Let loose the dogs of war
The presence of dogs in warfare dates back to 600BC, and in 1943 they were even given their own award, the PDSA Dickin Medal for gallantry. Military working dogs (MWDs) are trained for active use in battle, with their skills ranging from combat, to explosives detection, to message delivery. Some even know how to parachute or rappel with their handlers. Multi-purpose canines are trained specifically to join specialist teams on particular missions, such as Cairo – a Belgian Malinois – who joined SEAL Team Six on their raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Like human soldiers MWDs can suffer from PTSD and as such they are often retired in the care of specially trained owners.
On the alert
Some dogs are trained to support owners with conditions such as epilepsy by raising the alarm when they are having a seizure. Several have even learned how to block their owner’s fall, lie next to them to reduce injury, or operate a device that will alert medics. There have been reported instances of dogs able to sense when individuals are about to have a seizure and warn them before they do. Scientists are researching what other conditions or illnesses dogs can detect, with several believing they can be trained to identify cancer through their sense of smell.
Following the scent
Dogs are able to detect scents in one part per trillion – that’s the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic swimming pools. This skill means they can be trained to detect and respond to certain substances – be it the presence of drugs, dangerous chemicals, specific foods, or even money. This makes them invaluable to border control officers at airports or shipping yards. In some cases they are even used for routine checks at schools. People are currently looking at training detection dogs for the personal use of deadly-allergy sufferers so they can warn their owner of, for example, the presence of peanuts.
To the rescue
Many dogs – and not all of them pure-bred – are crucial members of search and rescue teams, locating people in caves and on snowy peaks, or tracking them across deserts and through rainforests. While some can follow specific scents for miles, others are deployed after natural disasters in order find survivors. The poster-puppy for rescue services, however, is probably the St Bernard. Bred on the Italian/Swiss border since the seventeenth century, the gentle giants would carry casks of alcohol to warm sick or injured travellers and lay over them in blizzards. As the older dogs teach younger ones specific responses, they can require less-intense training than some other breeds.
A safe pair of paws
The first attempt to train dogs to guide the blind occurred in Paris in the 1780s. Since then they have become some of the most widely used service dogs, with Labradors and Golden Retrievers being the most-popular breeds. That said, mixed-breeds are quickly rising in the ranks as methods of training branch out. Beginning their training at just six-weeks old, each dog learns how to navigate around obstacles and potential dangers before being carefully matched with a person in need. A few then undergo additional training such as fetching or operating items specific to that person’s requirements.
All terrain dogs
Sled dogs are some of few canines that are trained and deployed in teams, and are noted for having the highest endurance of any working dog. Before the invention of snowmobiles they provided crucial transportation for long-distance journeys across ice or snow, with up to 16 dogs pulling a sled. They were commonly used in places such as Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Finland, with the oldest-recorded being the Alaskan Husky, bred by Native Americans. These days, sled dogs are mostly used for racing and many have been bred recreationally to pull bikes in warmer locations. The traditional sled dog, however, still routinely works with Russian police on winter patrol, as well as park rangers, geographers and the occasional dedicated gold miner across the Arctic. Many remain essential for people living in rural communities around Greenland and Alaska.