By Dr. Bruce Little
September is National Service Dog Month, a time set aside to bring visibility to the general public about dogs that provide an essential service to individuals who need the dog’s help for mobility or protection, and sometimes even survival. Service dogs are those animals that perform a specific service for a designated individual. These dogs are trained to perform different tasks, such as seeing-eye dogs who give mobility to their owner, or dogs used to sniff out bombs or contraband at airports and other transportation centers. Service dogs have recently been trained to smell and identify certain disease processes, such as cancer, or to serve as ever-loyal companions to returning veterans who have Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Service dogs have been trained to smell out bed bugs that have infested a hotel or hospital space and may not be detected by any other means. Search and rescue dogs with their exceptional ability to smell and hear perform a needed benefit to first responders following a catastrophic event such as a tornado, earthquake or more recently an act of terrorism where buildings were bombed and destroyed. Service dogs can be of any breed or size. They must have a keen sense of smell and must be trainable to serve a certain function in order to be effective.
Since the beginning of recorded history there have been accountings of the value that dogs bring to a family in addition to the value of being “man’s best friend.” The Kings of ancient times, long before the birth of Jesus Christ, kept dogs to protect their flocks from predators and to protect their valuable possessions from thieves. Many of those leaders kept their dogs in their castles and created monuments for them in their expansive graves alongside their masters. Medical history tells us there was a concern in dogs for rabies infection since the times of Mesopotamia, as there was a law to assess a fine to people if they had a “mad dog” that bit another person. So, dogs have been a part of our lives for Centuries serving as companions, as sentinel dogs and as dogs that provide the service of protecting the sheep and cattle from those who would prey on the flocks and herds.
As the 20th Century came into focus, the utilization of dogs was expanded to include service dogs to perform duties such as seeing-eye dogs and hearing dogs. These dogs perform a function that aids those with such impairments to lead a mobile life through the use of the dog as their sight or hearing aid. The routine of those people so handicapped has become more flexible and productive through the use of trained dogs to serve those functions. During the great wars of the 20th Century dogs were used as sentinel dogs guarding supply depots and outposts from the enemy. They guarded carrier pigeon nests, sometimes the only means of communication between military units, and a most vital ingredient in fighting a complex war. Dogs served the purpose of sniffing out bunkers that contained guns and ammunition and attacked the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers returning from battle realized the value in bonding with the family pet in overcoming the psychological effects of returning from the stress of war zones. With the declaration of the War on Drugs in the post-World War II era, dogs were brought into use as “sniffer” dogs which were utilized to discover drugs being brought into the United States through transportation hubs such as airports and train stations. The recently renovated Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol utilizes trained dogs to not only sniff out caches of contraband; but, to help capture and retain illegal immigrants as they cross the border with various types of contraband being brought into the country for sale or distribution. Service dogs later became trained to sniff out explosives used in the same manner as drug sniffing dogs to prevent terrorists with explosives from boarding airplanes, trains and other modes of transportation. Service dogs are utilized in searching for explosive materials at most public gatherings where large audiences of people gather such as sporting events. Police dogs help to capture and retain bad guys who are being sought after in crime activities. There are a multitude of other types of service dogs that perform various functions for mankind.
I recently read about the use of courtroom dogs that are utilized in cases where witnesses, many times in the case of domestic abuse or family confrontations, are called to testify against an accused perpetrator who sometimes may be a member of their own family. It has been determined that a court room service dog in the company of a witness testifying face-to-face with the accused will be more relaxed and tranquil than if the witness were in that position of conflict by themselves. I have no experience with this type of service dog, but it does make sense that, if a person is being placed in a compromised position by testifying against a parent or known assailant face-to-face in the court room, the presence of a dog companion might help them to be more relaxed and help them bring closure by testifying about a horrifying experience.
