It’s estimated that around 77 million dogs are kept as pets in the U.S. today, but there are no similar figures for working dogs. I’m guessing this is because the list of canine careers is impressively long, and there is no central reporting agency to keep track of all the amazing canines that are willing to work for praise, toys, treats and love instead of a paycheck. Most of us know dogs best as pets and companions, but for thousands of years, dogs have helped people with daily tasks such as herding livestock, hunting for food, or hauling loads. More recently, dogs have been used to help people with disabilities, to assist in search and rescue missions, and to protect the public in partnership with military and law enforcement units. Some dogs even do unconventional jobs like helping scientists track endangered species, locating ancient burial grounds, or alerting wine grape growers to insect infestations in the vines.
I want to take some time to recognize these astounding dogs that not only assist their owners, but play a significant role in society. Here is a brief overview of some jobs that dogs have…
Guide Dogs: A Guide Dog is specially trained to provide mobility and independence to the visually-impaired user. A guide dog provides these services as a loving companion, he has a quiet and calm disposition, a high level of initiative and concentration while working, and a strong will to work. The most common breeds used in assisting the visually-impaired are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs. Their intelligence, size and temperament make them ideal Guide Dogs.
The human partner makes most of the decisions for the team, giving the dog directions and determining, after listening to the flow of traffic, the most optimal time to cross each street. Guide dogs are carefully conditioned to refuse the “Forward” command under certain circumstances where it would be unsafe to proceed, something termed “intelligent disobedience.” The net effect of the conditioning, however, is a habitual reaction from the dog to specific stimuli which substantially improves team safety. It should be noted this skill deteriorates over time if the handler forgets to appropriately praise the dog for avoiding a situation. Like other assistance dogs, a guide dog relies heavily on the team leader’s feedback, especially praise, to reinforce and motivate desired behaviors.
Service Dogs: Service Dogs are trained to assist people who have a wide variety of mobility impairments and other disabilities, such as seizures, psychiatric disorders, life threatening medical problems, or chronic pain. These dogs provide services to disabled individuals helping them function with greater self-sufficiency; prevent injuries; and summon help in a crisis.
Most assistance dogs are donated to a regional office of a training organization like Guide Dogs of America, Dogs for the Deaf, Inc., or Freedom Service Dogs. In some cases, these organizations rescue dogs from euthanasia at local shelters. Hearing assistance dogs are often small mixed-breed canines rescued from shelters. Service dogs for the physically or mentally challenged may be small or large, purebred or mixed breeds, depending on the needs of the client.
In cooperation with local foster families, the regional offices of training organizations get started on socializing and training the puppies in basic manners and obedience. Once the dogs are old enough to begin formal training, they are brought back into the regional office and given enough training to meet the minimum standards required for all assistance dogs. Service Dogs receive approximately six months to one year of training on learning to perform various tasks, obedience, and public access manners.
Once the dog achieves at least the minimum standards of proficiency, the dog is matched to a person and begins training for the specific needs of that person. For example, a person who struggles with upper body strength might need a dog that can open doors and cupboards. A person who has seizures might need an assistance dog that can sense an oncoming seizure and communicate to the person that he or she should sit down before the seizure hits.
Service dogs may perform a wide variety of tasks to help their handlers. They might retrieve dropped objects, pull a wheelchair, turn light switches on and off, provide a counterbalance for those who have mobility issues, or alert the person when his or her blood sugar drops. They can also be very calming to a person who has autism or other mental challenges. Each dog must be able to perform at least three tasks related to their partner’s disability.
Therapy Dogs: Therapy Dogs are used for the benefit, both physical and emotional, of people in hospitals, seniors’ residences, nursing homes, day care centers, special needs schools, psychiatric hospitals and many other places where people may be restricted from having pets. The medical profession has widely acknowledged that stroking and petting animals can have a calming effect, lower blood pressure, and relieve tension. Research has also proven that animals can dramatically improve the quality of life for the elderly; they can help sick patients recover faster, and can bring a renewed zest for life to the lonely or depressed.
In addition to standard canine training, Therapy Dogs receive specialized training to learn how to behave around people with difficult medical conditions. However, they aren’t classified as Service Dogs because they’re not trained to stay with people and do not directly assist them with tasks.
Therapy Dogs come in all sizes and breeds. The most important characteristic is temperament –a good Therapy Dog enjoys human contact and is patient, gentle, calm, reacting well to other dogs, and must be confident and comfortable in a variety of situations.
Herding Dogs: Herding livestock is one of the oldest jobs for dogs. There are many breeds of herding dogs as well as many styles of herding. For example, the Border Collie commonly when herding sheep, uses what is called “the eye” to work — a glare which asserts their dominance over the sheep, others are well known for their ability to dart in and nip the heels of cattle. Stockdogs are used on many farms and ranches and mostly to work with cattle and sheep.
