Earlier this week, we celebrated Labor Day, a holiday designated for American workers. Dogs have been working alongside humans for thousands of years. Even today, as we observe the solemn anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, we’re heartened to read this story of Bretagne, the last living search dog who dutifully served to recover survivors in the horrific aftermath of the attacks. Working dogs are in a class by themselves; their heart, determination, and loyalty are unwavering. Let’s take a look at some remarkable working dog breeds.
These large, strong dogs shot to fame when President Obama and his family adopted a Newfoundland puppy for their daughters soon after his inauguration. The quintessential working dog, Newfoundlands (or “Newfies”) were flawlessly designed for work. They were originally trained to pull nets for fishermen and haul heavy loads of wood from the forest.
Newfies are also excellent water rescue dogs. Equipped with large paws, webbed feet and a thick, nearly waterproof coat, they are fast and strong swimmers and often work with the Coast Guard to save lives at sea.
Originally bred as a guard dog for the Hospice Saint Bernard mountain pass hostel in Switzerland, these beautiful dogs were also helpful in finding and rescuing lost travelers in the remote mountains surrounding the hostel. The most famous rescue dog at Saint Bernard pass was Barry, who is believed to have saved 40-100 lives by finding and rescuing lost and stranded travelers. After a rash of severe winters in which many Saint Bernard dogs lost their lives in avalanches, remaining dogs were bred with Newfoundlands in an attempt to preserve the breed. As a result, the Saint Bernards of today are close relatives of Newfoundland dogs, and share many of the same characteristics.
Amazingly, the monks at the Hospice Saint Bernard never trained these dogs to perform search and rescue; young pups would learn these operations from the older dogs. After generations, these behaviors became instinctual, although today, most Saint Bernard dogs enjoy lives of luxury as pets. Fiercely obedient and inherently gentle and kind, Saint Bernard dogs make great family pets or agility competitors.
Bernese Mountain Dog
Also native to Switzerland, the Bernese Mountain Dog has been bred for versatility. These strikingly beautiful dogs helped to herd cattle, pull carts, and guard his herd and companion against predators. Bernese Mountain Dogs have an innate desire to work and thrive when given stimulating activities to perform such as agility courses and simple chores. They have thick, powerful legs and long, thick coats that helped them adapt perfectly to the cold mountain climate of the Swiss Alps.
Bernese are very affectionate and loving and make great family dogs in homes with kids. They are easy to train and require relatively little grooming (although they do shed). Like Saint Bernards, Bernese Mountain Dogs mostly live as pets or competitors, although many also perform search and rescue operations.
Obviously originating from Siberia, Huskies relish cold weather and is an ideal sled dog. Siberian Huskies helped entire tribes migrate to new areas in harsh winter weather and blinding snow. In the 1920s, Huskies transported diphtheria serum over 600 miles to Nome, Alaska, to provide relief for an epidemic that plagued the town. The Iditarod Sled Race still held today commemorates this famous delivery, and Huskies still participate in this event. Huskies also accompanied explorers on the first voyage to the North Pole and many expeditions in Antarctica.
Today, Huskies still work as search and rescue dogs, but also make good pets for people who are active and will provide them the intense exercise they crave. They are high-energy dogs with a drive to work and run.
Although classified as a herding dog, German Shepherds have established a strong reputation for themselves as hard workers and companions for first responders and law enforcement personnel. German Shepherds are amazingly versatile, and can be trained in search and rescue, bomb or drug detection, tracking, guidance and assistance, police or military service, herding, competitive obedience, and of course, companionship. Years of selective breeding have given the German Shepherd a distinct profile including a large, broad chest and low hips which make them especially adept at lunging forward quickly and forcefully. For this reason, these dogs are often trained for police service to pursue and attack aggressors or fleeing criminals.
Again, owing to their innate desire to be obedient, German Shepherds are great pets for those who can give them the stimulation they need. They are very high-energy dogs that need to run several times a day and need near-constant mental and physical stimulation.
Officially classified as a sporting dog, Golden Retrievers have become one of the most popular pet breeds in the world. Goldens are friendly, tolerant, and highly intelligent, making them perfect for families with children and other pets.
As workers, Goldens excel at, of course, retrieving game for hunters, but also at tracking, drug and bomb detection, search and rescue, and therapy assistance. Slow to show their age, Goldens are usually as lively and active as a puppy well into their adult years, and that persistent energy also lends them well to the world of the working dog. It seems that the only job a Golden can’t do well is that of a guard dog; their relentlessly-friendly demeanor and lack of aggression means they’re more likely to wag their tail and help a burglar carry all of your valuables out of your house than to let you know you’re being robbed.
If one doubts the heart and drive of the working dog, one only needs to look as far as the tragedy of September 11 to understand: The dozens of search and rescue dogs brought to the site of the WTC collapse to retrieve survivors became heartbreakingly upset, depressed, and stressed when they could not detect living survivors among the rubble of the World Trade Center. They became so distressed that first responders began hiding in the wreckage to let the dogs “find” them in order to keep up the dogs’ spirits and encourage them to keep searching. And, like our friend Bretange and all working dogs, they did.