Many of us may see dogs as being faithful companions. However, there are also many working dogs who have real jobs, and serious ones at that. Join one of the UK’s leading dog food suppliers Feedem as they showcase how our four-legged friends play an important role in our society:
Also referred to as K-9s, police dogs receive specific training so that they are able to assist police and other law-enforcement officers in their line of duty. As such, police dogs may be tasked with protecting their handlers or chasing down and holding criminal suspects when they attempt to run away from the police.
The history of police dogs can be traced back to the 18th century, where police forces across Europe used bloodhounds to assist with their duties. However, it wasn’t until the First World War that countries such as Belgium and Germany formalised the training process and began to use dogs for specific tasks like guard duty.
On the topic of training, a dog must become experts in many areas before they go about their duties. They will need to complete basic obedience training so that they can obey the commands of their handler, for instance, as well as pass both endurance and agility training to help them jump over walls and climb stairs in their day-to-day work.
There are a number of police dogs in the UK today, if figures obtained by BBC News in 2014 are anything to go on. 37 police forces of the 48 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who were asked to supply data revealed that they had 1,983 police dogs in operation at the time of the request.
This data did also reveal that there had been considerable reductions in UK police dog units. Rick Nelson, who is on the Police Federation’s operational policing sub-committee, commented at the time: “If forces are serious about improving efficiency in times of budget cuts, they should look to increase their numbers of police dogs – doing the opposite is incredibly short-sighted.
“Dogs represent an extremely versatile policing tool. They don’t just provide a crucial component of public order policing but their assistance is invaluable across a range of situations from drugs and missing persons searches to firearms operations and everything in between.”
You are very likely to have come across a detection dog at some point in your life — after all, they carry out their work everywhere from airports and ports to festivals, concerts, exhibitions, schools, universities and prisons.
1973 is a key date in the history of detection dogs, as this was the year where PC ‘Spud’ Murphy trained his dog at the time to detect cannabis. Then in 1978, detector dogs began to work at the UK border. Initially, their task was to detect drugs but, according to this GOV.UK news piece, there were 74 highly-trained dogs found across the UK as of 2013. They are trained to search for everything from drugs to cash, firearms, products of animal origin, tobacco and smuggled people.
Head of Border Force detector dogs, Steve Elms, pointed out: “The dogs are a vital asset in securing the UK border from smugglers and illegal immigrants.
“We use detector dogs wherever people or goods enter or leave the UK. Their acute sense of smell and hunting instincts makes them an essential tool in our efforts to combat and deter smugglers and those seeking to avoid border controls.”
It is not just deterring crime that detector dogs are tasked with. There are also medical detection dogs based around the UK. As acknowledged by Medical Detection Dogs, dogs have the ability to detect tiny odour concentrations which work out at one part per trillion. To put this into context, this is the equivalent of being able to identify one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools. With this in mind, medical detection dogs are being used to detect diseases such as cancer much more quickly than by other medical means.
So how do detector dogs go about their jobs? For one, dogs which have exceptional senses of smell are selected for the task — Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels and Labradors are all common breeds, as they have a natural instinct to hunt and retrieve.
When it comes to training for the job, detector dogs are encouraged to play and search for their favourite toy (something like a tennis ball) from an early age. This item will be covered with a scent like tobacco or drugs in time. This is so that by the time they are ready to go out in the field, they will be looking for their favourite toy as opposed to wanting to find suspicious items like drugs.
Detector dogs will also be trained to give different forms of alert if they have found something suspicious. Those looking for drugs will provide an aggressive alert, for example, which will be in the form of digging and pawing at a spot. Doing these motions could be dangerous if the search is for something like a bomb, so in this instance the dog will be encouraged to give a passive alert such as sitting down near a suspicious spot.
Displaying outstanding physical and temperamental qualities, guide dogs help to break down barriers so that people who are blind or partially sighted can go out into the public on their own terms.
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact time that guide dogs came about — excavations in Pompeii found a wall-painting of a blind man apparently being led by his dog in AD79, for example, while there are records from Asia and Europe up to the Middle Ages which suggest instances where dogs have led blind people.
However, the First World War is a notable period for the beginning of the modern guide dog story. During this war, German doctor Dr Gerhard Stalling came up with the idea of training dogs en masse to help the thousands of soldiers who were returning from the Front blinded after seeing signs that his dog was looking after one of his blind patients. Another noteworthy date was in 1930, when British women Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond began training dogs to be guide dogs — a year later, the first four guide dogs in Britain completed their training and by the middle of the decade the UK’s Guide Dogs for the Blind Association had been founded.
As of 2015, Guide Dogs had found that there were 4,994 guide dog owners in the UK and the organisation was also responsible for an estimated 8,000 dogs at any one time, covering both working guide dogs and those in retirement.
Hilda Winters is a guide dog owner herself, with the 89-year-old acknowledging: “Having a guide dog has given me back my dignity, my reason to live. Until I had Isla I was ignored, had been attacked and was too frightened to leave the house. Now I feel like a human being again.”
Training a dog to become a guide dog is no walk in the park, with Guide Dogs stating that each partnership involves 20 months of training. This training will begin when a dog is just 6-8 weeks old, initially introducing them to the sights, smells and sounds of locations where they will likely go with their blind or partially sighted owner, such as buses, trains, shops and busy streets. While still a pup, the dogs will also be taught to walk ahead when on a leash instead of heeling, as well as obeying simple commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘down’ and ‘come’.
Around their first birthday, dogs who are training to become guide dogs will then spend a length of time learning procedures such as:
- How to walk in a straight line in the middle of a pavement unless an obstacle is preventing them from doing so.
- Refraining from turning corners unless directed to do so.
- Stopping at a kerb and then waiting for a command to cross a road —it is up to the owner to listen for traffic once stopped at a kerb and give the command of ‘forward’ once they decide it’s safe to cross, though a guide dog is taught to refrain from obeying the command when they see that a car is approaching.
- Instances when to turn left or right.
- Judging both the height and width of a route ahead to prevent their owner from bumping either their head or shoulders.
- Dealing with traffic.
Police dogs, detection dogs and guide dogs are just three examples of working dogs. From herding dogs to search and rescue dogs and therapy dogs, there are so many instances when a dog’s life is much more than giving a paw and longwalks.