They’re more than our best friends, they’re our partners. For millennia, dogs have lived and worked at our side, helping us in ways too numerous to count. Even now, the words we use to classify dogs remind us of the tasks we once assigned them: herding, tracking, retrieving, working, companion. Sled dogs provided transportation, St. Bernards and Newfoundlands rescued, Hounds and Terriers hunted, Collies and Shepherds herded and guarded, gun dogs retrieved, and some dogs simply provided companionship.
As people migrated into cities, many of the jobs for dogs disappeared or became scarce, and by the end of the 20th century, most dogs had moved from the barn to the living room couch. Some wondered why we should continue to breed specialized types if a dog’s primary function was as a family companion; perhaps the breeds had lost their reason for being. Others discovered new work for dogs. Today, imaginative and dedicated people are putting dogs to work in jobs that help save the environment, lives and livelihoods.
In the 1970s, following the success of schools that trained guide dogs for the blind, organizations such as NEADS and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) emerged to train hearing dogs and assistance dogs for those with disabilities. Today, CCI also trains facility dogs —dogs who help calm, motivate and inspire people in stressful occupations and situations. The NEADS program has expanded as well, offering dogs for classroom therapy and ministry. And some schools that train guide dogs for the blind also prepare dogs for new jobs. In 2006, Gloria Gilbert Stoga, president of Puppies Behind Bars in New York, saw how dogs could benefit military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and transitioned the nonprofit organization from training guide dogs to training service dogs for wounded veterans.“We train for physical and psychiatric disabilities, but we focus on the psychiatric disabilities,” she says, “on PTSD and traumatic brain injury.”
The same comfort that the grieving poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously received from her Cocker Spaniel, Flush, nearly 200 years ago is reaching today’s children coping with stressful situations. In FortWorth, for example, a Delta Society Pet Partner named Herbie helped hesitant children find their desks on the first day of school. Throughout the country, in libraries, bookstores and classrooms, dogs help children learn to read through such local efforts as Marin Humane Society’s Share a Book in California, Therapy Dogs United in Pennsylvania and Intermountain’s national READ program, based in Salt Lake City.
“People are realizing the value of animals in our lives,” says JoAnn Turnbull, marketing director for the Delta Society, an organization devoted to improving people’s lives through companion, service and therapy animals. “More doors are starting to open.”
Newfoundlands act as lifeguards on dangerous beaches in Italy. Highly trained Karelian Bear Dogs at the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana help biologists teach bears to avoid campgrounds. Dogs who once scouted for hunters now track animals for environmental studies. Jack Russell Terriers courageously sniff for snakes in cargo headed for Hawaii. A sniffer dog found psyllids (sap-sucking insect pests) in a FedEx package sent from India and saved California’s citrus crop. Other dogs are sniffing cancer and saving people’s lives.
These dogs join an expanding cadre of four-footed professionals eagerly trying new careers each day. Twenty years ago, no one thought to ask dogs if they could warn diabetics when their blood sugar was too high or too low, or to call 911 if their person suffered an epileptic seizure. Now we know they can, and they do. We take for granted that dogs see for the blind, hear for the deaf, help the disabled, identify contraband and find people buried in rubble. So, why do we react with surprise and wonder when we learn that dogs can detect minute traces of peanuts in our food or cancer in our bodies?
“I think we haven’t asked dogs the right questions,” says Sharon Sakson, author of Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs.“We’ve been slow to figure out what they can do.”