Service Animals

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Service animals are those that work for humans doing particular tasks. These tasks may be as mundane as pulling plows or as sophisticated as finding underwater mines. Throughout history, animals have helped humans hunt wildlife, herd livestock, guard people and property, and wage warfare. Animals are also trained for more humanitarian causes, such as rescuing the lost and providing aid and comfort to people with certain physical and psychological needs.

Whatever the task may be, the common factor is that service animals help humans with their needs and desires. Some people see this as a clever use of resources. Many believe it is a mutually beneficial bond, but others see it as a form of slavery. Some animal rights activists believe that animals should not be used for any purpose by humans. While they rarely speak out against uses that the public views as benevolent, they are extremely critical of military uses of animals because the animals are exposed to great danger. This is also true for animals doing some police and rescue jobs.

Welfarists are also concerned that working animals should be trained and treated with care. Animal groups recommend that only positive reinforcement be used when service animals are trained. They also point out that service animals should be carefully screened to ensure that they are a good match with their potential human partners. Finally, they remind people that the needs of service and assistance animals must be considered along with the needs of the people being served. In general, however, welfarists tend to support programs that train service and therapeutic animals because so many of these programs rescue homeless animals from shelters.


The first service animals were probably dogs domesticated from wolves around 13,000 b.c. Humans learned to use the natural instincts and skills of the dogs to help them chase down and capture prey. As other animals were domesticated over the next 10,000 years, they too became useful for doing tasks.

All ancient cultures put animals to work. At first, the primary focus was feeding people. Societies dependent on hunting used dogs to help them and also enlisted more exotic species, such as mongooses and birds of prey. Agricultural societies had different needs. They used cats to protect the grain supplies and dogs to protect and herd livestock. Herding is actually a controlled form of hunting. Wolf packs sometimes hunt by sending a few of the fastest members out to circle prey and chase it back toward the remainder of the group. This instinct to chase and contain prey is associated with herding breeds of dogs, such as collies, sheepdogs, and cattle dogs. Some herding dogs even nip at the heels of livestock to move them along.

Oxen, donkeys, camels, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden pulled plows in the fields, carried loads on their backs, and pulled carts to market. Even small farm animals were put to work. Sheep and pigs were led across fields at planting time to step on seeds and push them into the ground. Sheep were also used to trample on grain to thresh it after it was harvested.

As civilizations grew, they developed public services and engaged in commerce and warfare with each other. This required animals that could travel well. Horses became very important as a means of transportation and in delivering mail. Many historians credit King Darius the Great (550–486 b.c.) of Persia with establishing the first elaborate postal system to use horses. The Roman Empire's postal system used horses for "express" mail and oxen for less urgent deliveries. Some ancient societies also used carrier pigeons to deliver important messages.

The military use of animals has a very long history. Many horses, camels, and even elephants were ridden into battle by soldiers and died along with them. Armies used beasts of burden to haul their ammunition and supplies. Some smaller animals also had military uses. For example, carrier pigeons and dogs made effective battlefield messengers.

Valuable Traits Encouraged

The role of service animals in hunting, agriculture, transportation, and warfare changed little over thousands of years. Breeding was manipulated to produce strains that served particular purposes. This was especially true for horses and dogs.


According to anthropologist Sandra L. Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, "The horse has had a bigger impact on societies through the ages than any other animal" (

Archaeologists believe that prehistoric horses were small, only about twelve hands (four feet) tall. They probably were too small to even be ridden by humans. Horses were hunted and later farmed for meat. Over time the largest, strongest, and fastest were mated with each other to provide desired characteristics. Around 4,000 b.c. ancient humans decided to put horses to work. Archaeological excavations in the Ukraine dating to this time period have uncovered horse teeth showing signs of wear, likely from a bit or other control device held in the mouth. These devices were improved and expanded over the years to provide greater versatility. Horses graduated from pulling carts and chariots to carrying riders.

Horses became invaluable to humans. The development of Western civilization would not have been possible without their services. They carried riders, pulled carriages and stagecoaches, and did all manner of jobs. American colonists and pioneers relied heavily on horses to settle new frontiers and to deliver news and mail. Horses reached their heyday in the Old West of the nineteenth century. The Pony Express is a famous example of their historical importance. This mail delivery system operated from April 1860 to November 1861 between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, a distance of more than 1,900 miles. (See Figure 8.1.)


Dogs were highly valued by many ancient societies, including the Greeks and Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, dogs in Europe mostly lost their status as working animals. Many were left to fend for themselves and became half wild (feral). They roamed in packs, terrorizing villages and stealing livestock for food. Millions of dogs (and cats) were killed by superstitious people who feared that they were agents of evil. Dogs were accused of being werewolves, and cats were accused of witchery. Both were massacred during times of plague.

Dogs were still valued in hunting and herding, particularly by noblemen, aristocrats, and other landowners. Some dogs performed other roles. For example, during the eighteenth century, Dalmatians were used as carriage dogs. They could run alongside and underneath a carriage for miles and guide horses through busy streets. They also kept other small animals out from under the horses' feet and protected riders from thieves and highwaymen.

European colonists brought dogs with them to America and found that Native Americans were already using them for hunting, sentry duty, and sled pulling, and as pack animals. Eventually, the colonists used trained dogs to attack Native Americans in battle.

Changing Roles

In the United States, service animals continued in their traditional roles until the late 1800s. Then the urbanization and innovations of the Industrial Revolution slowly eliminated the need for many of them. Motorized vehicles took over nearly all of the work formerly done by horses and beasts of burden in transportation, warfare, and agriculture. Over the next century, many people turned to electronics instead of dogs to guard their property and to chemicals instead of cats to kill rodents. Some vital tasks previously performed by working animals have become activities of sport and recreation—for example, hunting and herding with dogs and using horses to pull carriages.

The use of animals (particularly dogs) in military and public service, however, continues to grow. In addition, animals serve as aides and provide companionship and therapy to people with specific physical and mental needs.


