A few weeks ago I met a rather unique new patient. This young beagle had recently moved up from Kansas, where she had just completed training to be registered as a bed bug dog. Bed bug detection dogs are in high demand right now throughout North America. Their ability to detect bed bugs in even low numbers makes managing possible infestations much easier.
The majority of dogs I see have only one job – being a companion to their loving families. I am always interested though in learning more about the various non-companion roles our canine friends have. The list of jobs for dogs is a very long one and continues to grow.
We are all familiar with dog guides for the visually impaired and other service dogs; search and rescue dogs, herding and sled dogs, but there are also some less familiar but equally important and interesting canine careers. In the category of ‘detection’ dogs, such as the bed bug sniffers, there are many highly specialized detection jobs that dogs have been successfully trained to perform. Besides police and customs dogs detecting drugs and other contraband, others have been trained to sniff out pirated DVD’s and illicit cell phones.
There are numerous websites, mostly in the US, that offer trained detection dogs for hire to sniff out everything from household molds to searching a teenager’s bedroom for a hidden stash.
Sniffing out sickness
One area that really gets my attention is dogs used in the detection of disease. For a number of years there has been a lot of attention paid to the fact that it seems dogs can be trained to detect specific scents associated with the presence of certain diseases, most notably certain cancers.
The notion that this may be possible was first suggested over 20 years ago but in the past six or seven years, more research has confirmed that in fact dogs can be trained to detect lung and breast cancer, some melanomas and other tumors with very high accuracy. While it’s hard to imagine it would be practical to train and manage a sufficient number of dogs to use for routine cancer screening, it’s very possible that further research will allow scientists to isolate exactly what these canine detectors are picking up, which could be the key to developing more practical tests.
Another area where dogs are being put to great use is in therapy. Therapy assisted by dogs has expanded well beyond visits to seniors and hospitalized children, where they have been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, alleviate anxiety and improve recovery rates after surgery. Therapy assistance dogs are used to help children with literacy problems, simply by being an attentive, non-judgmental audience for the child to read aloud to. There are programs where dog training is used in prisons to teach life skills to inmates. Also dogs have been used successfully to provide support to victims while testifying in courts.
Search and rescue
And of course, although not a new vocation for our hard working pooches, but rather one of their longest and most significant ‘working’ contributions, there is search and rescue. Countless lost hikers, avalanche and accident victims owe their lives to brave and dedicated working dogs. The recent 10th anniversary of 9/11, when hundreds of police and military dogs and their handlers gathered in Liberty State Park in Jersey City for a tribute to the dogs and handlers killed in service, was a proud testament to the huge contribution working dogs have made in our society.