David Blunkett, the former UK Secretary of State who remains best known for his tumultuous private life and conflict-of-interest allegations, has clearly never let blindness prevent him from pursuing his interests. But in this he has been ably assisted by a series of guide dogs who have become Britain’s darlings.

This week, Blunkett penned a tribute in the Daily Mail to his most recent guide dog, Sadie, upon her retirement. Blunkett’s previous dog, Lucy, memorably provided political commentary by vomiting in the House of Commons during a speech by an opposition MP.

And in 1994, newly anointed Labour leader Tony Blair inadvertently trod on Lucy’s ear, leading to the kind of agonised yelping noises that would next be heard in parliament when Blair explained his support for the Iraq war.

The practice of training dogs to act as blind people’s surrogate eyes has a long anecdotal history. There is a depiction of a guide dog on a wall mural in the ruined Roman town of Herculaneum, and a Chardin painting in the Louvre, dating from the 16th century, of a blind man and his guide dog.

However, the first formal guide dog training organisation was founded in 1916 in Germany, where Alsatians were taught to lead blinded war veterans. American Dorothy Eustis heard of the program and in 1927, she trained a dog for Nashville man Morris Frank. In 1929, Eustis and Frank founded the first American guide dog organisation, The Seeing Eye.

The first British guide dogs were Flash, Meta, Judy and Folly, who were trained by their four owners in Cheshire in 1931, leading to the foundation of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in 1934.

Australia’s first guide dog was Dreena, who arrived from the UK in 1950 to work with Dr Arnold Cook. The first Australian guide dog school was founded in Perth in 1951, and became Australia’s national organisation in 1957. Beau, who worked with Elsie Mead, was the first Australian-trained guide dog. Other state-based organisations cropped up during the 1960s and are still run independently — Guide Dogs Australia acts as an ‘umbrella’ brand.

According to Dr Graeme White, CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria and Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, only about 10% of eligible visually impaired people use guide dogs.

Perhaps that’s because guide dogs continue to be discriminated against in public places — despite their presence being enshrined in law. In March this year, a Sydney taxi driver made the epic error of refusing entry to the guide dog of Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Other blind people might eschew guide dogs for canes and other mobility devices, or simply be cat people.

But perhaps more people might choose a guide dog if they knew they might be rubbing noses with a true hero. Two guide dogs led their handlers to safety amid the chaos of the World Trade Centre on September 11: Roselle and Dorado.

“I was resigned to dying and decided to free Dorado to give him a chance of escape,” said Omar Rivera later. But the faithful dog refused to leave his side, leading Rivera and a co-worker down from the 71st floor.

Meanwhile, Roselle led Michael Hingson to safety from the 78th floor, despite the heat and jet fuel fumes that had her panting and stopping to drink water from burst pipes. As they escaped the disaster, Roselle also helped a nearby woman who couldn’t see because of debris in her eyes.

Guide dogs are working animals, and it’s customary for them to retire and be re-homed after 8-10 years. Author Dean Koontz cherished a retired guide dog named Trixie, about whom he wrote the memoir A Big Little Life. She became a “guest blogger” on Koontz’s website, and the “author” of the compendium of wit and wisdom, Bliss To You.

In New York, Ruger was famous for paving the way to guide dog acceptance in public spaces, when in 2002 his handler Kevin Coghlan sued the NYC Taxi Commission and a cafe that had thrown the dog out. New Yorkers followed the career of this “guide dog with clout” to his retirement in 2008. When he died in May this year, he was honoured with a New York Times obituary.

Endal, however, was truly a superdog. He could operate an ATM card, load and empty a washing machine and fetch items from supermarket shelves. Endal’s handler, Allen Parton, suffered serious acquired brain injuries during the Gulf War. He was confined to a wheelchair, was unable to speak for a long period and communicated with Endal by sign language.

Endal found fame after a 2001 incident in which Parton was knocked from his wheelchair by a passing car. Endal dragged Parton to safety, put him in the recovery position, covered him with a blanket, retrieved his mobile phone from his car, and ran barking for help to a nearby pub. For this he won the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals Gold Medal — the animal equivalent of the George Cross.

Among his many other awards, Endal has been hailed “Dog Of The Millennium”. By the time he died in March 2009, he had been filmed by more than 340 film crews, and a biopic about him is currently in the works. During his final months, he mentored a guide puppy named EJ — short for Endal Junior.

Peter Fray

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