Early Times

Hunting was the first task in which animals were put into service to humans. Prehistoric hunters took advantage of the natural instincts and skills of carnivorous (meat-eating) animals, like dogs, which had been domesticated from wolves. The hunters trained the dogs to accompany them on hunts and turn over any captured prey. Prehistoric cave paintings show humans and dogs cooperating to pursue and capture large prey.

The ancient Egyptians used a variety of animals to help them hunt, including dogs, mongooses, and birds of prey. A drawing in a Cairo museum shows a man hunting waterfowl along the Nile River with his mongoose. Mongooses were considered sacred and were called "Pharaoh's cats."


Falconry is thought to date back to around 2,000 b.c. in China. It is a form of hunting conducted with the use of trained birds of prey, such as falcons, hawks, owls, or eagles. These birds are also called raptors. Falconry was particularly important in the Middle East and is discussed at length in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. It became popular among European nobility during the Crusades and was fashionable until the invention of firearms.

Falconry is still practiced today as a sport in the United States. (See Figure 8.2.) According to the Falconry Experience, a falconry school in California, there were approximately 7,000 licensed falconers in the United States as of 2005. Falconry has very strict licensing requirements because it uses wild birds that are protected species. Animals commonly hunted using falconry are rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, quail, and waterfowl.


Dogs have historically been used in hunting. In the United States, dogs are used to hunt upland game birds and waterfowl, such as pheasant, quail, partridge, ducks, and pigeons. Dogs are also used to hunt squirrels, bears, raccoons, mountain lions, foxes, and other prey. The primary dog breeds used in hunting are beagles, spaniels, griffons, retrievers, setters, pointers, and hounds. Dogs that hunt mostly by scent are called scent hounds, and dogs that hunt mostly by sight are called sight hounds. Hunting dogs perform a variety of tasks, including tracking prey, pointing prey out to the hunter, and retrieving downed prey after it is shot.


Hunting with dogs has become a controversial issue in some areas where it is common. In April 2003 the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported on increasing conflicts in south Georgia between hunters using dogs and landowners (Stacy Shelton, "Hunters Howling," April 13, 2003). Dog running, as it is called, is a long-standing tradition in rural areas of the state. Landowners accused hunters of letting their dogs trespass onto private property during deer-hunting season (mid-October to mid-January). Hunters said that property owners were being unreasonable and had killed at least one hunting dog. The landowners claimed that hunters had threatened them and told them that they should fence their property if they did not want hunting dogs on it.

In July 2003 the Georgia legislature passed a bill to severely restrict the hunting of deer with dogs in the state. It can only be conducted on large pieces of property of at least 1,000 acres. The owners or lessees of the property must obtain a permit from the state prior to allowing a hunt. All hunters have to label their dogs and vehicles with the permit number. In this way, trespassers can be easily identified and reported to authorities. Some companies that own huge tracts of land in south Georgia, such as the International Paper Company, have decided not to allow hunting with dogs on their property anymore.

One particularly controversial form of hunting conducted with the help of dogs and horses is fox hunting. Hunters on horseback pursue foxes across the countryside using packs of hounds. Though fox hunting has been practiced in the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, animal welfare groups have been trying to get it outlawed since the 1940s because they consider it cruel to the foxes. In February 2002 Scotland passed a bill outlawing mounted hunting with dogs. After much political maneuvering, a similar bill was passed in England and Wales that went into effect in February 2005. The debate over the bill in the U.K. was generally divided between social classes, with upper-class landowners opposing it. Fox hunting has traditionally been a sport of the wealthy in the U.K., including members of the royal family. The most prestigious foxhunting club in the country is operated by the Duke of Beaufort and dates back to the 1700s. According to the Associated Press, the Duke's club staged a mock fox hunt after the law went into effect as a form of social protest ("Four Arrested as Brits Test Limits on Hunting," February 19, 2005). Four people not part of the club were arrested for using dogs to hunt hares (rabbits). The new law bans the hunting of any mammal with the use of dogs.

In February 2005 the Paris-based newspaper International Herald Tribune reported that there are 169 recognized fox hunts each year in the United States (Brian Knowlton, "Americans Going to Dogs," February 10, 2005). This number has reportedly grown over the last decade as fox hunting becomes more popular in the country. A spokesperson for PETA said, "I can't think of a more cruel way for an animal to die; to be pursued to the point of exhaustion, then ripped apart." The fox hunters at Elkridge-Hartford, a private hunting club in rural Maryland, defend their sport as a conservation measure for foxes. Club members own thousands of acres of undeveloped property around the area. A club official noted that "there wouldn't be all the fox we chase if it wasn't for fox hunting."


Animals have been used to guard people and property from various threats for tens of thousands of years. Prehistoric humans were the first to figure out that dogs could warn them of the approach of wild animals. The ancient Greeks and Romans used dogs to guard their towns and military fortresses.

Guard duty encompasses several tasks performed by animals. One is to alert humans to danger. Another is to provide physical protection from danger. Many animals can provide alerts but not protection. For example, canaries were once used in mines to warn miners that dangerous gases were present. Because canaries are sensitive to very small dosages of these gases, their deaths gave the miners time to leave dangerous areas before they too were overcome. This was not a trained or voluntary response by the canaries. By contrast, dogs can alert people to an approaching predator and defend them against it.

Today dogs are still the most popular type of guarding animals. Besides their traditional guard duties, dogs are increasingly used to warn humans about impending natural phenomena, such as earthquakes. For years, researchers have been studying claims that dogs can somehow sense when an earthquake is about to happen. The speculation is that dogs may hear rumbling noises or sense vibrations occurring deep within the earth that precede actual ground movement.

Guarding Livestock

Historically the best guards for livestock (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) have been dogs. Guard dogs protect livestock from common predators, such as coyotes, mountain lions, bears, and wild dogs. This is one job that dogs continue to do on a regular basis.

Livestock guard dogs do not herd the animals and have been bred not to chase or harm them. The most common breeds used in the United States are Great Pyrenees, Komondors, Akbash, Kangal, Kuvasz, Anatolian shepherds, and Maremma. These are large dogs when fully grown, weighing at least seventy-five pounds. The dogs live with the herds and are generally calm and peaceful unless a predator is detected. Then the dogs will chase the predator away.

