The History of the Service Dog, Part III — The Americans with Disabilities Act

In celebration of International Assistance Dog Week, NEADS guest blogger Michele Fournier takes us on a journey through the history of service dogs. Come back each day this week to learn more about the history of working canines!


Bonnie Bergin noticed donkeys being used for carrying wares or assistance during her travels in Asia.

“Courage” Photo by Graham Gordon

The use of dogs to assist blind individuals is well documented all over the world and systematic training methods were established as early as the 1750’s in Paris, France. It is known that the guide dog for the blind increased the degree of independence for a blind individual, enabling the individual to be less dependent upon another person for assistance. In America, the first guide dog school for the blind was opened in 1929 and was called “The Seeing Eye.”  For many years, this was the only type of training available for service dogs in America.  The use of dogs as service animals for individuals with disabilities other than blindness was pioneered by a researcher and doctor named Bonnie Bergin. She observed the use of donkeys as service animals during her travels around the world and wondered what dogs might be able to do to assist people. She spent a great deal of time working in kennels and documenting the traits and characteristics of different breeds of dogs. It was Bonnie who decided upon the term “service dog” to clarify the difference between this specially trained type of dog and an animal specifically trained to hunt or a dog who is a household pet. Bonnie continued her work into the realm of the development of training techniques and common commands. In 1989 she testified before Congress as they were debating the elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and she helped to clarify and define the terms for the two types of dogs being trained at that time. The two original types of dogs were “service” dogs , which represented any animal trained to help a person with mobility issues and an “assistance” dog which encompassed any individual with a wider range of disabilities.  It was her work that led to the recognition that the service dog and their human partner have a unique bond, paving the way for social acceptance of the working dog in society.

For more information:
Burke, Alex. “The History of Service Dogs.”

Cohen, Jennie. “Assistance Dogs: Learning New Tricks for Centuries.”  August 8, 2011

Lobell, Jarrett A. & Powell, Eric.  “More than Man’s Best Friend. “ Archeological Institute of America. Vol 63, No 5 Sept/Oct 2010.

“Service Dogs Through History—Work, Friendship, and Loyalty.”

Schwartz, Marion. A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. “The Creation of the American Dog.” Yale University Press: 1997.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s