Dogs have worked alongside people for thousands of years. They have been hunting companions, guard dogs and livestock herders. They still work with us today, but their roles are more varied. Here are some of the main roles that working dogs play in our lives.
These dogs are trained to guide vision impaired people as they go about their daily lives. They help them negotiate the sidewalk, and find their way to the shopping mall. They need to have a steady, almost bomb-proof, temperament and enthusiasm to work. The most popular breeds used for this type of work are the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever.
Not all dogs are suitable for guide work; I know of a lovely, well trained Goldie who couldn’t be a guide dog because she smiled. Her training was going well, and she was keen and focused, but she couldn’t go out into the community and bare her teeth. She is now a companion to a disabled adult. I also knew a Labrador Retriever who was so stressed by her work that she had to be retired.
Just as guide dogs act as their owners eyes, hearing dogs let their master know if someone knocks on the door, or more importantly, if the smoke alarm is ringing. There are no preferred breeds for this job; in fact many hearing dogs are mixed breeds which have been adopted from rescue organizations.
These dogs live and work with disabled people, and help them to live as close to a normal life as possible. Some dogs help their owners to pick up dropped items, get undressed or even put the laundry on to wash.
Other service dogs have owners with a less obvious disability. Some can warn their epileptic owner when a seizure is imminent, and others provide much needed company and security for autistic children.
Again, any breed can learn to be a service dog. Temperament and willingness to learn are the most important criteria.
Search and Rescue Dogs
A dog’s nose is much more sensitive than ours When someone is lost, it makes sense to take advantage of this when you are out looking for them. Search and rescue dogs follow the scent that is carried on the air, or that which has been left on the ground, to help locate missing persons. They are particularly useful when people are lost while walking forest trails, and were an important part of the rescue operation after the Twin Towers collapsed in 2001.
Many breeds can be involved in search and rescue work. German Shepherds, Dobermann Pinschers, Border Collies and Bloodhounds commonly work in this field.
German Shepherds are the most popular breed to accompany police officers in their work out in the community. However, Labrador Retrievers are also used particularly in drug detection work. The general public aren’t intimidated by Labradors, and usually allow them to come close, where they can sniff for drug residue on their clothes or body.
These dogs need to have sound temperaments, and be physically healthy. Many police forces now breed their own dogs, so they know that they are sound in body and in mind. It costs a lot of money to raise and train a police dog so it’s important that this money is invested in a dog that will work for many years, rather than have to retire early because of an avoidable condition such as hereditary blindness or hip dysplasia.
Dogs have accompanied their masters into war for thousands of years. There are records of dogs standing beside the ancient Greeks in battle, as far back as 400 BC. Dogs have played a role in both World Wars, and in the Vietnam War. These days they work as guard dogs, patrol dogs, tracking dogs and bomb detection dogs. A black Labrador Retriever known as Treo was awarded a bravery medal in 2010, for his role in finding explosive devices in Afghanistan. Belgian or German Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers are popular breeds for military work.
Any breed can be a therapy dog, the most important thing is that they have a calm friendly temperament. Therapy dogs comfort people in nursing homes, psychiatric wards and other places where people can’t have their own dogs. Therapy dogs have been shown to have a positive well being of residents of nursing homes, and may in fact encourage them to speak and communicate better with their carers. They also reduce the stress of children in hospital, and encourage socialization and interaction of patients with dementia and other psychiatric conditions.