii in 79 CE. It has been argued that guide dogs were considered unreliable in the medieval period. Irina Metlzer, in her Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages, gives two examples to show that guide dogs were thought unreliable. Metlzer noted that Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum (c. 1240) describes dogs as too easily distracted to lead the blind. Metlzer also writes that in Heinrich von Mügeln’s fourteenth-century De meide kranz, a ruler without reason is compared to a blind person led astray by a dog. Yet, according to Basilakes, guide dogs are actually better than people in this respect. “For something humans do not even tolerate doing for each other is precisely what this irrational animal does for humans.” For Basilakes, then, guide dogs could provide excellent support to the blind.
Hazel Hurst was the blind advocate for guide dogs, and one year before the turmoil of WWII she arrived in the United Kingdom. Yet she did not stay long, Hurst ended up fleeing the country after spending “just ten minutes on English soil”. Due to the inconvenience that the British government banned her guide dog Babe from upon arrival with her handler without “first undergoing the usual six months quarantine”. Disregarding the fact that Babe had already been vaccinated against rabies. “It would be like leaving my eyes behind me,” she told newspapers; ‘”It is the first time in my life I have felt blind. I don’t feel safe being guided by a human being.” Archives reveal how dogs and other animals worked as guides and draught animals for disabled people through the centuries. Dogs as (untrained) “leaders’” of the blind were not unusual in public spaces through the centuries. In the United States, newspapers give us some insight into how these dogs served their blind companions without training.
In the years following World War I, dogs were systematically and deliberately trained to accompany blind veterans and civilians in Europe, the UK, and the US. The first service animal training schools were established in Germany during World War I, to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat. Therefore, by the end of the Second World War, guide dogs in the US were constructed as a part of the “obligation which the Nation owes to disabled veterans” as part of their rehabilitation. As a result, the US Congress approved a million dollar bill to authorize the Veterans Administration to provide seeing-eye dogs for blind war veterans. In the following decades, the use of the guide dog has additionally spread across the world. Although it was largely restricted to the spaces of the Global North for much of the twentieth century, guide dogs did not reach Australia or New Zealand until after World War II. South Africa didn’t have guide dogs until the 1950s.
As the guide dog movement spread across the world, there were inevitable problems when they first ventured into public spaces. A horde of newspaper reports in the 1930s and 1940s highlighted the ways in which guide dogs, and their blind handlers, challenged the long standing associations between dogs and blind beggars. Sadly the guide dog also had to confront pre-existing constructions of dogs in public spaces as vectors of rabies, threats to urban sanitation and public health as well as a possible agents of injury. Perceptions which had often hardened into law.Unlike companion animals that more often lived in private residences or the working dog on the farm, the guide dog represented a category of human-animal interaction different from companion dogs. What is clear is that as blind handlers and their guide dogs navigate their worlds, they were also all too often likely to be excluded or discouraged from public spaces, private establishments or residences, and from traveling. Guide dogs were and still are very important, sadly that didn’t have many rights in previous time periods. When I had my meeting with Francesca, she mentioned to me that service dogs tend to be seen on a higher standard and are legally capable of doing more than emotional support animals. I personally believe that if the animal is working, it should have equal rights with any other working animal. They all have the same main goal, to keep their owners happy and safe. In 1937, however, blind advocates petitioned the US government to make legal exceptions for guide dogs and Congress passed the HR bill which allowed dogs to soon be trained as service animals for an increasing range of disabilities. Although guide dogs for the blind were the only service animals permitted onto buses, trains, and airplanes for a very long time. It was only in the 1980s that service animals for the physically disabled and signal alert dogs for the hearing impaired/Deaf began to be granted the same degree of access into public spaces. Though the progression of that act was slower than necessary.
Dogs were companions to humans long before written history, but being a guardian and a hunting partner is quite different to being a pet. In the Middle Ages they were not usually pets as they are today. There is no record of the word ‘pet’ before the 16th century. The majority of medieval dogs had to work for a living and their most common vocation was as guard dogs either of homes, or of goods and livestock. In this capacity dogs were found at all levels of society. The most prized quality in a medieval dog was loyalty. Praising the loyalty and intelligence of his hounds, 14th century hunter Gaston Comte de Foix wrote: “I speak to my hounds as I would to a man… and they understand me and do as I wish better than any man of my household, but I do not think that any other man can make them do as I do.”
References to service animals date at least as far back as the mid-16th century. The human does the directing, based upon 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.