Llamas and donkeys are also used as guard animals by some sheep producers in the western United States. In 2003 National Geographic reported that llamas have natural aggressive tendencies toward canines, such as coyotes. Llamas that spot a predator near their sheep will strike defensive postures, sound alarm cries, and run toward the predator while kicking at the air. Sheep farmers in western states have found that llamas are even more effective guards than dogs. Llamas and donkeys are both naturally protective of sheep and aggressive toward coyotes and wild dogs. But they are afraid of mountain lions and bears. Their main advantages are that they live longer and are less prone to accidents than guard dogs. In the Alps, donkeys are also used to guard sheep.

Guarding Territory and People

Dogs are also the most popular animal used for guarding territory and people. This job requires large breeds that are strong, protective, and very territorial. The breeds most often used for this work are Doberman pinschers, Rottweilers, Komondors, German shepherds, and Chows.

Guard dogs are not the same as watchdogs. Watch-dogs bark when a stranger approaches them or their territory. Even small dogs, like Chihuahuas, make good watchdogs. Guard dogs are intended to scare away and even attack intruders. Many guard dogs are employed by security companies. They work with handlers and human guards to patrol sites or protect individuals. Other guard dogs work without human accompaniment. They are placed on commercial and industrial properties, such as junkyards, at night.

Animal welfarists are highly critical of the use of unaccompanied guard dogs at commercial and industrial sites. They claim that these working dogs are given a minimum amount of food, water, and veterinary care, are kept in isolation in very dangerous environments, and are treated cruelly to instill aggressive behavior.

Friends of Animals is a nonprofit animal welfare group headquartered in Darien, Connecticut. The winter 2002–03 issue of the group's newsletter, ActionLine, describes the hardships endured by some New Jersey guard dogs (Megan Metzelaar, "Guard Dog Update"). According to the article, many guard dogs are leased from security companies. They are rotated around to different properties so that the dogs will not become accustomed to and possibly friendly with people in that area. The constant uncertainty makes the dogs feel vulnerable and insecure, which makes them even more aggressive. Critics say that the constant movement also makes it difficult for concerned people to monitor the condition of the dogs and report abuse and neglect to authorities.


The dictionary definition of "manual labor" is work that requires physical skill and energy. One of the first great civilizations to put animals to work was the ancient Egyptians. They used a variety of animals for transportation and as beasts of burden or pack animals, mainly donkeys, oxen, camels, horses, and hinnies. (A hinny has a horse for a father and a donkey for a mother.) These animals were also used to pull plows in the fields and to thresh grain in mills. During the Middle Ages, humans developed effective animal control devices such as stirrups, collars, and shoes that allowed animals to work even harder.

In the United States, mechanized equipment has replaced most of the work done by beasts of burden. Draft horses and mules are still used by a few farmers, particularly those in communities that use traditional farming techniques, such as the Amish.

Nearly all developing countries rely heavily on draft animals for agricultural work. (See Figure 8.3.) According to the Food and Agriculture Office (FAO) of the United Nations, horses, mules, cattle, buffalo, donkeys, and camels are widely used to help farmers plow, plant, and weed crops, and in transportation, hauling, logging, and land excavation. The FAO reports that even developing countries such as India, Mexico, and Brazil still rely on animal power to do many tasks.

In the United States, some tasks historically performed by animals have become activities of leisure. For example, entrepreneurs in many large cities offer carriage rides to tourists. (See Figure 8.4.) Animal welfarists are very critical of these ventures, saying that carriage horses are forced to work under hazardous conditions on city streets crowded with traffic and often do not receive proper housing and care.

On its Web site in 2005, the horse protection group Equine Advocates listed tragedies involving carriage horses that occurred between 1994 and 2000. Several horses have been hit by cars and at least one was electrocuted. The group says that horse-drawn carriage rides have been banned in several major cities for humane reasons.

In her 1997 book The Horse: The Most Abused Domestic Animal (self-published), animal welfarist Greta Bunting listed a host of problems associated with commercial carriage horses:

  • The horses work long hours and are exposed to bad weather, dangerous traffic, and exhaust fumes.
  • The horses are not fed and watered as often as they should be by their operators in order to cut down on "messes" on the streets.
  • The horses experience many leg and hoof problems from walking repeatedly on asphalt and concrete surfaces.
  • Some of the horses do not receive proper veterinary care.
  • Retired carriage horses are often sent to the slaughterhouse.


Over the years, creative humans have found some unusual jobs for animals to do. Europeans have long used dogs and pigs to seek out truffles. Truffles are small fungi that grow underground. They are highly prized in gourmet cooking and are rare and expensive, selling for up to $1,000 per pound in 2005. Edible truffles are found primarily in the forests of France and Italy and in the American Northwest.

Truffle-hunting dogs and pigs are able to sniff out truffles and dig them up. Sows are particularly useful for this task because truffles emit a fragrance that is similar to a hog's sexual hormone. Although sows require less training than dogs to find truffles, they are also more prone to eat the fungi when they find them. Well-trained truffle-hunting dogs sell for as much as $20,000. They are much more mobile than sows and can travel better over rough terrain.

The incredible ability of dogs to sniff out particular odors has been put to use in other fields as well. During the past decade dogs have been put to work in the mold and pest control industries. These detector dogs sniff out colonies of destructive termites and mold spores in and under homes. Companies claim that the dogs are able to squeeze into tight crawlspaces and smell through walls—tasks that human inspectors cannot do.

One facility that trains termite and mold-detecting dogs is the Florida Canine Academy (FCA). According to owner Bill Whitstine, dogs are better than electronic sensing devices at pinpointing hidden problem areas in a house. This saves the homeowner money because demolition of walls and floors is not needed. Also, people can spot-treat infested areas rather than blanket-treat the entire structure.

The primary breeds used for this type of work are beagles, rat terriers, Labrador retrievers, Jack Russells, and border collies. Dogs trained at FCA receive 800 to 1,000 hours of training in obedience, odor identification, building searches, socialization, and riding in vehicles.


