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A History of Working Dogs

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

The phrase, “man’s best friend” is widely used about dogs. Their loyalty and commitment to humans is unwavering and has been for thousands of years. Ever since the domestication of the gray wolf thousands of years ago during the Neolithic era, the domestic dogs we know of today have been selectively bred to produce not only a pleasant aesthetic appearance but also traits that make up a good working dog.

There are many theories regarding the domestication of the gray wolf. Canines are pack animals; thus, they rely on one another for the best chances of survival. It is speculated that this “pack mentality” is what drew them to humans and vice versa. It is speculated that ancient canids assisted in hunting for humans and were able to warn them of incoming danger or threats due to their enhanced hearing and sense of smell, and ancient humans warded of threats with fire and weaponry. It was a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship that eventually led to selectively breeding the hundreds of dog breeds we know and love today.

For thousands of years, canines have been at work by the side of their human companions, evolving to suit humans’ needs. The most common role of dogs before the last century was as “war-dogs.” Humans utilized the dogs’ agility and physical prowess as an advantage over the enemy’s forces. Hieroglyphs and cave paintings in Egypt, Greece, and Assyria all have depictions of “warrior” dogs or hunting dogs. Although many of the interpretations of these ancient depictions of dogs are speculative, it is still evident that dogs have been an integral part of human history all over the world. There are many theories regarding dogs as having domesticated humans just as much if not more than humans have domesticated dogs.

The earliest documented evidence of a domesticated dog was discovered in 2005. A grave in what is modern-day Israel contained a human skeleton with its hand resting on the skeleton of a small dog. Archaeologists believe that this grave dates back to around 12,000 BCE. In the ancient Mesopotamian story, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the goddess, Ishtar has a pack of seven dogs, leashed and collared that travel with her. Depicted as protectors, hunters, and companions, it is evident that dogs may have been treasured in ancient Mesopotamia as much as they are today.

The Indian Pariah Dog is believed by some to be the first domesticated dog breed ever. An ancient tale of an Indian king recounts the steadfast loyalty of the King’s dog as they journey together to the king’s final resting place. When the king and the dog reach the entrance to paradise, the king is told that he may enter, but his dog cannot. Perplexed as to why his beloved companion could not enter paradise, the king decides to stay with his dog instead. It is then revealed that the dog had been the god Vishnu the whole time, and he was merely testing the strength of the king’s heart. This tale demonstrates that dogs were held in high regard in India for their loyalty and virtue.

In Ancient Egypt, domesticated dogs were held in such high regard, that upon their death, their owners would have them mummified if they were wealthy enough to afford it. Their owners would even shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning, and they would often choose to be buried next to their beloved dogs when they passed away. Even the Egyptian god, Anubis had the head of a dog and would escort dogs to the “field of reeds,” otherwise known as paradise in ancient Egypt.

Ancient Greece is credited with the invention of the spiked collar, which is still widely used today. The spiked collars were meant to protect the dogs from predators. Dogs were treasured in both Rome and Greece for their ability to protect livestock as well as for their hunting capabilities. It was believed that when a dog was barking into the distance, supposedly at nothing, the dog was actually barking at the approach of Hecate (“Trivia” in Roman), the goddess of mischief and ghosts. It is reported that the armies of the Roman empire took advantage of dogs’ resilience in traveling long distances, especially when their horses fell ill or died. The Romans would feed the deceased horses to the dogs and the dogs would carry provisions on their backs over treacherous terrain.

In the middle ages, dogs were instrumental in warfare. They were often equipped with plate or chain armor and would be used to harass enemy troops. They also were known to carry tremendous amounts of weight when necessary. Henry the VIII dispatched around 400 English Mastiffs to the aid of the Spanish army and they were trained to lunge at the enemy horses, latching onto their noses, causing panic.

In World War I, the Germans utilized around 30,000 dogs for attack and courier purposes. In World War II Germany amassed a staggering 50,000 dogs, the biggest and most highly-trained group of war dogs throughout history. This consisted mainly of Rottweilers, Sheepdogs, German shepherds, and Pinschers. Since World War II, the use of dogs in warfare has significantly decreased with the rise of new technology and vehicles. Many dogs were demilitarized after the wars, meaning they were essentially de-trained when it came to their previous military training.

After the use of dogs in warfare decreased, the main use of working dogs was as police dogs. For over two hundred years, dogs in the USA have been used for law-enforcement purposes. The most common dog breeds used in police work are the Bloodhound, German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher and the Rottweiler. A police dog goes through rigorous training and usually, only half of the trainees become police dogs. They must meet certain criteria that some dogs just aren’t suitable for.

Police Dog Criteria:

• Obedience, the ability to obey all commands from officers

• A keen sense of smell

• Slightly aggressive (but not too much so)

• Not be afraid of gunshots or loud noises

These are the most important criteria for a police dog, however many police dogs are trained to specialize in one area of expertise. For instance, due to their extraordinary sense of smell, bloodhounds are very commonly used by DEA agents and police in searches for narcotics and other illegal drugs. A police dog’s work is difficult and dangerous, and unfortunately, there are casualties and injuries. Many dogs retire early due to injuries or the inability to meet the standards required of a police dog.

The video below shows highly trained police dogs and some of the training techniques used on them.


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