And you thought normal dog training was difficult. Sit, stay, down, come, heel… all require weeks or more of dedicated trainer and dog effort to master. Now, consider the months or years needed to train a police, search and rescue, guide or other service dog.
Training these special animals starts with careful selection. It’s no accident that certain breeds – German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and others – tend to be selected. Others may be just as loving as pets, but don’t usually have the physical characteristics nor temperament needed to carry out the wide range of complex behavior these working dogs perform.
Even within breeds some individuals early on display an aptitude for the rigorous training, while others are dropped from the program or moved into different areas. Assertiveness is needed, but not aggression. Except in emergencies and on command only. Confidence is essential, but not willfulness. Strength is important, but intelligence is key.
Once selected, trainers deepen the bonds needed to build trust and perform on command. Police, search and rescue and even guide dogs can easily find themselves in dangerous situations. Like humans, such individuals don’t always spontaneously put themselves in harm’s way. Some though, with proper training, will take on challenges even trained and athletic humans would think twice about undertaking.
Search and rescue dogs, for example, have been known to ford freezing rivers to snatch and extract drowning children. Others have pulled half-buried avalanche victims from otherwise certain death, while the ice cracks beneath their canine feet.
Training consists of a year or more of acclimatization in the trainer’s home or facility to learn basic commands and trust. Once the animal is certified as trainable, the real effort begins.
Depending on the job, service dogs receive from 6 to 18 months of additional training, spending hours per day in special instruction. Sometimes the behaviors taught are those you wouldn’t want your average pet to learn.
Everything from simple light switch flipping to pulling open doors to fording water, locating buried objects and more are covered. Service dogs learn to tolerate gun shots, avoid obstacles, remain calm and focused on the task in crowds. They may learn to aggressively protect the handler while being gentle with victims.
Some of these extraordinary creatures learn to tolerate smoke, run through burning buildings or even chase vehicles. Exactly what you wouldn’t want Charles the chihuahua to do.
Less dangerous, but no less important tasks are taught to other categories of service dogs.
Seeing-eye or hearing (guide) dogs assist sightless or deaf persons to carry out daily tasks safely and more conveniently. Whether guiding the blind or wheelchair bound through a shopping mall, fetching a container of food or drink, or just answering the doorbell these assistants prove their worth every day.
So, next time you see one of those working dogs at the mall or on the street, remember they ARE working. They’re carrying out needed chores for which they’ve been intensively trained. Let them carry out those important duties and just say a silent ‘thanks’ to them and their trainers for a job well done.