Law enforcement agencies around the world use animals (mostly dogs and horses) to help them perform security work. Dogsare, by far, the most common animals used.


Many dogs are used by U.S. law enforcement agencies at the local and national levels to perform important tasks. These agencies include police and sheriff departments, arson investigators, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Department of Customs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Corrections, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The dogs are specially trained to work with officers during searches and arrests and to sniff out illegal substances. Dogs have incredibly sensitive noses. Their sense of smell is several thousand times better than that of humans. Dogs can smell tiny quantities of substances and can distinguish particular scents with amazing accuracy. This natural ability has proven to be an extremely useful tool in law enforcement applications.

Many of the dogs used in law enforcement are rescued from dog pounds and animal shelters or donated by owners. The dogs undergo extensive training along with their potential handlers. German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers are some of the most popular breeds used. Beagles are preferred for many sniffing jobs because they have an especially keen sense of smell.

The use of dogs by local police dates back to nineteenth-century Europe. British policemen on patrol often took their pet dogs with them as they walked the streets. Many police stations had mascot dogs just for this purpose. The successful use of dogs by military units during World War I (1914–18) brought added attention to the use of dogs in police work. During the 1930s British police set up official programs for the training and use of police dogs.

In 1907 the New York City police department (NYPD) incorporated police dogs into its work. However, the value of dogs for this work was not immediately recognized in the United States. They were used by only a dozen police forces through the early 1950s. Police dogs were sometimes used for intimidation purposes during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. (See Figure 8.5.)

The United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) was founded in 1971. The organization works to establish minimum standards for the training of police dogs in searching buildings and other areas for suspects and evidence, tracking criminals and lost people, pursuing and apprehending fleeing criminals, and protecting their human handlers.

Police dog work is very dangerous for the dogs. Many have died on duty. In 2005 the USPCA began a campaign to establish a national law enforcement animal memorial to honor police dogs and other animals that have died in the line of duty. On its Web site the organization asked law enforcement officials to register the names of such animals. The USPCA planned to verify the names and seek funding for a memorial. In 2000 a charity called Pennies to Protect Police Dogs, Inc., was started by a twelve-year-old Florida girl. As of February 2005, the organization had raised more than $225,000 to provide 395 custom-fit bulletproof and stab-resistant vests to police dogs employed at 145 agencies in twenty-seven states. Each vest costs around $600.

Many fire departments use dogs as part of their arson investigation teams. Arson dogs are specially trained to sniff for the presence of accelerants, such as gasoline, at sites where arson is suspected. Because of their incredible sense of smell, arson dogs can detect tiny amounts of accelerants lingering on surfaces inside buildings and vehicles or on people's clothes. The dogs indicate a find either by sitting or attempting to gain eye contact with their handlers. Because arsonists often hang around the scene of the crime, arson dogs are discreetly led through crowds gathered to watch fires to sniff for the presence of accelerants on people's clothing or belongings. Any suspicious finds are subjected to detailed laboratory testing.

Federal agencies that guard U.S. borders have used dogs since the 1970s. In 1970 the U.S. Customs Service began using dogs to sniff out narcotics being smuggled into the country at major border crossings. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also used dogs to help intercept illegal aliens and prevent smuggling. The USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) employed dogs at international airports and border crossings to sniff people's luggage for banned plant and animal products. People sometimes try to sneak in items that could pose a disease threat to America's crops and animals. By 2001 dozens of dogs were part of the USDA's Beagle Brigade.

In 2003 these agencies were grouped together into the Department of Homeland Security. The canine resources of the individual agencies were combined into a new agency called U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The CBP reported in 2005 that it had more than 1,250 canine teams in operation. Many are stationed at airports, seaports, and border crossings around the country. In 1998 the federal government began a breeding program to develop Labrador retrievers specifically for detection work. Puppies are kept in a breeding facility until they are twelve weeks old and then raised by foster families until they are about a year old. In 2003 the program was expanded to allow selected prisons around the country to become foster facilities under the Puppies Behind Bars program.

Federal officials report that CBP dogs have discovered millions of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs hidden in vehicles and cargo entering the United States. During 2001 they led customs agents to more than one million pounds of marijuana and 26,000 pounds of cocaine, resulting in the arrest of nearly 8,000 people. More than $20 million in cash was also confiscated. In 2003 a CBP dog named Crazy Joe was credited with uncovering more than $10 million in illegal drugs at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Drug-sniffing dogs are also sometimes used in schools. (See Figure 8.6.)


Horses have been used in law enforcement work for centuries. They were the fastest and surest form of transportation for officers for many years. Even after cars became common, many law enforcement agencies continued to use mounted patrols. (See Figure 8.7 for a photo of mounted police in action in the 1940s.) According to the Web site, there are hundreds of jurisdictions around the United States that use horse-mounted officers.

Mounted units are popular in both rural and metropolitan areas. According to information on the Web site of the United Mounted Peace Officers of Texas in 2005, Texas authorities use about 100 horses for patrols around the state. They are particularly useful in backcountry areas on dirt roads and rugged terrain. Several large U.S. police departments use mounted patrols for crowd control and to provide greater visibility of officers on the streets.

In 1871 the New York police department established a mounted unit to help officers control reckless carriage drivers and riders. It was responsible for 429 arrests during its first year alone. By the turn of the century, the program used nearly 400 horses and was responsible for crowd control during strikes, rallies, parades, and other public demonstrations. As of February 2005, the NYPD was using approximately 100 horses. All of them were geldings (castrated males) between the ages of six and twenty years that were housed at six stables located throughout the city. The horses are donated by owners or purchased specifically for use in the program.

Mounted units are not without controversy. There have been injuries to horses, police, and members of the public. Because mounted units often perform crowd control during protests and demonstrations, the horses and the riders are exposed to people who may be angry and confrontational. There are reports of police horses being pelted with marbles and even garbage. Protesters claim that police often charge their horses into crowds, knocking over and injuring people.

Walking for many hours on city streets under stressful conditions is not easy on the horses. A few instances are reported each year of police horses throwing off or kicking their riders.