Perhaps the most recognized organization that trains service dogs is Guide Dogs of America (GDA). This group breeds puppies of the proper size and temperament that is needed for a dog who is to become a constant companion for a blind person to give them mobility and protection. Guide dogs are raised from puppies and socialized by farming them out to private homes where they learn to be in company with people, other animals, the home environment, traffic and all the nuances of everyday life. After the puppy becomes approximately 18 months old, it is taken back by the trainers at Guide Dogs of America and taught to perform the duties of a seeing-eye dog. These dogs have a remarkable record of providing comfort and protection for their vision impaired partner in the home environment.
There are many groups, some local and some national in scope that train dogs for various service duties. Two such organizations are Canine Companions for Independence and Service Dogs Incorporated. These organizations are recognized groups that train dogs for people with physical disabilities such as seeing-eye dogs, hearing aid dogs, or people with disabilities. Service Dogs Incorporated trains dogs to perform a minimum of three custom tasks for a person with a disability. The exact behaviors are tailored to the individual, but common ones are retrieving dropped objects, opening doors, towing a lightweight wheelchair, bringing assistive devices such as canes or walkers to their partner, going for help and carrying light items. Both groups train dogs to help their partners be more active, comfortable in public and able to connect with others. These dogs are qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act to accompany their partner into public places such as restaurants, hotels, transportation stations, hospitals, schools and places of employment. This means the public behavior of the dog must be rock-solid. A service dog must not solicit attention or cause disturbances in public. Its attention must be focused on the partner, and it must be able to ignore distractions such as birds, squirrels or another dog. It also must remain calm in crowds and environments that may not be dog-friendly such as elevators, airports, train or bus stations, meetings and offices.
K9s for Warriors takes on a similar training strategy for their service dogs; however, their end goal is to create a companion for a returning soldier who has TBI or PSTD after returning from a war zone. These dogs are trained to be calm and soothing and always present, especially when they sense their partner is becoming anxious perhaps due to a flashback into the time in the war zone when the sights and sounds of battle cannot be erased from their memory. Large numbers of veterans experience those flashbacks, many times leading to thoughts of suicide. Too many of them follow through and commit suicide. These service dogs serve as companions, or comrades as it were, when the returning soldier needs companionship the most.
Perhaps the most gratifying service dog with which I am familiar was a one year old Chocolate Labrador that came into my animal hospital when I was a clinical veterinary practitioner. This beautiful animal was the victim of a disagreeable divorce, and was presented to the animal hospital for euthanasia rather than allowing the divorced spouse to take him. I convinced the mother and her three small children to let us try to find a nice home for the dog and they agreed. After some time, I noticed one of my veterinary technicians working with the dog in every spare moment, until one day, she asked if she could take the dog home to concentrate his training during all hours of the day and night. About six months later, there was an article in the local newspaper about a child with a severe, congenital muscle disease whose mother was trapped in duty with having to spend most hours of the day picking up after the child who utilized a canvas walker to move about the house. Every time the child dropped a toy off his tray, his mother had to run and pick up the toy to appease the child. My technician trained the dog to stay close to the child in his walker and pick up the toys as they dropped to the floor bringing the child satisfaction and contentment. About one year later, I found that the technician had trained the dog to awaken at 2:00 a.m. to roll the child over in bed since the child’s muscular disability prevented him from being able to roll over allowing the body fluids to circulate freely within his little body. The technician trained the dog to wake up to a small Christmas tree light activated by an electric timer, so that when the light came on the dog would roll the child over with his nose to his other side without the parents involvement. Granted, it took almost one year for the parents to trust the dog enough to discontinue getting up in the night to perform that function; but, once they had the confidence of the dog’s mission, they learned to sleep through the night. A wonderful outcome for all involved!
For more information on service dogs, go to:
Guide Dogs of America http://www.guidedogsofamerica.org
Canine Companions for Independence http://www.cci.org.
Service Dogs Incorporated http://www.servicedogs.org
K9s for Warriors http://k9sforwarriors.org