When you think of working “like a dog,” you’re probably picturing yourself burning the midnight oil behind a computer, finishing one last project for your boss. But what about working dogs? On National Work Like a Dog Day, we would like to spotlight three of the many ways dogs work to put people at ease.
It is a common misconception that “service dog” is a catch-all term for dogs who help people with disabilities, including visually impaired or hard of hearing individuals. In actuality, guide dogs help the visually impaired and hearing dogs help the hard of hearing. (More about them in a moment.) Service dogs can help those with physical disabilities, autism, seizures, diabetes, mental illnesses, and a multitude of other illnesses. Depending on the needs of the patient, service dogs can be trained to do physical tasks such as flipping light switches on or off or opening and closing doors, or emotion-related tasks such as whining or barking when the patient starts to have a panic attack or bipolar manic episode.
Guide and hearing dogs are very similar in that they are trained to take account of their surroundings as well as their handler’s commands, and they have to make the judgment call to stay safe at all costs even if their handler is commanding otherwise. Hearing dogs nudge their owners when alarms go off–“alarms” here meaning fire and other hazard alarms but also oven timers, the doorbell, or a phone ringing–and lead them to the source of the noise, while guide dogs are directed where to go by their handlers, stopping at crosswalks and steps/curbs. While service and hearing dogs can be almost any breed and can be adopted from shelters, guide dogs are almost always Labrador and Golden Retrievers and German Shepherd dogs, bred for the job and rigorously trained before being placed with their handler.
Therapy dogs can be any breed and have to be highly trained, but not necessarily trained-from-puppy-age like guide/hearing and service dogs. What separates them from service and guide/hearing dogs is public access. You can find therapy dogs in schools, hospitals, courtrooms, libraries, and other places, granted they have the express permission of the facilitators, but you will not find them in public with their handlers in the grocery store, for instance, or a restaurant, or other privately-owned places where the owners have said “no pets allowed (save for service animals).” Though it’s an emerging trend for owners to train their pet dogs to be therapy dogs, therapy dogs should be considered to be working dogs, as the jobs are physically and emotionally taxing for both dog and owner.
Some common working dog etiquette: if you see a working dog with its handler, do not pet it. A therapy dog will approach you or its handler will encourage you to come pet it, but service and guide/hearing dogs need to focus. Some handlers will let you pet their dog if you ask their permission, but never reach out and pet a working dog, or offer it treats, toys, or other distractions. If you are a business owner, assume all service or hearing/guide dogs are ‘at work’ and do not ask for identification or confirmation that the dog is a service dog (this is not only proper etiquette, but the law). This helps service dogs help their handlers!