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— October 17, 2012 —

Some service dogs that you may not think about.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

It’s not unusual to see a guide dog leading his owner down the street in Chicago. I see them a few times a year. I am always impressed by these special dogs. I recently saw a visually disabled individual with not one, but two seeing eye dogs. It wasn’t until I got close that I realized what was happening. The owner was out with his young guide dog, walking a very senior dog. He and the new dog were walking the retired guide dog. It was a touching example of the bond that develops between the working dog and the human who depends on him.

Dogs fulfill many roles in their service to us. When we think of service dogs the common ones come to mind, but what about the less known service dogs?

With their keen sense of smell, dogs can detect hidden bombs and drugs, but did you know that a dog can detect cancer? Cancer cells emit a different waste product than normal healthy cells. Dogs have such a keen sense of smell, they can detect the unique scent of this waste product on the breath of a person with cancer. According to an article in National Geographic, Stefan Lovgren National Geographic News January 12, 2006, the trained dogs could detect the cancers regardless of the stage and were 88 to 97 percent accurate.

Another less known service dog function is that of a seizure response or seizure alert dog. A seizure response dog is trained to help it’s owner during a seizure. They will do such things as pull dangerous items away from a person who is having a seizure, fetch or activate a specially programed phone or even lie on top of the person to give comfort.

It is believed that some dogs are able to predict an oncoming epileptic seizure and warn their owner before it happens. This is obviously very helpful in preventing the person from falling or being injured during the seizure. These dogs are not breed, gender or age specific and there is no “training” to teach a dog to predict a seizure. Often a seizure response dog will develop the ability to actually predict a seizure after working with an individual over time. The actual effectiveness of seizure prediction is still somewhat murky, and there is some controversy as to whether the dog is actually predicting the seizures.

Dogs are also able to alert their owners to the fact at their blood sugar is low. Hypoglycemia is the condition where a person’s blood sugar drops below safe levels. A specially trained dog can sense this and alert their owner. These dogs can also be trained to alert when the person’s blood sugar becomes too high. Trained diabetes alert dogs dogs will whine, pace or paw at their owners to alert them to the situation, allowing them to take necessary measures. As an interesting aside: I once had a diabetic relate a story to me where her dog “alerted” on a complete stranger. That person had never been diagnosed as diabetic, but described that they were feeling the symptoms of low blood sugar.

Search and rescue dogs are exceptional in their training and in their physical ability. These are hearty dogs of many different breeds, but usually Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers and Border Collies are used for this type of work. (This is by no means an all inclusive list of SAR breeds.) They track by scent, often through very difficult conditions to find lost individuals. These dogs are trained to lead their handler to people who have been lost, either in the wilderness or as a result of urban catastrophe such as an earthquake. They have to be extremely strong nerved and able to operate in conditions that would intimidate many dogs.

Of course, even untrained dogs provide us with service. Merely petting a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure and children living with dogs are known to be healthier and have less issues with infections and allergies than children who do not live with dogs. You see, the most common service dogs provide to us is just being dogs. Anyone who has lived with a dog knows that they add value to every one of our lives. Whether they have had any special training or not, just being themselves is often service enough.



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