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A Brief History of Working Dogs

You probably haven’t heard of King Frederick II of Prussia, but you’ve almost certainly heard his most famous quote. Speaking about his love for his dapper Italian Greyhound in 1789, King Frederick II said that “A dog is man’s best friend.” 230 years later, his words still ring true.

Dogs and humans have lived in harmony for thousands of years. Part of what has contributed to their long-lasting fellowship is their ability to improve each other’s lives. Humans provide shelter, food and love to dogs, and dogs provide companionship and protection for humans. However, some dogs transcend the human-pet relationship and become working dogs.

Working dogs are dogs that are trained to regularly provide specific tasks to assist humans. This post will explore the history of the various types of working dogs, and provide some examples of the great work these helpful canines provide people.

Herding Dogs

Herding dogs have been a vital resource to sheep and cattle handlers for centuries. There are records of shepherds talking about the value of herding dogs that date as far back as the 16th century. Before that, dogs were used to help protect herds from predators. Ancient sculptures and tablets suggest that dogs have assisted humans in hunting and herding animals for thousands of years.

A combination of training and predatory instincts allows particular breeds of dogs to excel at herding. Herding dogs assist stockmen in moving livestock from point A to point B by steering the herd in a controlled and uniformed direction. Depending on the breed of dog and the type of livestock, herding dogs deploy different tactics to drive the herd.

Some herding dogs will nip at the heels of the livestock, some will work in teams to create a living fence surrounding the livestock to control their movement, and others will use their eyes to control the herd. Other dogs will use a combination of adjusting their speed and barking to herd the livestock.

Breeds that have demonstrated to be excellent herding dogs include but are not limited to:

Service Dogs

A service dog is used to assist people with disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing impairments, mental illnesses, epilepsy, mobility impairments, and diabetes. Dogs that possess a good temperament and friendly disposition, as well as a strong physical presence, generally turn out to be fantastic service dogs. While the traits that lead to a successful service dog are typically natural to the animal, most service dogs require specialized training to perform the tasks of the job. Service dogs are trained by organizations, private trainers or, in some cases, by their owner.

One of the earliest training programs for service dogs was founded in 1916 in Germany, where a school trained German Shepherds to serve as guides. The usage of service dogs received a major uptick during World War I and World War II, where dogs were used as messengers, scouts, and to boost the morale of soldiers. While not the same as what we recognize a seeing eye dogs today, for the time, the first pup to provide the invaluable services of what was then called a seeing eye dog was Buddy, who’s well-publicized service led to a large expansion in the use of Seeing Eye Dogs. Buddy’s exploits led to the opening of the Seeing Eye in New Jersey in 1929, an academy that trains Seeing Eye Dogs to assist the visually impaired. The organization continues their work today.

Another type of service dog is hearing dogs, who assist the hearing impaired. These special dogs communicate with their owners by nudging them with either their paws or their snouts in the event that there is a sound the owner should be aware of. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 permitted owners with disabilities to have their service dog with them in buildings such as shops, restaurants, airplanes, public buildings and other indoor facilities that animals were previously not allowed.

Some common breeds for service dogs are:

Search and Rescue Dogs

Search and rescue dogs have been locating lost people for over three hundred years. Some of the earliest records of dogs being used in a search and rescue capacity was in Switzerland and Italy by the elegant and imposing Saint Bernard breed. Among the tens of thousands of dogs that served in World War I were search and rescue dogs. Search and Rescue dogs helped medics locate injured soldiers, and assisted in helping lost and injured soldiers find their way back to camp. Due to their heroic efforts in World War I, search and rescue dogs were also used in World War II. In the United States, police started using search and rescue dogs, typically bloodhounds, to track down missing persons and escaped convicts starting in the 1960’s. The United States Military and law enforcement continue to use search and rescue dogs today.

Search and rescue dogs rely on their tremendous sense of smell to perform their work. Training search and rescue dogs is a time-consuming process, as the dogs require obedience, scent, agility and socialization training multiple times a week. Typically, search and rescue dogs are trained as puppies, and are ready for deployment between the ages of 12-18 months. A search and rescue dog’s handler also requires training.

Depending on the region, a variety of breeds are used as search and rescue dogs including:

Police Dogs

Police dogs, also known as K-9’s, have been utilized by law enforcement since the middle ages. Their early use was primarily to track down outlaws and runaways. In the late 19th Century, a pair of bloodhounds, named Barnaby and Burgho, aided London Police in the hunt for the infamous Jack the Ripper.

One of the key traits for a police dog to possess is obedience. Before joining the force, dogs are required pass a strict obedience training course. After passing this course, they are trained into a variety of areas. Police dogs utilize their superior sense of smell to assist law enforcement with detection. There are four primary categories of police dogs:

Sentry dogs

Sentry dogs, sometimes called attack dogs, are similar to search and rescue dogs and are utilized to locate and subdue suspects. Sentry dogs are extremely effective when a suspect if fleeing from police officers, as dogs can run faster and longer than humans.

Narcotics Dogs

Narcotics dogs are used to detect narcotics and alert their handler. Once trained, the dogs can detect illicit substances either on a person or in a building. You commonly will find narcotics dogs at the airport helping officers maintain a safe traveling environment.

Beagle Brigade

The Beagle Brigade is a team of beagles that are deployed at airports to sniff out unauthorized meats and foods. Beagles have a sensational sense of smell and they can detect smells that humans and detection devices fail to pick up. By detecting the contaminated foods, the Beagle Brigade prevents the potential spread of food and plant diseases.

Explosive Dogs

Explosive detecting dogs are very similar to narcotics dogs, except instead of smelling for illicit substances they detect explosive materials.

Cadaver Dogs

Cadaver dogs are trained to odors that are emitted by decomposing bodies.

A variety of breeds can be trained to be police dogs, but among the most common are:

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