Today, herding dogs are also seen competing in Herding Trials all over the world. Quite often the people participating in this sport are not involved in the livestock industry but have an interest in working with their dogs to help preserve the instincts and abilities of the herding breeds.
Livestock Guarding Dogs: Dogs have been bred and used for centuries to protect livestock. Most of these dogs have a strong guarding behavior that, with proper training and patience, can be modified to make them good pets and household protectors. In general, livestock guarding dog breeds are large, strong, and independent. They are generally calm and intelligent.
Dog breeds used to guard livestock are generally different than herding dogs. Herding dogs, like collies, help herdsmen and women move their animals. Livestock guarding dogs, instead, protect animals from threats like wolves and other predators. Livestock guarding dogs are highly social. They like to stay in groups, with other dogs they’ve known since they were puppies. This social nature predisposes them to protect and stay with livestock.
As pets, livestock guarding breeds can be challenging. They require lots of daily exercise, as well as a job. When they’re working guarding animals, this is easily accomplished. However, the amount of exercise and mental stimulation they require can be difficult to get as house pets. Livestock guarding dogs also need training and supervision from someone who is capable of assuming a strong leadership role.
As hunting became a sport rather than a life duty, the role of dogs continued to evolve. Hunting dogs were developed to track, point and set game for their masters. By 6,000 years ago, pointers, shepherds, mastiffs, greyhounds and wolf breeds were the prevalent hunting dogs, as they are documented in cave painting as workers hunting with their masters. From these five breeds, man began to look for special traits in dogs and use them for different needs. This is when breeding began and the number of dog species began to grow.
Today, dog hunting is almost entirely for sport, with the exception of subsistence hunts — isolated Alaskan families, for example, use dogs to help them hunt for food. In the end, the history and evolution of hunting dogs goes hand in hand with the evolution of man.
Sporting Dogs are hunting dogs that are renowned for working closely with hunters and other dogs in the field. Some of the best known are the Labrador Retriever, Pointer, Spaniel, and Setter. This group of dogs is known to make exceptional pets. Bred to work closely with people and dogs they are loyal and friendly. They love playing with their family and tend to be affectionate and gentle with children. They are also lively and very energetic and enjoy physical activity, either on land or in the water.
Another type of hunting dog is the Hound Dog. Sporting dog breeds differ from hound dogs because they hunt by scent carried in the air, while the hound dog breeds are ground scenters. Today’s Sporting dogs have remarkable instincts and excel in hunting in both water and on land.
The importance of the dogs in service to man cannot be underestimated. The bond between man and dog has evolved throughout history. Various dogs were developed through selective breeding and hunting dog training, to assist in hunting birds and other game. Some of these early dogs were the ancestors of the pointer, retriever, setter and spaniel of today.
Despite their great personalities, some Sporting dog breeds are not the best choice for everyone. Most get along well with other pets, but there are a few that can’t be trusted around small pets. They all need a great deal of exercise, and for some breeds the spunky puppy behavior may not diminish with age. Many can be notorious for getting away. If they get a chance they may unthinkingly take off if the opportunity presents itself, especially when young. They also bark, but are not usually aggressive to strangers.
Police Dogs: Police dogs are in widespread use across the United States. K-9 units are operated on the federal, state, county, and local level and are utilized for a wide variety of duties, similar to those of other nations. Although most Americans perceive these animals as attack dogs, their duties generally include drug, bomb, and weapon detection and cadaver searches. The most common police dogs used for everyday duties are German Shepherds, though other breeds may be used to perform specific tasks.
Why do we bother using police dogs at all? For one thing, their sense of smell is almost 50 times more sensitive than a human’s. A dog can sniff out criminals, drugs, weapons, and bombs in situations where a human officer would have to search every inch, a dangerous task.
Only the most dedicated officers are considered for K-9 units. They must have exemplary records, plenty of arrests with convictions, an outgoing, energetic personality, and strong physical conditioning. A K-9 officer often puts in 60 hours each week. The pay is good, but the schedule is grueling, and there’s no backing out. A K-9 officer can’t decide a month or a year into the job that he or she is tired of it. A police dog’s career usually lasts about six years, and the handler is in it for the long haul.
The use of police dogs is increasing as police departments realize that a well-trained dog/handler team actually reduces liability, rather than increasing it. Every time a suspect runs away or fights police officers, the chase and struggle can lead to injuries and lawsuits against the department. The use of a K-9 unit can often keep a suspect from resisting at all, and can often end the situation before it escalates to the point where someone might get injured.
No one is quite sure when humans first domesticated dogs, but one thing is certain — dogs and people have been working side by side for thousands of years. Modern training methods have led to dogs becoming an integral part of many people’s lives, not just as companions, but also as guide dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, and bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs.