Helen Keller: A life with dogs

From scrappy Scotties to dignified Great Danes to a famous Akita, dogs always brought joy to Helen Keller

Helen Keller pressing her face against the side of small Boston bull terrier named Phiz.

Dogs brought Helen Keller joy, companionship and acceptance. From her childhood, through the years she attended Perkins School for the Blind and to the very end of her life, dogs were always by her side.

June 24, 2016

Helen Keller loved dogs.

Because she was deafblind, she never heard a dog’s joyous bark or watched a puppy exuberantly chase a ball. But she could feel the inquisitive nudge of a dog’s wet nose, or soft fur under her hand or a tired canine head resting gently on her lap. Love finds a way to communicate.

Dogs brought Keller joy, companionship and acceptance. From her childhood, through the years she attended Perkins School for the Blind and to the very end of her life, dogs were always by her side. And she doted on them all, large or small – from scrappy Scotties to dignified Great Danes to a famous Akita.

In her 1933 essay, “Three Days to See,” Keller wrote about one of the first things she would do if she suddenly had vision: “I should like to look into the loyal, trusting eyes of my dogs…whose warm, tender, and playful friendships are so comforting to me.”

Here’s a look at Keller’s remarkable life, as illustrated by the dogs who shared it. (All photos from Perkins School for the Blind’s Photo Archives.)

Helen Keller as a young girl, sitting on a couch, her large dog Jumbo sitting next to her.

An 8-year-old Helen Keller with the family dog, Jumbo, possibly a Chesapeake Bay retriever. According to letters Keller wrote to friends, Jumbo would retrieve ducks on hunting trips with her father and was “very strong and faithful.” (Photo 1888.)

A young Helen Keller standing next to a dog seated in a chair.

A young Keller stands next to a dog, possibly her childhood pet Belle. Keller finger-spelled onto Belle’s paws to try to teach her sign language, but Belle was more interested in sleeping. “I tried hard to teach her my sign language, but she was dull and inattentive,” Keller wrote. (Photo circa 1890.)

Helen Keller as an adolescent, sitting in profile with a dog sitting next to her.

Keller as an adolescent, sitting with a family dog. Keller also had a bull mastiff named Lioness that was accidentally shot by a policeman. When Keller heard the news, she said, “I am sure they would never have done it if they had only known what a dear, good dog Lioness was.” (Photo circa 1893/1894.)

Helen Keller pressing her face against the side of small Boston bull terrier named Phiz.

Keller with one of her most famous dogs, a Boston bull terrier named Sir Thomas, more commonly known as Phiz. Keller was given the dog by her classmates at Radcliffe College – an act of generosity that generated newspaper stories around the country.  Phiz reportedly accompanied Keller to lectures at Radcliffe and would wait patiently until class was over to return home with her.  (Photo 1902.)

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan sit on a wooden platform built on a low branch of a tree. Helen’s dog Phiz sits at their feet.

With Phiz at their feet, Keller and her teacher/companion Anne Sullivan sit on a wooden platform in a tree near their home in Wrentham, Massachusetts. (Keller could understand what Sullivan was saying by feeling the movement of her mouth.) “My dog friends seem to understand my limitations, and always keep close beside me,” Keller wrote. “I love their affectionate ways and the eloquent wag of their tails.” (Photo circa 1903.)

Helen Keller leans forward to pet a small black dog at her right.

Keller with a small black dog, possibly her French bull terrier named Kaiser. Keller wrote that Kaiser had a fondness for apples: “He learned to hold an apple between his paws and eat it with a good deal of gusto.” (Photo circa 1905/1906.)

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson sit next to each other, with a Great Dane named Sieglinde in front of them.

Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson (who would take over as Keller’s companion after Macy died in 1936), with a Great Dane named Sieglinde. Keller wrote: “Of all the dogs we ever owned, she was the most beautiful and intelligent.” (Photo circa late 1920s.)

Helen Keller grips her dog Kamikaze, who leans back against her, while Polly Thompson leans forward to hold Kamikaze’s paws.

Keller and Thompson with Kamikaze, her famous Akita. Keller received Kamikaze as a gift from the Japanese government in 1937, which generated considerable publicity and helped introduce the breed to the United States. Keller said, “If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze. The Akita dog has all the qualities that appeal to me – he is gentle, companionable and trusty.” (Photo 1937.)

Helen Keller sitting on a sofa under a lamp with a dog in her lap.

Keller continued to find solace in dogs later in life. Here, following the death of Macy, she sits with a dog at home in Forest Hills, New York. In an interview years later, Keller said, “Nobody, who is not blind, as much as they may love their pet, can know what a dog’s love really means. Dogs have travelled all over the world with me. They have always been my companions. A dog has never failed me.” (Photo 1938.)

Quotes from “The Story of My Life” (1903) by Helen Keller; “Helen Keller: A Life” (1999) by Dorothy Herrmann; “Helen Keller: Selected Writings” (2005) edited by Kim E. Nielson; the Atlantic Monthly (January 1933); and the Evening Independent (June 27, 1967).