Everyone is familiar with dogs that serve as eyes for the blind.
These highly trained animals – primarily German Shepherds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers (although other breeds also do the job) skillfully guide their unsighted owners through the world outside their homes, allowing them greater freedom than they might otherwise have. Most of us are also familiar with dogs that assist people with physical handicaps. These dogs pull wheelchairs, open doors, work light switches, bring things to their owners, carry backpacks, assist their owners in getting up, and many other functions. They also serve a social function, especially for mobility-impaired children who find that interacting with other children can be eased by their tail-wagging assistants. These are the service dogs most people recognize, but there are many fields in which canines are providing valuable service.
Psychiatric service dogs are a fairly new addition. These dogs may not have to lead blind handlers through traffic or open doors for wheelchair users, but they serve in ways that are just as important. The dog’s need for exercise and outdoor time can bring a person feeling isolated and alone out into the world, at least for a short time. The dog can act as a social bridge, bringing about interaction between the owner and other people. They can learn to respond to the warning signs of an impending anxiety attack, giving the owner a chance to rely on the comfort of a loving dog to work through it. Just the fact that the dog is a living creature with needs that must be provided for by the owner can be seen as a service.
Dogs are also trained to serve as “ears” for deaf people and those with greatly impaired hearing. These dogs are active, people-loving creatures that alert their owners to doorbells, ringing telephones, smoke detectors, alarm clocks, and even a baby’s cries. Dogs have also been trained to alert owners of impending seizures.
There are an increasing number of fields in which highly trained dogs alert their handlers to specific odors, most undetectable to humans. Dogs are trained to use their amazing scenting abilities to detect the presence of cancer cells and changes in blood sugar levels for diabetics. They can be trained to alert to the presence of mold or infestations of ants, termites or bedbugs in buildings. Dogs are used in airports to detect banned items being brought into the country in baggage, such as certain fruits and vegetables, insects, meats, reptiles, and even birds.
Search and Rescue dogs have long provided valuable service in finding lost persons. These magnificent dogs worked through the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11, finding the living trapped under tons of debris and in the much sadder task of finding the remains of the deceased. Search and Rescue dogs work in wilderness areas and in more suburban or urban settings. Some are trained to work in boats with their handlers to search for the scent of victims under water. Specially trained cadaver search dogs locate human remains in situations such as crime scenes or airplane crashes.
Many health-care facilities recognize the value of pet-assisted therapy and welcome trained therapy dogs into their establishments. Certified therapy dogs are tested on their ability to remain calm and friendly and have shown that they have solid basic training. They have learned the proper way to greet a wide variety of people, work around wheelchairs, walkers and other medical equipment, and to be calm in the face of the unexpected. Other therapy dogs include those that help calm children who must appear in courtrooms and dogs that are trained as reading assistants in the classroom. These dogs lie or sit quietly on a rug while children read to them. Many children who are reluctant to read out loud in front of classmates are comfortable reading to a friendly dog.
Working dogs will always be valuable tools for law enforcement and fire departments where they are trained to detect the scent of bombs and explosive chemicals, gunpowder, illegal drugs and accelerants used to start arson fires. They search for firearms, fleeing suspects and escaped prisoners. They keep their handlers from harm and are willing to face violence to do this if necessary.
This only scratches the surfaces of jobs dogs can be trained to do. Almost every month brings news of a dog being trained to serve us in a new capacity. They are truly amazing animals.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor and judge of canine events. She is a published author and contributes regular columns to several dog publications. She is currently a trainer at That Place for Pets (formerly Hollowell) and teaches weekly classes for the Allen Correctional Institution’s PETS Program.