The Wonder of Dogs: Service Dogs and Beyond

The many different appearances and breeds of dogs reflects thousands of years living with humans and serving as watchdogs, hunters and companions. This week’s episode of  Wonder of Dogs takes a look at some of these dog jobs. But as human society has evolved and the nature of our needs have changed, so too have the jobs of our most faithful companions.

These are just a few interesting new jobs that some dogs have been trained for in the past few decades:

Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dogs are known to help alleviate anxiety among individuals of all ages. But for a long time, few believed that this natural skill could translate to more serious and complex disorders like PTSD, which thousands of American veterans suffer from.. Still, numerous anecdotes of the positive, lasting psychological benefits that specially trained dogs can have in combating PTSD have convinced many  within the Department of Veterans Affairs to accelerate and expand placement of dogs with veterans. Many specially trained dogs are already paired with disabled veterans across the country to help accomplish basic physical tasks (opening doors, turning on the lights), but many more may soon be trained to help veterans specifically with coping with the daily anxieties of PTSD.

service dog

Coping with mental illness

Like dogs trained to help veterans with PTSD, the natural anxiety-relief function that some dogs have can be harnessed to the great benefit of those mental stressors. In 2012, The New York Times ran a heartbreaking piece about Iyal Winokur, an adopted teenaged boy who suffered from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, which disrupts neurological development and wreaks havoc on cognitive functioning. Iyal’s case was extremely difficult, and the Winokurs believed that they needed extra treatment beyond regular child therapy. They turned to a dog training facility in Ohio, which paired him with a dog trained specifically for his needs. Almost miraculously, the dog helped Iyal to sleep more peacefully, and avoid or mitigate distressed outbreaks to the point that in moments of anxiety, Iyal seeks out the dog, not just the other way around. The article even postulates that the dog allowed Iyal to take cognitive leaps that he could not have sustained otherwise. Scientists hypothesize that by lowering the cortisol level, some disabled minds are more freed up for speech and thought.



Cancer sniffing

Tests show that dogs can reliably detect prostate cancer in urine samples and melanoma and breast cancer in skin samples. But don’t expect dogs to replace standard medical exams and tests any time soon; many studies which champion the accuracy of these dogs are far from perfect, and the practicality of dogs performing the same medical functions that a machine can aren’t entirely appealing. Still, scientists are perplexed by how dogs can smell cancer in skin and urine samples. Some researchers are now beginning to study these cancer-sniffing dogs to better understand causes and forms of cancer. So while they may not be donning a lab coat  and running tests at your local hospital, dogs may soon help scientists better understand, and hopefully treat, various types of cancer.

cancer sniffing

Giving a new meaning to the label “rescue dog”

Of course, not all dogs that help people are capable of mitigating the complex stresses of modern life. Some are just doggy lifeguards that jump out of helicopters to save swimmers who find themselves too far from the shoreline. Over 300 Italian dogs are fully licensed from the Italian School of Canine LIfeguards to jump from boats, helicopters and even jet skis to help rescue endangered swimmers. The drill is simple: the dogs either tow a buoy for swimmers to grab, or wear a life vest that allows them to drag the swimmer to safety.

water dog


  1. Lynne Lihotz
    NJ, USA
    June 22, 2014, 2:41 pm

    In the first episode of this series, I was very surprised that the presenter, Kate Humble, made comments more than once that the wolf is a predator of man and suggested that they bite/prey on humans. It is easy to research this idea and find it false. For example, according to wolf experts Jim and Jamie Dutcher (Living with Wolves) wolf attacks are extremely rare and occurred only twice in North America in the last 100 years (2005 and 2010).

    I understand that there was an another attack in MN in 2013. Nevertheless, this is hardly evidence that we bred out the instinct of wolves to prey on humans in the process of domesticating them to be our modern day dogs.

    Who is the science editor of this show? Get with it!