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March 29, 2023 5 min read

The close companionship between dogs and humans has a long and storied history, and by long we mean looooong. It is believed that dogs were domesticated more than 11,000 years ago - at the end of the last ice age! - and that although all dogs evolved from wolves, by the Paleolithic period, 5 different major lineage groups were established, whose DNA can still be found in dogs today. Incredible! At this point in history, humans were still nomadic hunter-gatherers and so naturally their canine companions, themselves carnivores, were enthusiastic partners in the hunt. As long as humans have lived with dogs, dogs have worked with humans, and this brings us to today’s topic: working dogs. Earlier this month, it was K9 Veterans’ Day, and that set us thinking about the many ways dogs assist and support humans, formally or informally, and what in the world we would do without their love and help. 

1. Military Dogs.

"Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war,” exclaimed Mark Anthony in act III, scene I of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Now literal and figurative interpretations abound, but one thing is for certain: dogs have been participants in military action since 600 years BC. Here in the United States, the most frequent role played by dogs has been that of morale boosters, though during the Civil War, a confederate spy hid documents in a layer of fur wrapped around a dog which appeared to be its own coat. Sneaky. Happily the successful transmission of documents to General Beauregard did not help his cause, which has led to some speculation that the dog was in fact a double agent. Sneaky, sneaky! More recently, Stubby the Dog was the unofficial mascot of the 1st & 2nd Connecticut regiments during the Great War. As well as cheering up trench-bound soldiers, he gave early warnings about gas attacks and even discovered a hidden German Spy, who, once found, Stubby kept pinned in place until his human counterparts showed up! So two wars, two dogs, and two spy missions. Hmm. 👀👀

2. Mercy Dogs 

    Technically, this is a type of military dog, but such is their particular brilliance that they deserve their own section! So what is a mercy dog? Well, it’s a dog who is specially trained to find, triage, and even treat humans. YES REALLY. The ghastly scene is, once again, World War I, where up to 10,000 dogs served. Following battles, they would seek out injured soldiers, carrying treatment and first aid kits, and comfort those who were mortally wounded. They would then return to the trench and guide medics back to injured soldiers who could be treated, carrying with them a piece of the soldier’s clothing to identify him. They were trained to recognize and avoid enemy soldiers, and some of them even dragged wounded soldiers to safety. It is estimated that at least 6,000 lives were saved by dogs, amongst both the allied and the German forces, and, following the example of European nations who trained Mercy Dogs, the US developed its own training program, resulting in American dogs serving in World War II. 

    To all the dogs who have served the United States and her allies, in any capacity, we humbly thank you for your service.

    3. Guide Dogs

    The most familiar of the professional canines, and without a doubt, the most impactful, are the dogs who act as eyes, ears, noses, and, well, anything else you can think of to humans the world over. The precise length of the history of service dogs is not known, but there is a Roman fresco discovered in the ruins of the city of Herculaneum that depicts a dog leading a blind man, and medieval Chinese scroll paintings including similar scenes, so the imprecise answer is pretty long! Fast forward to 2023, and there are an estimated 500,000 dogs in the US who work as service animals. So how do they get to be so smart? Great question! A whopping 200,000 dogs enter training programs each year, with 30-40% of them completing training and graduating. We enquired as to the existence of canine commencement ceremonies, and lo and behold, they happen! What’s more, you can watch in person or on Zoom, and what’s more more, the next one is on May 23rd; why not log on or watch one of their past ceremonies? Amazing! But back to the point, this is the work of Canine Companions, a large, national network of professional pup programs and we couldn't be happier that they share their dogs’ achievements. This organization alone has trained more than 7,500 dogs since it was founded in 1976, and must have quite the photo album. I was founded in 1975 and have trained 0 dogs, service or otherwise, so it is most humbling. But back to the point! Thanks to dogs’ intelligence, quick responses, loyalty, bravery, and super-canine empathy, literally millions of people are enabled to live independently and safely and with frankly the world’s most brilliant companions.

    4. Therapy Dogs 

    A newer but no less awesome addition to the cannon of working dogs are therapy dogs, which can be found in all sorts of therapeutic and clinical settings. Regulars will recall - okay,may recall - that we asked about therapy dogs in our 2022 end of year quiz. It seems that emergency rooms are getting in on the act, using dogs to calm anxious patients, reduce their pain - YES REALLY! - and help promote a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere in what can be a chaotic and frightening place. Just 10 minutes with a specially trained dog has been shown to improve patient outcomes and enable staff to focus on clinical work and acute cases. Win win! As well as ERs, dogs are frequent visitors to pediatric wards and to residential elder care homes where they are almost without exception the most popular entertainers. Hugging and stroking a dog can reduce blood pressure, calm anxiety in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and boost the mood of seniors who may be suffering from depression. Anyone who has a dog of her own, or who has seen videos by Mo’s Mountain Mutts among many, many others) will be more than familiar with the restorative powers of the pack! Last but not least, dogs are even helping incarcerated people to learn new skills and manage their emotions in challenging circumstances. There is no end to the warmth and kindness of canines and we are here for it!

    5. Art Dogs!

    Again, we have come close to this topic before, when we documented the cats who keep the Hermitage Museum and its priceless treasures free from mice, but it turns out dogs are art lovers too! One dog in particular has turned his nose for detection into a unique and important role, to protect paintings in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston from moths and other insect invaders whose appreciation for the works is manifest in a rather destructive fashion. Riley, a 5 year old Weimaraner, began his career as a pup in 2018, and is now one of the museum’s most popular attractions. He has held press conferences and even been profiled in the New York Times - no mean feat for a Bostonian - all the while maintaining the quiet dignity, we mean dognity, of a man on a serious mission. Bravo! Riley is believed to have been the first dog trained to do this work, but certainly he won’t be the last. 

    There are countless other ways dogs work for good, and as dog lovers, we know that even the ones without official jobs never take a day off from being the smartest, kindest, and most loyal family members and friends. Simply put, dogs - all dogs - make humans better! Until next time, pack, that’s a wrap. You are all THE BEST!

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