Helen Keller is famous for her many incredible accomplishments, including her moving autobiography, her social and political activism, and her advocacy for those with disabilities. But there’s another side to Keller that you might be less familiar with – her lifelong love of dogs. Left both blind and deaf due to an illness when she was only 19 months old, Keller couldn’t see her pets’ puppy dog eyes or hear their barks and whines. But dogs gave her friendship and joy from the time she was a girl, through her education at Perkins School for the Blind, up to her death at age 87.
Growing Up With Dogs
Keller grew up with family dogs. Despite being deaf and blind, she seemed to have no difficulty understanding them. In her youth, she even tried to teach her dog Belle sign language by fingerspelling letters into Belle’s paw. Although Belle didn’t pick up on the communication, and Keller considered her dull and inattentive, it did nothing to lessen Keller’s canine enthusiasm.
When Keller attended Radcliffe College from 1900-1904, her love of dogs inspired her classmates to gift her with a companion. Sir Thomas, more commonly known as Phiz, was an early specimen of today’s Boston Terrier. The dog, known for his calm and pleasant personality, would accompany Keller to class, patiently wait for the lesson to end, then head back home with her.
Bringing the Akita to America
After finishing her education, Keller started a career as both a writer and lecturer. Of course, she also continued to own dogs. Over her lifetime, Keller owned breeds both big and small. She had Great Danes, a German Shepherd Dog, a Dachshund, and a Lakeland Terrier, to name a few. However, she might be most connected with the Akita, a loyal and muscular breed with origins in Japan.
In 1937, when Keller was in her fifties, she toured Japan speaking to the people about overcoming her personal challenges. During her visit, she heard about Hachiko, a famous Akita who had died two years earlier. Hachiko was renowned for his exceptional loyalty. The dog had accompanied his owner to the train station every morning and met him there again every afternoon. Then one day, while away at work in Tokyo, the owner passed away. But that didn’t stop Hachiko. Until his own death almost ten years later, Hachiko went to the station every single evening to search for his beloved owner until his own death.
Hachiko’s story impressed Keller so much that she mentioned she would love to have one of these dogs for herself. The Japanese took her request to heart. Before she left the country, they presented Keller with an Akita puppy named Kamikaze-Go. She traveled home with the pup and referred to her gentle companion as an “angel in fur”. Kamikaze was the first Akita to live on American soil. Unfortunately, he died of distemper at only seven and a half months of age.
When the Japanese government heard of Keller’s devastation over the loss of her Akita, they sent her Kamikaze’s younger brother, Kenzan-Go, in 1939. Keller nicknamed the dog Go-Go and they were great companions from day one. Go-Go even spent his first night at Keller’s home sleeping at the foot of her bed. Keller had five other dogs at the time, but Go-Go held a special place in her heart. He also earned a place in the hearts of Americans as they read about Go-Go and saw photos of him with Keller. Now other Americans wanted Akitas too, and it wasn’t long before there was a breed standard and the first Akita dog shows.
Helen Keller: Lifelong Dog Lover
Before her travels to Japan, Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic in 1933 entitled “Three Days to See.” In the story, she listed the many things she’d want to observe if she had the use of her eyes for just three days. Besides the faces of her friends and the beauties of nature, she longed to see her dogs.
“And I should like to look into the loyal, trusting eyes of my dogs – the grave, canny little Scottie, Darkie, and the stalwart, understanding Great Dane, Helga, whose warm, tender, and playful friendships are so comforting to me.”
In 1926, Helen Keller wrote an article that was even more telling about her adoration of dogs. The article, called “The Day of the Dog,” outlined the danger of canine distemper, the suffering of infected dogs, and the need for a cure. Naturally, the article also made no secret of Keller’s deep affection for all dogs.
“Dogs! How impossible it is not to love them!” she penned. “I admit there are two points of view about cats. There are people who love them and people who hold them in total abhorrence. But as to dogs, I have never learned of the existence of more than one opinion about them. The man who doesn’t love a dog, or the woman who doesn’t, or the child who doesn’t, must, it seems to me, be something rather less than human.”