Working dogs are amazing. You only have to watch a collie rounding up sheep to see how they know what to do, as if by magic. They can herd far better than a mechanical device or a person on a quad bike. However, there are all sorts of other ways that animals can help us. Dogs of all shapes and sizes can help with all sorts of jobs – they’re called assistance dogs.
Everyone’s heard of guide dogs. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association are one of the oldest animal charities, dating from 1931. They’ve even set up their own breeding programmes to make sure the dogs they use are perfect for what they need; this programme is attempting to eliminate hip problems and similar issues.
It takes between 18 months and two years to train a guide dog, and many dogs don’t make it through the stringent tests. But don’t worry, if the dogs aren’t good enough to become guide dogs, then they’re re-homed, not put down.
But assistance dogs aren’t just for the blind. Dogs can also help deaf people by alerting them to sounds they wouldn’t be able to hear – for example, door bells, telephones, alarms and so on. They’re trained to alert their owners by pawing at them and attracting their attention. This can be life saving if it’s something like a fire alarm.
There are assistance dogs for people who are physically less able; these can help with a variety of household tasks. Simple physical things like getting the washing out of the machine, fetching the post from the front door, and bringing your shoes can be done by a dog.
Dogs can also be helpful for autistic children. Children with autism seem to find the presence of animals calming and can often feel closer to them than people. And dogs can also be trained to do practical things to make life easier for them to cope with the world. The dogs can show children what they might have to do – for example, some dogs are trained to put their feet into the measuring device at a shoe shop to convince a child that it’s safe. Another simple thing that some dogs are trained to do is just to lie down. These dogs have a lead which is tethered from the collar to the child’s waist. This means that the child can’t run away; the dog lying down is a helpful anchor to make sure they’re kept safe.
Some dogs can be trained to help manage medical conditions. Because they’re so good at reading body language, dogs notice epileptics are going to have a fit before it happens. This means that they can warn an epileptic owner. This allows them to get to a safe place and lie down before the fit happens. This gives a freedom from worry that can revolutionise lives.
Dogs can also alert diabetics when their blood sugar is becoming dangerously low; a serious condition which can cause people to slip into a coma. This is particularly useful with children, who may be less good at managing their condition, and at night, as people who are asleep may not be woken by their blood sugar dropping. Although it’s not part of an official scheme, I also know of diabetics whose cats have woken them up when their blood sugar has become low, so this is obviously not a skill just possessed by dogs!
Dogs can save lives in other ways as well. We’ve all seen police sniffer dogs at airports and outside stadiums checking bags. They are excellent at picking up explosives and drugs, saving lives and making travel and public events much safer for us. These dogs are often spaniels, who have a really high drive to work. As very active dogs they’re often rewarded with something to play with, such as a tennis ball or a toy, rather than with treats.
But did you know that their noses can be put to other uses? Dogs are being used in trials to sniff out cancer both in direct contact with people and, amazingly, in labs testing blood or biopsy samples! A real life example of a “lab test”.
How lucky we are to share our lives with these fantastic creatures!