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Service and Other Working Dogs

By Lynette A. Hart, PhD, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California

Just as dogs can be trained to provide therapy and companionship for the mentally disabled, they may also be trained to provide assistance to the physically disabled. These dogs are known as service dogs. Although initially service dogs were well known for providing guidance to the visually challenged, they can also be trained to assist people with hearing deficits, epilepsy, limited mobility, and many other disabilities.

Dogs also provide a variety of other services for society. Working dogs have been trained to help law enforcement officers with tasks such as search and rescue and sniffing out everything from drugs to exotic pests to bombs. Many people remember the role that working dogs played in the days following the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York. However, they play equally important but less visible roles every day, such as helping police capture criminals or working at airports to assist with luggage screening.

Much time and money is needed for the specialized training these dogs and their handlers need. As the handlers build partnerships with their working dogs, they also form emotional bonds. Although service dogs might have several handlers in their early lives and training, when grown they typically spend all their waking hours with a single handler. Some working dogs might be kenneled in a separate facility during nonworking hours. However, many police dogs live with their handlers and their families.

Service dogs provide assistance and companionship.

Although service dogs are involved in a variety of work situations, all of these dogs are precious and valuable to their handlers. When a service dog needs medical attention, perhaps requiring it to be separated from its handler, the handler might need to make arrangements to accommodate the animal’s absence. If a needed medical treatment, such as a drug that causes sleepiness, might alter a service dog’s performance, handlers should be fully aware of all issues and potential side effects.

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