Service Dogs

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A service dog waits for a command.
By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

I met an inspirational canine the other day named Maggie*, a 14 year old german shepherd. She came to me unable to walk due to a degenerative nerve disease common in older German Shepherd dogs and couldn’t use her back legs. She also had a serious heart problem called A-V block, where her atria (the top chambers of the heart) don’t communicate with her ventricles (the bottom chambers of the heart), causing a dangerously low heart rate.

The owner knew Maggie’s days were numbered, but was having a hard time letting her go. Maggie was a highly trained search and rescue dog, and a cadaver dog, meaning she visited scenes of crimes helping people to locate missing bodies. She was top notch in her day and was even sent to New York on 9/11 to assist rescue crews. She had retired a number of years ago, and her owner considered her family.

Search and rescue dogs aren’t the only time of ‘working’ dogs out there. A ‘working dog’ refers to a dog that isn’t just a companion, but also performs some other job. One well known example includes dogs trained to become guide dogs for the visually impaired. Service dogs can actually help with a variety of human handicaps in addition to the blind. Service dogs also assist hearing impaired people, people with mobility limitations by opening doors or bringing objects, and can even be trained to detect seizures in people, warning them before the seizures occurs. This allows the person to take precautions, such as sitting down, prior to seizuring.

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Dogs have been given jobs for hundreds of years, as long as they have been domesticated. Herding dogs are still invaluable to sheep and cattle handlers around the world. Modern herding dogs help control cattle and wild geese in parks or goats used for weed control. A well trained herding dog can learn to control many domestic and wild animals alike. Turnspit dogs were used as a source of power; they turned a treadmill connected to a roasting spit, or could help with other household duties, such as churning butter.

Another type of ‘working dog’ are the many trained therapy dogs that visit incapacitated people, either in hospitals, retirement homes or other facilities with limited freedoms. These dogs bring joy and entertainment to people, bring a smile to their faces. There are prison programs for inmates that pair an inmate with a shelter dog to be trained and eventually adopted out. This gives inmates a sense of purpose and responsibility, as well as companionship. This program also helps with overcrowding in humane societies and helps rehabilitate dogs that might otherwise be unadoptable.

Often the trainer or handler that works with these highly trained dogs becomes extremely attached. The bond between service dog and its owner is usually deep. Even after the dog is ‘retired’ from their job, they continue to provide love and joy. Maggie hadn’t worked for years, but her owner was just as committed to her as when she was highly sought after for her services. Maybe she felt that now was her time to give back to Maggie, who had given so much when she was younger. By helping Maggie through this time she was able to say thank you for all she had done for others earlier in life.

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If you are interested in becoming a service dog trainer, or want to learn more information, visit Canine Companions for Independence or Canine Assistants on the web.

*Names have been changed

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