For at least 14,000 years — ever since Homo sapiens first domesticated wolves — dogs have served humans in countless ways, from helping hunters track prey to working as petfluencers on Instagram. Today, many dogs have actual jobs that capitalize on their extraordinary sense of smell, their protective instincts, and their ability to be trained for highly specific tasks (though they may get kibble instead of a paycheck). Here are just a handful of canine careers.
Search and Rescue Dogs Accompany First Responders
The famed St. Bernards of Switzerland, which rescued avalanche and snowstorm victims in the St. Bernard Pass of the Alps beginning in the 1700s, are the first known instance of search and rescue dogs. In the modern era, dogs have been employed in search and rescue missions at least since World War I, when they were taught to locate wounded soldiers. Today, search and rescue dogs aid first responders in locating victims and bringing them to safety following large-scale disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or terrorist attacks. (More than 300 canine rescuers took part in searches after the 9/11 attacks.) The dogs find people in one of two ways: by air scenting — picking up a generalized airborne human scent and following it over a large area of terrain; or by trailing, which involves learning the scent of a particular missing person and tracking it closely over the ground.
Guide and Service Dogs Assist People with Disabilities
The first Seeing Eye dog, a German shepherd named Buddy, began guiding a visually impaired man named Morris Frank around 1927. After two years successfully working together, Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye, the world’s first guide dog school, in Nashville, Tennessee. Today, dogs are trained to perform a huge range of services for people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or other conditions. Dogs assist people with mobility issues by opening doors, fetching items, pulling wheelchairs, and much more. Dogs can be taught to detect allergens for people with life-threatening allergies, help people with autism navigate social situations, alert deaf or hearing-impaired people to alarms and cues, and even sense high blood sugar in people with diabetes.
Disease-Detecting Dogs Sniff Out Pathogens
Thanks to their incredibly acute sense of smell, dogs can pick up complex scents that humans can’t detect — even those emitted by microbes and tumors. Dogs can identify the odor signatures of different types of cancer in urine, blood, and breath samples. Within the past couple of years, researchers in the U.K. have even taught dogs to sniff out malaria: According to a 2019 study in The Lancet, dogs were able to detect the odor given off by the parasite that causes malaria after smelling an infected person’s socks. More recently, researchers have begun training dogs to detect SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the 2020 pandemic.
Bomb-Sniffing Dogs Detect Chemicals Used in Explosives
Dogs trained to sniff out explosive devices provide an essential layer of safety to the public, whether the canines are working in an airport or in military operations. Because of the inherent danger of the role, bomb-sniffing dogs must be intelligent, obedient, loyal, and dedicated. Experts say German shepherds, Belgian Malinoises, and Labrador retrievers — all hard-working and reward-focused breeds — make the best sniffer dogs. These canines are trained to identify the odors of certain chemicals used to make explosive devices, and can detect the smells in or around luggage and other materials, or even business cards that have been near certain chemicals.
Law Enforcement Dogs Help Police Investigate Possible Crimes
You may have seen movies in which police officers, having lost sight of a fleeing suspect, unleash a bloodhound to track down the perp by scent. But that’s just one of the ways police use dogs to investigate potential crimes. According to the National Police Dog Foundation, law enforcement dogs fall into two classes: Patrol dogs protect officers, search and clear buildings, and help officers apprehend suspects, while detection dogs are trained to find either explosives or illegal narcotics. Some police dogs undertake only patrol or detection duties, and some may be trained in even more specific roles, like finding missing people or detecting cadavers. “Dual purpose” dogs can assist with many of these tasks.
Wildlife-Protecting Dogs Look After Other Animals
Conservationists have looked to dogs’ herding prowess and protective instinct as important tools for helping wildlife. A unique facility in Montana trains Karelian bear dogs, a feisty Finnish breed, to keep bears away from populated areas and reduce human-bear conflict. On an Australian island, researchers successfully released Maremma sheepdogs to protect a colony of the world’s smallest penguins; the dogs chased away predatory foxes from the penguins’ burrows during breeding season. Even puppies offer companionship to nervous cheetahs. In 2015, the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia paired Kumbali, a cheetah cub, and Kago, a Labrador mix puppy, to help the kitten thrive. The Cincinnati Zoo adopted a rescue pup named Remus in 2019 to be a playmate for its baby cheetah, Kris, and the two remain best friends.
Therapy Dogs Provide a Comforting Touch
While service dogs perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, and emotional support dogs help people manage psychological issues, therapy dogs offer general comfort to people in stressful situations. Obedient and gentle dogs that have mastered a special training course or the 10 skills of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program — which includes behaviors like accepting a friendly stranger and sitting for petting — can be registered as a therapy dog. They often work in nursing homes, hospitals, or doctors’ offices to help patients feel relaxed. At libraries, children can practice their reading skills by reading stories to a nonjudgmental pup, while schools can bring therapy dogs to campus to help students with anxiety.