Written by: Erin Harty, Staff Writer - VetCentric.com
For the vast majority of dogs, life is eat, sleep and play. For some, though, work is also a factor of daily life.
Dogs can have a variety of job descriptions: helping police officers on patrol, keeping a farmer’s sheep or cattle in line, searching out victims of natural disasters, retrieving quarry for hunters, assisting the disabled, and even sniffing out drugs, smuggled goods, and explosives.
Being a pet dog may seem to be a lucky lot in life, but are working dogs worse off than their more coddled cousins? It turns out that, in some ways, they’ve got it even better.
In humans, it’s a well-established fact that those of us who are active and exercise live longer, healthier lives. "It very much applies to dogs also," said Robert L. Gillette, DVM, MSE, director of the Sports Medicine Program at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. "I see a lot less problems in [working] dogs than I do in pet dogs. They’re better conditioned and better able to handle the stress than under-conditioned or out-of-shape dogs."
For instance, he treats many fractures in racing greyhounds as a result of the stress they’re under when they run. However, he’s also treated a Lhasa apso for the same kind of injury’the dog was a hard-core couch potato, and hurt itself running to get its dinner. Because it wasn’t well conditioned, it was injured much more easily.
The physical requirements for working dogs vary’herding dogs spend much of their day on the move, and require stamina. Police dogs, on the other hand, need to be fast and expend bursts of energy. Even active pet dogs probably don’t approach the levels of fitness required in working dogs.
"Generally speaking, working dogs that are worked are more athletic [than pet dogs]. They are more active and as such are in better shape," said Stephen Lee, a physicist from Los Alamos, N.M. Mr. Lee is an amateur racer, or "musher," of Siberian Husky sled dogs. "For sled dogs, the activity levels are much higher than in many other dog sports, so they tend to be in excellent physical shape. Sort of like an Olympic athlete, if you will."
Mr. Lee trains his team of four dogs in the colder months of the year, usually about October through March. "In the fall, I begin training on dirt using an ATV [all-terrain vehicle]. I begin very slowly, since the dogs have not pulled all summer, and work my way up. Depending on how the dogs are doing, I begin at one mile or so runs and over a period of a couple of months work them up to five miles," he said. Early runs focus on both speed and strength training, but in later months, training focuses more on speed. By December, there’s usually enough snow to train with a sled instead of an ATV.
"The other pacing factor in my training is that I am a strictly weekend trainer. My schedule does not allow me to train during the week, except very rarely, so I have to make the most of the weekends I have. This is also why it takes months for me to work the dogs up to speed and pulling power," he said. "Still, by the time the racing season rolls around, I typically have over 100 miles on my dogs."
Not all working dogs are required to perform at the athletic level of sled dogs, but almost all are on carefully crafted programs of care to optimize their health’including exercise, diet, and routine veterinary care. "[Working dogs] are exceptionally well taken care of," said Paul McNamara, DVM, DACVS, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at Veterinary Specialties Referral Center in Pattersonville, N.Y. He teaches a program of field first aid to handlers of police dogs.
"These are athletes that need to be kept trained. Every day, they need to have some sort of physical activity, above and beyond their basic training. Being fit reduces the likelihood of injuries," he said.
Owners of working dogs are often better prepared to keep their animals in good health, as well. "It’s a different type of relationship. It’s kind of a partnership, and each partner puts a little part into the relationship," said Dr. Gillette. "[The owners] are very much aware. They’ll pick something up when most people wouldn’t see a problem. They know their dogs very, very well."
Mr. Lee agreed. "I would say [working dogs’] lives are also different in terms of the care and attention they receive. This is not to imply that most pet [owners] do not take excellent care’medical and emotional’’of their animals, but for sled dogs, the level is extremely high by necessity of the demands of the sport," he said. " Most sled dogs are very tough and have a high threshold for pain. A musher must learn to read each individual dog for any minor sign that might indicate a minor injury of some type that, if left untreated, would become more serious."
And Dr. McNamara said that he has not "met a [police dog] handler yet who didn’t want to soak up as much information about his or her partner as they could get. They’re a group of people I enjoy working with because they’re so dedicated to their partners." Most police dogs live at home with their handler, and in addition to being a highly trained working dog, they’re also the family pet.
"The handlers will all tell you that they spend more time with the dog than with any other person or animal, including their wives!" said Dr. McNamara.
Of course, occupational hazards also come with most canine jobs. Police dogs, particularly, often have a dangerous job description. Stab and gunshot wounds or trauma from being hit by a car during a chase are all possibilities. "It doesn’t happen terribly frequently. But if one dog gets injured, that’s one dog too many," said Dr. McNamara.
"Certain activities predispose certain dogs to problems we don’t see in other activities," said Dr. Gillette. The stress fractures in greyhounds, for instance, or injuries to the pads of dogs that do extensive running on hard surfaces. But proper handling also includes prevention’which is why sled dogs wear booties on their feet when they race across ice and snow, and police dogs often wear bulletproof vests.
"Sled dog racing is an intense sport, but despite that intensity, there are remarkably few medical issues that arise as a result of the activity. The dogs are bred for running and pulling and they excel’and thrive’doing these activities," said Mr. Lee.
In fact, most working dogs relish their jobs. "The profession they’re in is riskier than being a pet, but the types of dogs brought into this work all seem to enjoy it. The training all revolves around play," said Dr. McNamara. Drug-sniffing dogs are trained by searching for a toy, he explained. So a dog poring through a car in search of marijuana or cocaine experiences the same thrill it gets when searching for its favorite squeaky toy.
"We can’t get into the minds of these dogs, but when I put dogs on exercise restriction [to rest an injury or other problem], they get really unhappy when Dad’ leaves for work without them," Dr. McNamara added.
In other words, work just isn’t work for working dogs. "[Police dogs] do a huge service most people can’t appreciate, and they love their work," said Dr. McNamara. "When it comes to working dogs, there’s a public misconception because they don’t realize what the dogs’ purposes are."
Police dogs are trained to only be aggressive on command; in fact, it would be a huge liability to have a wantonly aggressive dog that couldn’t be strictly controlled, Dr. McNamara said. "They’re trained to do things that can seem aggressive, but they only do it when they’re commanded to do it, or when their human partner’s life is in danger," he added. "They take drugs off the street, and find people that are lost... They do a huge community service."
Mr. Lee retired two of his sled dogs from competition at the age of 10, not for lack of desire to do the job, but because the dogs were no longer as fast as their younger teammates. "Both of my retired dogs to this day get very upset when they see me going out with my racing team. They still want to be in the action. Occasionally, I will hook them up for short slow runs just to keep them happy," he said. "My opinion, based on anecdotal evidence, is that sled dogs are healthier later in life [than pet dogs] with good care and conditioning occurred during their careers. They are athletic and healthy."
He added: "I have had Siberian Huskies throughout my mushing career. Some, which I got from animal shelters, never saw a sled until they were adults. Others I got from other mushers with specific Siberian Husky racing lines crossed into their kennels. In both cases, the dogs take to mushing like a fish takes to water. It is a natural act for them. Even the one I got from the animal shelter seemed to instinctively know what to do.
"This has a lot to do with why I am in the sport. I love working with these dogs in the environment and at tasks as they were bred to do," Mr. Lee added. "There is nothing quite like mushing a well-trained and conditioned team of dogs."
Article republished here with permission from VetCentric.com
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