Search and rescue (SAR) and body recovery work are performed by a variety of public service agencies in conjunction with private organizations. Animals that assist in SAR work are generally considered very valuable and noble by modern societies. These animals, primarily dogs, use natural and learned behaviors to help find missing humans, rescue people in danger, and recover bodies after disasters strike.

Many of the talents that were bred into dogs to assist in hunting, fishing, and herding have proved very useful in SAR tasks. For example, dogs originally bred to track down animals during hunting are now used to track down missing people. These dogs help find escaped criminals, kidnap victims, children that have wandered away, lost hikers, and many other people in need. Historians believe that bloodhounds were first used for "mantrailing" during the sixteenth century.

Newfoundland dogs were originally valued by Canadian fishermen because they showed a natural ability to retrieve items and people that fell overboard. Today they patrol European beaches along with human lifeguards. Saint Bernards were bred from sturdy cow-herding dogs in Switzerland. Monks living in the snow-covered mountains used the dogs to find lost travelers and people buried in avalanches. German shepherds were bred to be intelligent, diligent, and hardworking sheepherders. These traits are useful in a variety of SAR operations. In fact, some SAR agencies accept only German shepherds into their training programs.

According to the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), there are hundreds of SAR dog units across the country. The breeds most often used for this work are German shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, golden retrievers, giant Schnauzers, and Labrador retrievers.

One of the most remarkable displays of SAR dogs in action occurred after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. More than 350 dogs scoured the rubble of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, along with their human trainers, looking for survivors and corpses. Dog units participated from all over the United States and from foreign countries. The work was very difficult. SAR dogs suffered from paw cuts and burns, dehydration, burning eyes, and psychological stress. Some handlers reported that their dogs became depressed after not finding any live victims and could not eat or sleep normally. Campaigns were begun to collect donated booties and other items needed by the SAR dogs who participated in helping during the 9/11 aftermath, and donations poured in from around the world.


Animals that provide for the physical and mental well-being of humans are perhaps the most admired of all working animals. They guide, aid, assist, and comfort people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities, impairments, and problems.

Aiding the Physically Impaired

Many people troubled with physical impairments rely on trained dogs to improve their quality of life. Assistance Dogs International, Inc. (ADII), is a coalition of nonprofit organizations that train and place assistance dogs. According to ADII, assistance animals fall into three broad categories:

  • Guide animals for the blind and visually impaired
  • Hearing animals for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • Assistance animals for those with other physical or disabilities

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals must be allowed access to all facilities and transportation vehicles that are open to the public. This means that service animals and their partners must be permitted to enter stores, restaurants, public transportation, airplanes and trains, and other businesses. A service animal is defined as any animal "individually trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability."

Many organizations that train service animals recommend that the animals wear colorful vests that identify them as service animals. These vests may display in large letters "Service Animal" or "Working Animal" and "Do Not Pet." Several companies sell such vests, as well as identifying patches and bandanas, for guide animals.


Guide dogs have been trained to assist blind people for nearly two centuries. In 1819 Johann Klein founded a training institute in Vienna, Austria. Although Klein wrote about his work, it received little notice for another century. Following World War I, German doctors established the first known training school for guide dogs to assist soldiers blinded during the war. During the 1920s, a wealthy American woman named Dorothy Eustis wrote a magazine article, "The Seeing Eye," about the German school for the Saturday Evening Post. Eustis was a dog trainer at the time, working in Switzerland.

A blind American man named Morris Frank heard about the guide dogs and asked Eustis to train one for him. In exchange he promised to start a training school in the United States. Frank and his trained dog Buddy, a German shepherd, became the first guide dog team in the United States. Frank's school, the Seeing Eye, was founded in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1929 and was still in operation in 2005. According to the school's Web site, it has trained and placed more than 12,000 guide dogs for the blind throughout its history.

The school breeds its own German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers. Puppies are raised by volunteer foster families until they are eighteen months old. At that time, the dogs return to the school to attend a four-month training program conducted by certified trainers. Then the dogs are matched up with blind owners, and both undergo a twenty-seven-day training regimen.

The dogs learn to follow directional commands from their owners, such as "forward," "left," and "right." The dogs are taught to disobey a command if doing so would lead the blind person into danger. Blind people with guide dogs say that well-meaning sighted people sometimes interfere with their activities by distracting and petting the dogs or pulling on their harnesses. Figure 8.8 shows a guide dog at work with its owner. According to the Seeing Eye, guide dogs for the blind typically work for seven to eight years and are then adopted as pets by their owners or others.

Another famous training program is called Guide Dogs for the Blind. It was founded in California in 1942 with the primary purpose of training guide dogs for veterans blinded during World War II (1939–45). As of 2005, the organization had large campuses in California and Oregon. One of its graduates became famous following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—a guide dog named Roselle led a blind man named Michael Hingson down seventy-eight floors to safety after the World Trade Center was hit.

Guide Dog Users, Inc. (GDUI), is an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. The organization reports increasing problems with attacks on guide dogs by aggressive dogs while walking on city streets. It wants state laws enacted that will protect blind people and their guide dogs from any harassment or obstruction. In December 2001 GDUI published the booklet A State Legislator's Handbook on Guide Dog Protection, which describes attacks on guide dogs and their devastating physical, emotional, and financial consequences. GDUI estimates that it costs up to $60,000 to properly train a guide dog team.

Dogs are not the only animals that guide the blind. In 1999 a retired horse trainer, Janet Burleson, established the Guide Horse Foundation in Kittrell, North Carolina, to train miniature horses to do this work. Miniature (or pygmy) horses stand about two feet tall and are known for their calm and intelligent nature. Burleson started the foundation after successfully teaching her own miniature horse to guide a blind woman around a busy shopping mall.

Guide horses have several advantages over guide dogs. First, they live much longer—an average of thirty to forty years, more than twice the average life span of a dog. This longevity appeals to many blind people who want to keep the same guide animal for many years because of the close bond that forms between them. Guide horses are also more suitable for people who are allergic to or afraid of dogs. The training of guide horses is reportedly much less expensive than that of guide dogs.


