The topic of animal rights is one that is frequently addressed in American culture. Activists, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have been known to protest loudly and visually, dawning red-paint encrusted faux-fur coats to induce a sense of empathy. Other activists fight against the use of animals in scientific research or by cosmetic companies, pointing to unnecessary cruelty inflicted during testing the process. While these groups are often aggressive and extreme, there is yet another group that fights for the rights of working canines, expressing concern regarding the breeding, training, and treatment of dogs routinely put in harm’s way. This essay will argue that working dogs should not be placed in the same category with other animals subjected to mistreatment, poaching, and cruelty; activism on behalf of working canines should not work towards abolition, but rather towards equal protection and for handler and canine.
There is a long tradition in human culture of working alongside dogs. As John Brownlee notes, dogs began as wolves approximately 40,000 years ago, and their relationship with man wasn’t friendly, to say the least. However, thousands of years of domestication and breeding have changed what was a “silver-eyed stalker” into man’s best friend (Brownlee). It has long been thought that dogs were domesticated to assist man in his work as a hunter. Many breeds still serve this purpose: bloodhounds, pointers, and shepherds all exhibit traits that are helpful for hunting and herding. The wolf, of course, is a natural born hunter with keen instincts and deadly speed. It would make sense that man found this useful in the ice age when dogs were first domesticated.
However, recent research has changed this line of thinking and has altered the way science thinks about the evolution of the modern dog. Sarah Pruitt describes the findings from the very first study of human and dog burial sites in eastern Siberia, a region, as she describes, “that appears to have been chock-full of prehistoric dog lovers. The earliest known domesticated dog food was found there, dating back some 33,000 years” (“Man’s Best (and Oldest) Friend”). After examining 17 human and dog burial sites, the researchers came to “refute earlier speculation that prehistoric dogs may have served simply as work animals used for hunting purposes” (“Man’s Best (and Oldest) Friend”). In fact, they found that these animals were buried with care, and often alongside what appeared to be their human companion, sometimes with trinkets around their necks. Robert Losey, of the University of Alberta, notes that these canine burials “tend to be more common in areas where diets are rich in aquatic foods because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries” (qtd. in Pruitt). This evidence would indicate that these domesticated dogs were not used for work, but rather as companions.
This new perspective on the origin of the domesticated dog would lend validity to a popular animal rights argument against working dogs: “the use of dogs for human purposes violates the rights of the dogs to be free” (Lin). The argument might sound something like this: if dogs were not originally bred to work, then why force them to work on our behalf? However, this new research also demonstrates the strong bond between man and canine that perhaps began with a mutually beneficial relationship:
the transformation likely happened in East Asia around 32,000 years ago, when early dogs came into contact with small bands of hunter-gatherers. . . populations of wolves started lingering around these humans, possibly to scavenge the remains of the animals they consumed. . . humans would have killed the more aggressive wolves, while those wolves that displayed mellower temperaments would have thrived. (Pruitt).
In this sense, the relationship between man and wolf began out of mutual self-preservation (the sharing of food) and self-protection (the need for man to keep his family safe from harm). This relationship was not based on coercion, but on the development of trust over time.
While this relationship may not have begun with intentional breeding and selection, modern canines are absolutely subject to forced genetic selection; in this area, animal rights activists absolutely have a valid point. John Brownlee notes that: “over-breeding has largely ruined many of these breeds over the course of the last century [because] humans have aggressively bred many dogs to actually increase their likelihood of having genetic diseases.” As a result, many of the breeds we have today live shorter lives full of pain and suffering; they may be adorable, or fluffy, or loveable, but they are too genetically strip-mined to survive for long. Brownlee suggests, therefore, that we would be better off to recombine breeds to return to the wolf in order to preserve the health and longevity of the domesticated canine.
Not all breeds, however, suffer due to breeding, and the relationship between man and man’s best friend has thrived for thousands of years. According to The Dog Guide, Dogs have performed a myriad of jobs for centuries. Dogs have performed service and assistance work, therapy work, on search and rescue teams, as herders and sled dogs, as mascots, in hunting and flushing capacities, as guards, as policeman, as members of the military and, of course, as professional snugglers, to name just a few ways in which dogs assist humans. By nature, dogs are eager to please and thrive on companionship and mutual benefice. Working together brings joy to not only the canine, but also the handler.
One example of targeting breeding is explored in a 2013 study by the Polish Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding, published in Animal Science Papers and Reports. In this study, scientists evaluated which traits were most beneficial to drug and explosive detection dogs by comparing two breeds: German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. What is intriguing about this study is not the conclusions drawn, but rather the means by which they reached those conclusions. The data collected was based on the opinions of the trainers and handlers of the dogs observed. Trainers and handlers have very close relationships with the dogs with which they work, making them ideal candidates to observe and identify specific behaviors and traits. This is significant because it offers real-world application of these conclusions for real-world emergency situations in which both dog and humans are at risk. Instead of explaining these traits genetically, the article notes: “Both handlers and trainers were consistent in their opinion that Labrador retrievers as service dogs of both specialties are too highly motivated to obtain food (PThere are many jobs that canines perform today that are beneficial to not only man, but also other animals and the environment. In one unique study, scientists identified a difficulty in assessing the suitability of habitat in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park for bear populations; there was concern of a lack of connectivity between zones that would have stifled the bear population (Beckmann et al. 396). However, scientists put canines to work by training them to detect the scat of grizzly and black bears. What they found was that the dogs made quick work of locating samples for DNA analysis, leading to the increased ability to support both species in their natural environments. The dogs played a critical role in this study, increasing the speed and accuracy with which scientists could locate study material. As a result, resources were used more effectively, and the study yielded accurate results.
