Dogs as Helpers
Besides hunting and guarding, dogs have recently expanded their repertoire to include acting as the eyes and ears for their masters. The first seeing-eye dogs were trained in 1819 in Austria when Johann Wilhelm Klein founded an institute for the blind, although a wooden plaque from the medieval period has been found depicting a dog leading a blind man, which suggests that dogs were used as guides much earlier than once thought. Despite the fact that there was a great need for guide dogs, Klein’s training techniques did not gain popularity until 100 years later.
Following the First World War, a great many soldiers were being admitted to hospitals suffering a side effect of mustard gas exposure: blindness. And it was in one such hospital that a German doctor brought back the practice of using dogs to help the afflicted soldiers, completely by accident.
Having been called away from assisting a blind patient take a stroll around the hospital grounds, the doctor sat the soldier down leaving his dog to keep the patient company. Upon his return, the doctor got the distinct impression from the way his dog was acting that he was looking after the soldier.
This fuelled the doctor’s curiosity to see if dogs had been used or could be trained to assist the blind and in 1923 he founded the first guide dog training center in Postdam, Germany where, over the next decade several thousand dogs were successfully trained to assist the blind.
More than 50 years later, in 1979, dogs began to be used to aid the deaf. They are trained to respond to certain sounds and signal through touch and posturing to let their hearing impaired owners know when the doorbell rings, a fire alarm sounds or even when a baby is crying. And unlike seeing-eye dogs, hearing aid dogs do not have to be a certain size; as long as they are friendly and easily trained, they can be taught the crucial techniques a hearing aid dog needs to know.
Dogs have also been valued members of the American Armed Forces for the past 50 years, due largely to the fact that they are alert, loyal and have a great sense of smell. In this time, over 50,000 dogs have served their country in wartime by sniffing out enemies and bombs, locating falling soldiers and comforting the wounded until help arrived. Dogs have even been known to drag the injured to safety – American dogs that went over to Vietnam were credited with preventing at least 10,000 deaths by doing just that.
In addition to soldiers, dogs also serve the civilian population as rescue and police dogs. In times of disaster, dogs have gone into very dangerous places such as disaster sites, buildings toppled by earthquake or towns devastated by fire to search for people trapped in the rubble. In addition, dogs are often used during foot chases when perpetrators flee from the police. These dogs are trained to chase and obtain the criminal until police can arrive on the scene. One such dog, name Jake, helped his policeman owner catch 235 criminals in his five-year career. Other dogs are used to sniff out drugs and explosives, track lost people and help with crowd control.
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