The summer holidays honor our fallen soldiers and our hard-working laborers, but this month, we’re going to give kudos to our four-legged helpers- service dogs.
Most everyone is familiar with guide dogs for the blind. The Seeing Eye training facility and school is located in nearby Morristown, NJ. It was founded in 1929 by Morris Frank, a blind man who trained Buddy, a German shepherd, to be his guide dog. Most guide dogs are German shepherds, Labradors, and golden retrievers, but boxers and poodles are occasionally used as well and there has also been at least one seeing eye pony. The dogs used by the Seeing Eye spend the early part of their lives in a private home, raised by volunteers who spend their time socializing them and giving them basic training. When they are returned to the school, they are screened for aptitude for the rigorous guide dog training. It takes a special dog to pass all the requirements and graduate to become a blind person’s partner. They need to be able to focus on their job even with a lot of distractions and they also need to sometimes disobey their owner’s command if it will put them in danger. These dogs know when it’s time to play and when it’s time to work. When the harness goes on, they switch from “companion” mode to “guide dog” mode and set out to do their job.
Aside from guide dogs for the blind, there are many other types of service dogs. Some are used as assistance dogs for people who are in wheelchairs. They are trained to do everything from helping to pull their partner around, to retrieving dropped objects and picking up the telephone. There are also assistance dogs for the deaf who will respond to the sounds their partners cannot hear and alert them to the source of the noise, whether it be the doorbell, telephone or their baby crying. Dogs have also been trained to alert people who have seizures before the seizure actually occurs to give them time to sit down or call for help. There is also currently research being done using the dogs’ incredible sense of smell to sniff out cancer. There are dogs who can pick up the difference in the urine of men who have prostate cancer.
The dogs’ amazing olfactory abilities lends itself to their use in search and rescue as well. Bloodhounds can track even the most minute scent to find missing persons. Other breeds such as German shepherds and Labradors are often used at disaster sites to find people buried under buildings after earthquakes and bombings. There were many of these dogs used at the 911 site to search through the rubble.
Police departments make use of dogs as well in many capacities. The classic K9 Corps with their German Shepherds are what most people think of first. These dogs are usually shutzhund trained. This is special training that involves tracking, obedience and attack work. Dogs are also used to sniff for explosives and drugs, and airports use dogs (mostly beagles) to search for contraband such as foods and plants being brought illegally into the country.
So next time you watch the fireworks to honor our human heroes, think about the canine ones who help make our lives better as well.