Another article offered a review of articles that used dogs in wildlife studies in order to contemplate the possible use of dogs in efforts to conserve and study wild tigers (Kerley 390). As Linda Kerley explains, “Using scat detection dogs, scent-matching dogs, law enforcement detection dogs and protection dogs are proven methods that can be effectively used on tigers [taking] advantage of the dog’s extremely evolved sense of smell” (390). As with the study performed by Beckmann et al., the dogs played a critical role in the success of environmental and species preservation, simply by using their natural sense of smell and companionship.
These studies, however, perhaps offer a skewed perspective of dogs at work because they take place in relative safety; there are many tasks that require canine’s to be placed directly in harm’s way. Animal rights activists routinely point to several possible paths to cruelty: being left in a hot car, being placed in a situation too dangerous for a human, being injured or killed in the line of duty, or being subjected to brutal training methods. These points are again valid in that there are examples of each of these scenarios, leading to the injury or death of a working canine. In November of 2009, a video was released that revealed what appeared to be a brutal training session led by the Baltimore Police Department. There have also been several occasions in which canine police companions did perish in hot cars. These cases are tragic, but it is important to ask whether these isolated cases really reflect the norm, or if they are outliers that are amplified for the express purpose of making a tragic accident worse.
Effective working dogs are trained using positive reinforcement because the establishment of trust is critical; a relationship must be established between the dog and the handler. As Lin notes, “Often, dogs live with their human handlers, even after retirement, and tend to be treated very well.” Abusive training methods are not typically an issue; while abuse might elicit reaction in a dog, it does not elicit the bond between handler and canine required to perform many jobs. For example, when a dog sniffs to find drugs, bombs, explosives or, Heaven forbid, human cadavers, the dog has to communicate what it has found and where to its handler. Further, the handler has to be able to clearly understand the dogs body language in order to interpret that communication. Abuse would sever this close relationship, rendering the team of human and canine useless.
The same level of trust is required for Police and Military dogs, and the handlers of these dogs are often very close to their canine companions; although they may be all-business while on the job, police and military canine handlers maintain loving relationships with their dogs. In most cases, both of their lives depend on that relationship, and both are grateful for it. In fact, the military even employs very specific professionals meant exclusively to care for military animals: the Veterinary Corps officer (VCO). These men and women are military practitioners that unquestionably understand the import role that animals play in military operations. It is in their best interest to provide the best care possible, both on and off the battle field.
Police and military dogs are very well taken care of because they are critical to the work to be performed. A search for veterinary studies related to military and police dogs reveals many studies directly related to helping protect these animals in the environments in which they are employed. Miranda Andress, VC and Michelle Goodnight, VC demonstrate this dedication in their study of “Heatstroke in a Military Working Dog”. In summary, a dog presented to the Fort Bragg Veterinary Medical Center with multiple symptoms, include bloat and severe personality changes (34). Max, the dog, had been deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and had recently become aggressive and had bitten several handlers. As such, he was relieved of military duty and was being considered for adoption. After attempting to record the dog for that purpose, Max became listless with a high respiratory rate. After close examination, it was concluded that Max had suffered several heat strokes, likely associated with his time in the desert. This was the cause of not only his current illness, but also his dramatic personality change (35). Although the article is scientific in nature, and accordingly loaded with medical jargon, the care with which the medical personnel attended to Max is clear; they were determined to find the problem and then, importantly, to find a way to prevent such an occurrence in other military canine’s. Max is not referred to as “the animal” or “the dog,” but he is rather referred to by his name and as “the patient.” This level of care, and the subsequent publication of the article in the U.S. Army Medical Journal demonstrates how important these animals are on a very human level.
Several other articles express the same level of concern and requisite scientific exploration for the sake of working canines. Baker and Miller published another study titled, “The Effects of Environmental Extremes on Working Dogs: A Collaborative Initiative” in which proactive and preventative solutions were sought to assist military canines deployed to areas with environmental extremes. An article by Cline and Goodnight, titled “Pit Viper Envenomation in a Military Working Dog,” explored protectionary measures that could be put in place to prevent harm to canines deployed to areas that may expose the dogs to deadly snake bites. Overall, it is clear that active and continuous study is performed to care for these animals as if they were human military members. The care and concern exhibited is obvious.
It is also important to note that law enforcement and other agencies and institutions have explored alternatives to using dogs in working scenarios; it has been found, almost overwhelmingly, that there is simply no better employee, so to speak, than a dog for many specialized positions. For example, vultures were once explored as a viable option for detecting human cadavers, but handlers were simply not able to establish a line of communication with a bird as they had with canines. Wasps have also been explored as a possible species for tracking and rescue, but it simply wasn’t a viable idea. Notably, though, these studies and attempts still involve animals, as Lin explains. These animals have traits that humans simply do not – heightened or specialized smell, powerful hearing, and tracking skills are all invaluable to efforts that save human lives: search and rescue, cadaver location, tracking, and drug identification are critical to law enforcement, forensics, and military operations.
Knowing that few, if any, alternatives exist, and being mindful of the genuinely close relationship between man and canine that has developed over thousands of years, it is important to work to care for these canines as much as possible, treating them as equal to their human counterparts in terms of medical treatment, justice, and restitution. If a canine is injured or killed in the line of duty, the event should be studied in order to prevent further tragedy. Vigilance is necessary to protect canine workers from those who would take advantage of and harm them, including apprehending corrupt and unethical breeders. Their lives have the same value as their human partners.
In conclusion, not only is it unrealistic to abolish work for dogs in the name of animal rights activism, it would also be significantly detrimental to human life. The relationship between human and canine has developed over thousands of years; we would do well to cherish this relationship. Instead, of abolishing canine work, activism should focus on care and the prevention of instances of cruelty, abuse, misuse, and unethical breeding practices. This kind of compromise will lead to many thousands more years of friendship and mutual benefice.