Hearing dogs are specially trained to alert their deaf or hard-of-hearing owners to particular noises, such as a doorbell, knock at the door, oven timer, crying baby, alarm clock, or smoke alarm. When the dogs hear these noises, they make physical contact with their owners and lead them to the source of the noise. Hearing dogs are usually small- to medium-sized mixed breeds. The nonprofit group Dogs for the Deaf, Inc., of Central Point, Oregon, reported on its Web site in 2005 that it has rescued, trained, and placed approximately 600 shelter dogs to work as hearing guides.


Service dogs do a variety of tasks for people with debilitating conditions, such as paralysis, lameness, epilepsy, or Parkinson's disease. The dogs are trained to pick up dropped items, fetch objects (such as a phone), pull wheelchairs, open and close doors, turn light switches on and off, and perform other tasks as needed. They can even assist people who are unsteady on their feet by providing a means of support and balance. Some service dogs are trained to summon help if their partner needs it. The most common types of service dogs are Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, but many training organizations use mixed-breed dogs rescued from animal shelters.

"Seizure alert dogs" are trained to identify signs—generally undetectable to humans—that their human companion is going to have a seizure. Some dogs have demonstrated an ability to predict when a person is going to have a seizure up to an hour before it happens. No one knows exactly how these dogs know when a person is going to have a seizure, but some scientists speculate that the dogs may be aware of certain physical or behavioral changes such as dilated pupils or slight changes in skin color or facial expressions that occur. The dog may be trained to remain with the person throughout the seizure, sometimes lying on top of them to steady them and prevent injury, and helping them up afterward.

The organization Independence Dogs, Inc., in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania, provides service dogs to patients with Parkinson's disease. The dogs are specially trained to nudge walking patients who suddenly freeze because they forget they are moving. The dogs also act as a safety crutch in case a patient stumbles and begins to fall.

Some service dogs are trained specifically to assist children with disabilities. Loving Paws Assistance Dogs is a nonprofit organization based in Santa Rosa, California. The group trains service dogs for children with spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and other disabling conditions. According to estimates on the organization's Web site in 2005, training of a service dog can cost in excess of $30,000.

Other animals beside dogs also work as service animals. The organization Helping Hands in Boston, Massachusetts, trains capuchin monkeys to assist quadriplegic people with their daily activities. Capuchin monkeys are more commonly known as "organ grinder" monkeys. They are small, intelligent animals with limber hands and friendly dispositions. They assist paralyzed people by fetching items, retrieving things that are dropped, and turning lights on and off. Like all service animals, the monkeys also provide much-needed companionship to their human partners.


Although the vast majority of service animals are greatly appreciated for their work, there have been cases of abuse. In February 2002 a blind man in Pennsylvania was charged with brutally killing his guide dog, Inky. The man allegedly went into a rage while intoxicated and kicked the dog to death. He was sentenced to up to twenty-three months in prison and ordered to pay $1,000 to a guide dog association. Animal welfarists use the case to point out that service animals and their human partners must be carefully screened and monitored to ensure that a good match is made and that the animals will be cared for properly.

One controversial issue associated with guide dogs is the use of breeding programs to produce them. Many organizations and training schools rescue dogs from pounds and animal shelters. This provides good homes for dogs that might otherwise be euthanized. Animal welfarists are critical of schools that breed their own dogs because there are already so many unwanted dogs in the country. However, some schools complain that the supply of suitable pound and shelter dogs is not sufficient to meet their needs. Paws with a Cause is an organization based in Wayland, Mississippi, that trains service animals. The group announced in the early 2000s that it planned to concentrate on using specially bred dogs rather than shelter dogs for its training program. On its Web site in 2005, the organization presented statistics showing that few shelter dogs meet its criteria for age, temperament, and medical condition. The failure rate for shelter dogs is also higher (87.5%) than it is for specially bred dogs (25%). Paws with a Cause defends its decision by reminding people that its primary goal is helping people, not rescuing dogs. The group says that it works hard to find alternative jobs and homes for the dogs that fail its program. Many dogs who do not succeed as service animals are adopted by the volunteer families that raised them.

Mental and Physical Therapy

Another medical service that animals provide is therapeutic rather than utilitarian. Therapy animals provide emotional support or assist in rehabilitation activities. For example, therapy animals can comfort people undergoing psychological counseling. Many organizations working with abused children use therapy dogs in their programs. Petting and hugging the dogs relaxes the children and allows them to open up to counselors. Similar programs are used to calm children suffering from autism.

Therapy animals also visit hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes to cheer people who may be lonely or depressed. Dogs are the most common therapy animals. Only gentle and social dogs with very good dispositions are used in this work. They must go through rigorous training and receive Canine Good Citizenship certification. The human participants are screened beforehand to ensure that they like animals and find them comforting.

Therapy animals also participate in physical rehabilitation programs, such as hippotherapy, or horse-assisted therapy. The word hippotherapy is derived from the Greek word hippos, meaning horse. At the J. F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano, California, people disabled by strokes or injuries ride horses as part of their rehabilitation. Doctors have believed for some time that horseback riding is beneficial to people who must relearn to walk. As a horse strolls, a rider's hips are gently swiveled back and forth. This causes the rider's legs to swing back and forth in a motion that mimics walking. At the same time, the rider works to keep the upper body centered and facing forward. Riding a horse works nearly every muscle in the human body. Over time, the movement rebuilds the muscle strength, coordination, and balance required for walking. Hippotherapy is highly effective for children and adults suffering from a variety of muscular and neurological problems.

Because therapy animals are not individually trained to assist specific individuals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. Therefore, they are not guaranteed the public access rights under U.S. law that service animals are.

Medical Detection

The idea of using animals in medical detection received credibility following the publication of a 1989 article in the Lancet, a distinguished British medical journal. The article, "Sniffer Dogs in the Melanoma Clinic," described a patient who had sought medical help about a worrisome mole on her leg. The woman reported that her dog constantly sniffed at the mole and seemed very interested in it. Doctors discovered that the mole was cancerous and removed it. Similar stories have been reported by other dermatologists. Doctors speculate that dogs may be able to smell some unique scent emitted by cancerous skin cells.

