We all know about some of the jobs that dogs were bred to do, such as herding, hunting, and retrieving. In fact, dogs have been helping humans for hundreds of years with tasks around the farm or to protect livestock, property, and the home. And there are specialized jobs, some long gone, some still relevant today, which our canine partners are known for.
What would the gastronomic world do without these pungent fungi? Truffles grow underground near specific types of trees, and for centuries pigs were used to hunt these delicacies. Unfortunately, pigs are not only talented at finding truffles; they also like to eat them. Enter the dog, specifically the Italian Lagotto Romagnolo. Originally used as hunting dogs and water retrievers, Lagotti have a keen sense of smell and have been trained to search for truffles. Unlike pigs, they show no inclination to eat their find. While the Lagotto Romagnolo is the king of truffle hunting, other breeds can succeed, too, including English Springer Spaniels and Beagles.
Imagine standing over an open fire, cranking a giant spit of roasting meat repeatedly and for hours on end. This thankless task fell to dogs from the 16th century through the 19th century. It was such a common practice that a breed was specifically developed in England to do the job. These stocky dogs, shaped like a Basset Hound with a Bulldog-like head, would run or walk on equipment that was similar to a hamster wheel until the meat was evenly roasted. Never meant as pets, this rather unattractive and surly breed died out with the invention of a mechanized spit turner.
All around Europe, especially in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Belgium, farmers used dogs to pull small carts of milk from the farms to the cities, where they’d sell milk on the streets or at markets. Even today, there are a few dog-drawn milk carts in France and Belgium. These carts, however, tend to be unique forms of exercise for the dogs rather than necessity for the owners.
Milk isn’t the only thing dogs can cart around. Although carting milk and other goods was phased out in many places during the 19th century, carting dogs came back into use during World War I. Breed such as the Bernese Mountain Dog and Greater Swiss Mountain Dog were used to pull small guns to the front and to bring refugees to safety. Today, carting is becoming a popular dog sport.
For centuries, the Sami indigenous people living north of the Arctic Circle used the Finnish Lapphund to herd reindeer. Reindeer are essential to these Scandinavian people for their meat and hides, and these thick-coated, powerful, and hardworking dogs are up to the task.
Dogs are better than humans at many tasks. In fact, there are jobs where talented, trained dogs excel that humans probably can’t do at all. Here are some of the unique dogs doing unique work.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has come up with a way to protect artwork, delicate materials, wooden objects, and books from bugs: a dog. A Weimaraner puppy named Riley is being trained to sit down in front of an object when he detects the smell of a bug. Since humans can’t smell insects, Riley can save countless hours, dollars, and much heartache by detecting the offending insects before the damage is done. The museum chose a Weimaraner because the breed has a keen sense of smell and the stamina to work long hours without becoming bored.
We know dogs can detect bombs and drugs. Now some dogs are used to detect electronics, such as a computer, thumb drive, or microchip. Bear, a black Labrador Retriever, was crucial in a well-known child pornography case when he detected a hidden microchip. Bear is now specializing in Internet crime with the Seattle police department.
Runway Wildlife Control
A Border Collie named K-9 Piper had an important job to do at the airport in Traverse City, Mich.: he kept wildlife off the runways, which is federally required by the Wildlife Hazard Management Plan. One of only 10 such working dogs in the country, K-9 Piper’s task was to chase away rodents and the birds of prey they attract from the airport. He also made routine perimeter checks.
Along with his serious job of conserving sea turtles, Alex Schulze has trained his two Labrador Retrievers, Lila and Maverick, to swim down to 15 feet deep to catch lobsters on the ocean floor. It took Schulze almost two years to teach the dogs how to swim that deep, and now a fresh lobster dinner is only a dive away. He uses any proceeds from the dogs’ endeavors to promote sea turtle conservation work.
Whale Poop Detector
One dog and his mates are important members of the scientific team at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. Labrador Retriever Tucker and his canine colleagues go to sea with the scientists to track the majestic Orca whale, which is threatened with extinction. Tucker and the 16 other dogs on the team are trained to detect the scent of whale scat and can sense the smell of the "killer whale" up to one nautical mile away. Collecting and studying feces is the least intrusive and safest way to monitor the movement, health, and diet of the Orcas, and it helps scientists analyze how the species is doing. Tucker can also identify the scent of moose, caribou, wolves, iguanas, and bats, and in this way, he’s doing his part to preserve and fight for the survival of other species.
Does your dog have the artistic instincts of Hallie the Dachshund? Hallie’s artist owner taught her Doxie to paint before the dog went blind, and the dog’s colorful abstracts (because really, did we expect her to be an Impressionist?) raised thousands of dollars for Purple Heart Rescue.
While most dog owners are happy if their dogs can sit, stay, and come, some dogs have such extraordinary talents and ability to learn that their work improves life for all of us. We salute these canine contributors!