How does your dog spend his days? Chasing squirrels? Learning tricks? Snoozing on the couch and begging for treats?
You dog has a special job: he brings joy into your life. But have you ever met a dog whose daily job is helping people? In particular, have you met one that detects bombs, catches criminals or saves lives? These faithful canines sacrifice everything to keep us safe. And they have a remarkable power that lets them do it all: their amazing noses.
Can you identify a scent from half a mile away? No, but in the best weather, a dog can! The canine sense of smell is 44 times more powerful than ours. Dogs can perceive odors that are underground or underwater. They even know the scent of fear, and may be able to detect certain human diseases.
So how does a dog's sense of smell help us? The FBI's chemical explosives dogs are a great example. No one can sniff out a bomb at an airport or other crowded place like these trusty canines. Of course, this wouldn't be very helpful if the dog became too afraid or excited by his surroundings to do his job. So his handler spends months or years teaching him to ignore loud noises, crowds, distracting smells and even gunfire. This allows the canine to work quickly and find the explosives before things get dangerous.
To the Rescue!
Search-and-Rescue dogs are every bit as talented. They use their noses to locate people lost in the wilderness, pinned under earthquake rubble, or otherwise missing and helpless. These dogs rely on the person's scent and also the smells of his or her clothing, perfume, hairspray, soap, and deodorant. The sooner they find the missing person, the sooner their human team can give the individual any necessary medical care. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Search-and-Rescue canines searched the rubble for survivors.
Many service dogs act as partners to the police. Some track criminals across the countryside, leading to arrests. Others sniff out human remains or other evidence of crimes, helping to put lawbreakers in jail. Narcotics detection dogs search houses, apartments, cars, trucks, and airplanes for illegal and dangerous drugs.
Did you know that, thanks to their noses, dogs may be capable of predicting certain diseases in humans? Many people with diabetes claim that their dogs warn them when their blood sugar becomes dangerously low. When these so-called "hypo alert" dogs sense a change in their owner's scent, they jump into action. They bark, whine, lick, or do whatever necessary to get their owner's attention. This allows the diabetic to seek medical help before his or her blood sugar drops even lower. Dogs can be trained to predict diabetic attacks, but some do so without training.
Dogs may even help us diagnose cancer. Research suggests that canines can smell the difference between the breath of a healthy person, and that of a cancer victim. In one study, dogs correctly detected breast cancer in patients 88% of the time. At another medical institution, they reportedly diagnosed lung cancer 99% of the time - an impressive rate of success! Scientists are eager to find out which chemicals create the unhealthy smell that the dogs respond to. Once they know this, inventors hope to create machines that detect cancer with even higher accuracy.
The Right Dog
Aside from a good nose, what does it take for a dog to become a bomb-sniffer, a drug-sniffer, a Search-and-Rescue canine, or any other type of service dog? Trainers give a variety of answers. The dog should have strong drives to hunt and play. These traits make his job seem fun and exciting. He should have a high degree of intelligence and trainability. A good sense of smell is no use if he won't focus or obey commands! The dog should be agile and have lots of stamina. That way, he can easily overcome obstacles and keep going until the job is done. He should also be friendly with people, since his job often involves working near crowds.
German Shepherds, Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, beagles and Belgian Mallinois are some of the breeds most commonly used for scenting work.
The Right Handler
What about the people who work with service dogs? What makes someone a good handler? It's all about teamwork. The handler should have a strong bond with his (or her) dog. That way, the dog will want to please him. The handler must learn to trust his dog. During tracking, for instance, he should follow the canine's lead, rather than forcing the dog to follow him. After all, the handler may be smarter, but the canine sense of smell is 44 times better. Finally, the good handler will frequently praise his dog. This encourages the dog to do his best, and makes the job more fun for everyone.
The Perfect Team
Whether they are bomb-sniffing dogs or Search-and-Rescue canines, "hypo alert" dogs or beloved family pets, we owe so much to our four-legged companions. There's nothing quite like the bond we share with them. The handlers of scenting dogs understand this bond in their own special way. In the words of tracking enthusiast Diane Blackman, "Scent work is a partnership in which you are asking the dog to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. It is at once humbling and enlightening."