In early 2004 researchers at Amersham Hospital in England performed a study to test the ability of six dogs to detect by smell the presence of cancerous cells in urine samples. The dogs were tested with urine from healthy people, people diagnosed with bladder cancer, and people diagnosed with other illnesses. As a group, the dogs successfully identified cancerous urine 41% of the time. This is well above the 14% success rate researchers expected from chance alone. The two best performing dogs were cocker spaniels. They were correct 56% of the time.

In December 2004 researchers at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, California, announced plans to conduct the first double-blind, peer-reviewed study of dogs' capability to detect cancerous cells in urine samples. Twelve dogs of various breeds will be used in the study. The researchers believe that a chemical with a distinctive smell may be present in the urine of cancer sufferers. If dogs could be trained to alert doctors to samples with that smell, it might be a useful screening tool. If it is found that cancerous cells do emit unique scents, the information could be used to construct electronic "noses" for use in diagnosing cancer.


Of all the service and assistance animals in use, animals used by the military are the most controversial. To animal welfarists and animal rights activists, the use of animals by the military can be extremely disturbing. These animals are often put into tremendous danger, and many of them die during their service. On the other hand, members of the military say that service animals have saved many human lives in battle. They argue that animal deaths in war are regrettable but permissible if human lives are saved. Animal rights activists and welfarists argue that animals involved in warfare do not know what they are fighting for or against and have very poor chances of surviving.

Although some animal work is classified, it is known that the U.S. military has used horses, pigeons, dogs, chickens, dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, and other marine mammals during combat. Besides horses, many of these animals are still used in modern warfare.


Humans have used animals in military roles for at least 3,500 years. Sometime before 1,500 b.c., the Mesopotamians used horses to pull their chariots during battle. Figure 8.9 shows an ancient Greek horse-drawn chariot.

Elephants were used in warfare as early as 1,100 b.c. They are mostly associated with Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.) and Hannibal Barca (247–183 b.c.). Hannibal's journey with elephants across the Alps to fight the Romans is famous, but historians say that the vast majority of his elephants died during the trip. The Roman Empire incorporated elephants into its military after capturing them from defeated armies. Elephants were especially prized for striking fear into the enemy. Sometimes their heads or ears were painted in bright colors to make them look more frightening. Although they played a key role in some battles, they were also a liability. When panicked, they often ran amok among their own troops.

Roman armies assembled entire formations of attack dogs for battle. Dogs were also used in military campaigns by Attila the Hun (406–453).

Cavalry units in which warriors fought while riding horses date back to around 800–700 b.c. The ancient Scythians are generally credited with mastering war on horseback. Scythia comprised parts of Europe and Asia north of the Black Sea. The Scythians were expert archers and kept large herds of horses. They were also among the first to castrate their male horses.

Cavalry units were not widely used in European warfare because heavily armored knights had difficulty maneuvering their lances and swords while on horseback. This changed during the Middle Ages when the stirrup was introduced. In the 1500s European soldiers began using heavy artillery and cannons that were pulled by teams of horses. War dogs were used for guard and messenger duty.

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington (1732–99) created cavalry units called Continental Dragoons that fought with distinction in several battles. These units were expensive to maintain and were disbanded after the war ended. During the 1800s, however, dragoon regiments were reinstated to fight against Native Americans and the Mexican army on the western frontier. This was the origin of the U.S. Cavalry.

Later in the nineteenth century, cavalry units were used extensively by both sides during the Civil War (1861–65). Approximately 18,000 horses were involved in an 1863 battle at Brandy Station, Virginia. This is considered the largest cavalry battle ever in the Western Hemisphere. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, estimates that one million horses in military service died during the Civil War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 400,000 troops (and horses) were in the U.S. Cavalry.

The cavalry proved ineffective during World War I. Horses could not penetrate barbed-wire fences and were mowed down by machine guns. According to the PBS Web site, most of the six million horses that served the U.S. military in World War I were killed ("Horses and Waging War," Wild Horses, An American Romance, The deaths of millions of other horses in military service to other countries severely depleted the world's horse population. World War I was the last war in which horses played a major role in combat. By 1942 all U.S. Cavalry units were disbanded or mechanized.

Coincidentally, this was the same year that dogs were first officially inducted into the U.S. Army. Prior to that time, dogs had seen extensive service in European armies, particularly in France, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. In fact, the Germans established the first official school for military dogs in 1884. They used an estimated 30,000 dogs during World War I as sentries, sled dogs, pack animals, and messengers, and to perform other tasks. One of those dogs was a German shepherd puppy captured by an American soldier. The dog wound up in Hollywood, California, and starred in more than 100 movies as Rin Tin Tin. The French military also used about 20,000 dogs in World War I. At that time dogs were widely used throughout Europe for both military and police work.

The U.S. military used dogs in some campaigns during the nineteenth century, particularly in the Seminole Wars, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Dogs that sometimes accompanied American troops in World War I were officially considered mascots or pets by the U.S. military, but in 1942 dog training began in earnest. A group called Dogs for Defense asked Americans to donate dogs to the army. Dogs were trained for guard and police duty, to pull sleds, to carry packs and messages, to help reconnaissance patrols find hidden enemy soldiers, and to help the medical corps find and rescue wounded soldiers.

Following World War II, the surviving dogs were returned to their owners. This was not the case in later wars. Military officials were afraid of a trained military dog attacking someone in civilian life. It became common practice to euthanize unusable and retired war dogs or leave them behind on the battlefield. Animal welfarists and soldiers were strongly against this policy, particularly after the Vietnam War (1957–75).

