What's a Working Dog?

June 29, 2020

There are 2 kinds of “working dog” that people are usually referring to when this phrase comes up in conversation. A dog from the Working group, an AKC category of dogs bred over time to do specific work for humans, like guarding, pulling sleds, and carrying supplies, or (and this is the one we will be talking about here) a dog from virtually any breed that is used for work, instead of simply companionship.

In that sense of the word, working dogs are defined more by the task they perform and not the breed they come from. For example, the German Shepherd is a popular working dog for the military and police, but it is actually part of the Herding group. Similarly, the Labrador Retriever is a popular assistance dog, but is from the Sporting Group.

Working Dog Jobs

In most cases, a working dogs’ job does not get any special designation or legal status, however, sometimes the law makes a distinction for liability, tax code, or public access reasons.

Assistance & Service Dogs (Legally Recognized)

Service Dogs are trained specifically to aide a person with a disability, and their right to access public spaces, live with their handlers (even if the housing is not typically dog friendly) is protected by law. The term “Service Dog” or “Assistance Dog” is a broad term for any dog that has been trained to assist someone with a disbility, but the disability they are assisting with and the specific tasks they are trained to do may not always be readily apparent.

Service Dogs are some of the most recognizable dogs in the world, often due to wearing special vests and harnesses indicating that they’re trained to do a job — however, service dogs come in virtually every breed of dog, and many types of temperaments, so it’s difficult to define what makes a service dog exactly. Some of the most popular breeds used for service dog work are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, Goldendoodles/Labradoodles, and Pitbulls due to their willing-to-please personality, and often intense loyalty to their handler.

Detection Dogs

Detection dogs are typically owned by a company (or state), as opposed to being a privately-owned pet, and can be trained to detect virtually anything with accuracy that is still far superior to our modern-day computers. Many people may be familiar with “Drug Dogs” or “Arson Dogs”, which can find certain drugs or traces of accelerants, respectively, but other types of detection dogs include:

  • Bomb Dogs can find specific accelerates and explosives
  • Cadaver dogs that locate corpses, blood, or other bodily fluids
  • Medical Detection dogs can reliably indicate if a person has cancer, or may be experiencing a spike in blood sugar levels
  • Bug detection dogs sweep hotels and houses to search for bed bugs, ants, larvae, and even other pests, making repairs cheaper and more precise
Did You Know?

Unlike other types of detection dogs, which can be “cross-trained” to find practically any kind of scent, bomb detection dogs (“bomb dogs”) are not taught to find anything but explosives. This is because other dogs can make mistakes — bomb dogs cannot.

Several Husky's & sled dogs waiting to mush

Draught & Sled Dogs

Did you know that Rottweilers were originally bred to herd livestock and pull carts of meat for butchers? Drafting or “Draught” dog breeds also include St Bernards, Swiss Mountain Dog’s, and Newfoundland’s, most of which have a very versatile history that includes work as herding dogs, guard dogs, and draft work.

Historically, large, hardy dogs that could pull carts and cross rugged terrain were highly prized and sought after in many occupations. Today, most traditional draught breeds serve as guard dogs or compete in weight pulling or skijoring, but in some places, you can still see draft dogs at work.

German Shepherd Dog training with a bite sleeve

Guard Dogs (Some Legal Distinctions)

While many people consider owning a dog of any kind a “guard dog“, specially trained dogs that protect their handler, household, or a businesses property can enjoy unique tax benefits. For example, a guard dog’s monthly food and training expenses can often be deducted from business taxes, provided the dog is specifically trained to guard a property. Guard dogs come in many different breeds, but popular choices today include Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Boxer’s, Belgian Malinois, Akita’s, and Doberman Pinscher’s.

There’s no national-level laws regulating the ownership of protection dogs and guard dogs, meaning they can be owned by individuals as well as corporations, and often protect houses or businesses, like car lots and warehouses. Some guard dogs will only bark in order to alert someone of a trespasser, but most guard dogs share an instinctive trait to defend their territory and family.

Smooth coat Border Collie herding goats

Herding Dogs

Herding dogs help to maneuver livestock on a farm, and most are known for their dedication to their jobs, and their uncanny intelligence. Herding dogs can be taught to move livestock as large as cattle from hundreds of yards away, with little help (besides cues) from their handler. Many herding breeds exhibit this herding behavior even when they’ve never been exposed to sheep, cattle, or goats in their life, and some dogs who have never displayed it before seem to instinctively display herding behavior when they encounter livestock for the first time.

Today, herding dogs and other ranch dogs are chiefly used on farms, but there are also competitions where these dogs can display their herding abilities in front of a judge and audience.

Hunting Dogs

Hunting Dogs, Gun Dogs, Pointers and Retriever’s represent some of the best known dog breeds in the world. Labrador Retriever’s, Weimaraner’s, Beagle’s, and Bloodhounds are all used as hunting dogs due to their dedication to their handler, trainability, and natural desire to follow the scent (or sight) of wild game. Working hunting dogs usually start training at a very young age, where they are exposed to the sights and sounds they will encounter on the field with the rest of their litter, which helps to imprint the dogs on the scents, a memory that lasts their entire lives.

Livestock Guardians

By contrast to herding dogs, which can behave very aggressively toward livestock if not kept in check by their handler, Livestock Guardian’s rarely exhibit herding behavior, and instead, are the preferred guard dogs of sheep and goats in places where predation is a problem. Livestock Guardian’s are raised from a very young age with the livestock they will be guarding, even sleeping and eating with them to increase the bond as they grow up.

Livestock Guardians are large breed dogs that live their entire lives with the flock, warding away predators with their intimidating barking. And being large enough to kill or seriously injure a wolf, fox, or other predator that may try to attack a rancher’s herd, they are an incredibly valuable tool. Livestock Guardian breeds include Anatolian Shepherd’s, Great Pyrenees, Caucasian Shepherd’s, Kangal dogs, and the Spanish Mastiff.

Border Collie competing in agility

Sport & Show Dogs

For most people, Sport or Show dogs are the most common type of working dog they encounter. Sport dogs include any dog that is raised (and often purpose-bred) for dog sports, like French Ring, Schutzhund, Agility, Obedience, and Weight Pulling. If purebred, many sport dogs also double as show dogs, showing off the traits of their breed before judges, whereas show dogs often must be purebred to compete in certain classes, where their appearance and characteristics in the show ring are often more important than any additional training they have outside the show.

A pair of Belgian Malinois police dogs

Police Dogs (Legally Recognized)

Police dogs enjoy most of the same rights as police officers. They wear a badge and, although they may live with their human-handler full-time (including “off-duty”) they are usually owned by the department — although, in some cases, like certain rural counties police dogs can be owned by the individual officer. Common breeds used as police dogs include German Shepherd’s, Belgian Malinois's and Dutch Shepherd’s, which are specially bred and raised for the task from day one.

How people refer to their dog can often help discern if it’s a working dog or not. For example, someone’s small-sized English Setter may seem like it’s simply a pet, but could perform vital work as a service dog for their human handler. Unlike the dogs in the Working group, which is a much narrower group of dogs bred to do specific jobs, “working dogs” in the broader sense can include dogs of any breed, and any combination of breeds. When trying to distinguish whether or not a dog is a working dog or a pet, it almost always depends on the individual dog and handler, as many Working group breed dogs are only pets, and vise versa.

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