Military historians estimate that war dogs saved thousands of American soldiers from death or injury during the Vietnam War. Approximately 4,000 service dogs guarded troops, alerted them to booby traps, and pulled the wounded to safety. On its Web site, the U.S. War Dog Association lists the names of nearly 300 dogs that were killed in action during the war. Most service dogs that survived the war were left behind in Vietnam when American troops pulled out. The fate of these dogs is unknown. Many veterans, including the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, are lobbying for a national memorial to be built in Washington, D.C., to honor the service of war dogs. According to a November 26, 2000, article in Stars and Stripes 30,000 dogs have served in the U.S. military since World War II (Scott Schonauer, "New Law Allows Adoption of Military Dogs").

In November 2000 President Bill Clinton signed a new law into effect that allows retired military dogs to be adopted rather than euthanized. New owners have to agree not to hold the government responsible for any injuries or damages caused by former military dogs. Because of their extensive training, the dogs are expected to be useful in law enforcement and rescue work.

Since the late twentieth century, animals that have died in battle have been recognized as war heroes. However, the PDSA, a British organization that provides veterinary care for animals in low-income neighborhoods, has been recognizing animal heroes since World War II with the Dickin Medal, named after the organization's founder. Between 1943 and 1949, the PDSA presented Dickin Medals to thirty-two pigeons, eighteen dogs, three horses, and one cat for their accomplishments in battle. Most of the animals performed acts that saved the lives of many soldiers.

Current Uses

According to the Department of Defense, as of February 2005, about 2,300 dogs were working as sentries, detecting land mines and bombs, and performing search, rescue, and recovery tasks for the U.S. military. Many were stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq to deal with ongoing military conflicts in those countries. Military dogs are trained at the Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The most common breeds used are German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, and Belgian Malinois (a variety of Belgian shepherd). The military conducts its own breeding program and also purchases suitable dogs from other breeders. Most dogs have a military career of around ten years and are then retired from the service.

Hundreds of animals were used by the United States military during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, including dogs, dolphins, pigeons, and chickens. The use of animals was criticized by animal rights and welfare groups, including PETA, the HSUS, and United Poultry Concerns. In an April 1, 2003, letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a PETA spokeswoman and wildlife biologist wrote that "these animals never enlisted, they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won't survive." Other activists have accused the military of wasting animals needlessly when sophisticated equipment could be used instead.

The military dogs in Iraq helped perform various tasks, including guard duty, bomb detection, scouting, and even helping apprehend enemy soldiers. The HSUS donated $9,000 to buy thirty cooling vests for K-9 dogs in battle with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. The vests wrap around the dogs' midsections and have pockets for inserts that remain cool for hours. The HSUS was worried that the dogs would suffer from hot desert temperatures (as high as 120 degrees F) during the summer months. Birds were deployed in Iraq as early-warning alerts in the event of a chemical or biological attack. However, their use is not considered a success. Nearly every chicken died after only days in the desert due to heat, stress, illness, or injury. Some may have been killed and eaten by hungry U.S. troops. The chickens were replaced with nearly 200 pigeons, but these birds too died in large numbers.

More successful was the use of some specially trained dolphins. U.S. forces used two bottle-nosed Atlantic dolphins named Makai and Tacoma to seek out underwater mines along the Iraqi coast. The dolphins were trained to find the mines without detonating them and then alert handlers to their presence.

Frontline reported on the U.S. Navy's historical use of dolphins and other marine mammals in "A Whale of a Business" (PBS, Boston, Massachusetts, 1998). The navy began its Marine Mammal Program in 1960. Marine mammals were trained to perform tasks such as filming objects underwater, retrieving and delivering equipment, and guarding vessels against enemy divers. They were used during the Vietnam War and later in the Persian Gulf during the 1980s.

Dolphins are trained to detect enemy divers and attach restraining devices to them so they can be apprehended by human handlers. These devices include a line with a buoy that floats to the surface. Sea lions are trained to actually pursue any fleeing divers who go ashore. Mine-hunting dolphins identify and mark mines so that they can be decommissioned or later exploded safely.

Stray Animals Offer Comfort during War

In addition to the dogs in official U.S. military service, soldiers stationed around the world often befriend stray dogs and cats in other countries. Soldiers report that these dogs and cats provide them with much-needed comfort and companionship during military conflicts. Many military personnel serving in Iraq in the early 2000s found that they wanted to adopt the strays they had grown to love. Laura Salter, director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "We get three to six calls or e-mails a week from soldiers, fathers, mothers, wives, and siblings trying to find out how to get a dog from Iraq to the United States" (Ron Harris, "Dogs of War Win U.S. Hearts," February 6, 2004).

Because only military animals are allowed to fly on Department of Defense planes, the soldiers must find alternative means of transporting their adopted friends back to the United States. Flying an animal across international borders and dealing with bureaucratic issues can cost as much as $2,000, so international animal welfare groups and military support organizations have joined together to raise money and attract volunteers to transport these animals to their new homes.

Adopting a pet while on a tour of duty is, however, strictly against U.S. military rules. Under General Order 1A, soldiers may receive a reduction in rank or a court-martial if they are caught with a pet while in active service overseas. According to the armed forces, this is due largely to the threat of disease from strays in foreign countries. According to the Air Force, in early 2005 fifty-three people were treated for rabies after coming into contact with an infected stray at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Bonnie Buckley, who founded Military Mascots, a nonprofit group devoted to assisting military personnel send their adopted pets home and mailing pet food to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, has acknowledged that she helps service people undermine their superior officers (Dru Sefton, "Despite Military Rules, War Zone Pets Make It to States," Newhouse News Service, February 23, 2005). She also maintains that the group will not bring a pet to the United States unless a specific family intends to take it in. Animal welfare groups are ambivalent about the practice, reminding those in the military that there are millions of homeless pets already in the United States in need of adoption.


In 2003 the pet food company Pedigree held the first Pedigree Paws to Recognize contest. The contest was designed to select the country's top service dogs. The 2003 winner was the detector dog Crazy Joe of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. In 2004 two dogs won—Trouble, an agriculture detector dog with the CBP, and Gentle Ben, a therapy dog sponsored by the Delta Society. The dogs placed their paw prints in cement at the Canine World Heroes Walk of Fame in New York City. According to Pedigree, there are approximately 15,000 professionally trained service dogs in the United States as of 2005.