The Working Lab
The Labrador also makes an incredible working dog. Although you may not need him for any of these purposes, it's good to know just how smart your dog can be. That way you won't underestimate him or what he's capable of.
Assistance dogs help people with disabilities by pulling wheelchairs, picking things up, carrying items, pushing doors open, switching lights on and off, and performing many other tasks. And, of course, they also provide companionship. Labs have a number of qualities that make them superb assistance dogs.
Foremost, of course, are their strong aptitude for retrieving, their ability to learn quickly, and their friendly, stable temperament. A Lab that goes into service work may be asked to pick up an item as small as a paper clip or as large as a pair of crutches. The variety of work involved in being an assistance dog is appealing to the hard-working Lab.
The Lab's easygoing temperament is a plus as well. Labs rarely have aggression issues. They take in stride the many different sights, sounds, and people that assistance dogs encounter without letting them get in the way of their work.
Besides being strong and hardworking, Labs have another advantage: Their short coat requires little grooming — a good brushing once a week will keep it healthy. And they're large enough to be useful, but not so large that they can't fit beneath the table in a fine restaurant — or McDonald's, for that matter. All of these traits and attributes combined make the Lab a desirable and successful assistance dog.
Guide dogs learn to take people who can't see on their daily rounds, helping them to navigate stairs, doorways, and traffic. Guide dogs require many of the same attributes as assistance dogs. They must be quick to learn and eager to please.
Often, guide dogs are bred to be smaller than the average Lab. The smaller size gives them two advantages. They're less conspicuous, and they fit more easily on public transportation or beneath tables.
Service dogs must learn eighty or more commands. These include pushing elevator buttons, summoning help, retrieving objects such as the telephone or the television remote control, and retrieving food from the refrigerator (without eating it).
Both guide and assistance dogs usually come from special breeding programs, although some programs accept donations from breeders or pet homes. Not every Lab has the right stuff to become an assistance or guide dog. Each is carefully tested as a puppy to make sure he has the right personality and aptitudes for this important work. For instance, Labs that are overly dominant or overly submissive don't work well. Additionally, service dogs must have a low prey drive, to be able to sublimate their desire to chase a bird while pulling a wheelchair or guiding someone across a busy street.
These highly trained dogs and their handlers seek and find hundreds of missing people every year. They also help rescue people trapped after catastrophic events, such as the collapse of the World Trade Center, earthquakes, and avalanches. Search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs can specialize in any of the following kinds of search:
Wilderness searches: Seeking missing persons in forested or other wild areas
Water searches: Sniffing out the scent of drowning victims, which rises to the surface of the water
Urban searches: Following an individual scent in a highly populated area
Avalanche work: Searching for people buried beneath snow
Disaster searches: Looking for victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, among other disasters
Among the attributes that make Labs good SAR dogs are their exquisite sense of smell, size, strength and stamina, swimming ability (for water search dogs), and that easy-care coat.
The Labrador's ability to differentiate one odor from another is one of the factors that makes him such a superb working dog. Labs have found employment with the FBI as chemical explosives dogs, with the U.S. Customs Service as drug-sniffing dogs, and with fire departments or insurance companies as arson detectors.
The FBI's chemical explosives dogs are trained to sniff out different explosive chemicals. During their extensive training, the dogs learn to identify approximately 19,000 different combinations of explosives.
The U.S. Customs Service Canine Enforcement Program uses Labradors, among other breeds, to find drugs, currency, and other contraband being smuggled across the border. Labs considered for the program must be one to three years old with an outgoing, curious personality, as well as the ability to remain calm and focused in the face of crowds, loud noises, or chaotic situations. A passion for retrieving is a must — a trait the Lab has in abundance.
If you could remove the sensory membranes that line the inside of a dog's nose and stretch them out flat, their total surface area would be greater than the total surface area of the dog's body.
Arson dogs are trained to detect the presence of accelerants and ignitable liquids, such as gasoline or paint thinner, that are often used to set fires. When the dog locates an accelerant, he touches the area with his nose. Once again, the Lab's highly sensitive nose is what makes him ideal for this type of work. His personable nature, calm demeanor, and quiet manners also make him the dog of choice for arson detection work.
Studies show that simply petting a dog can lower blood pressure. A visit from a dog to patients at nursing homes and hospitals can raise spirits and soothe agitation. Not surprisingly, the good-natured Lab is a popular therapy dog. He enjoys meeting people and loves getting petted. His trainability allows him to perform entertaining tricks, such as “Speak” or “Shake hands,” when he's making his rounds.
Therapy dogs, or facility dogs (as they're sometimes called), receive training from organizations such as Therapy Dog International, the Delta Society Pet Partners, and Love on a Leash. They don't need formal obedience training, but they are expected to have certain skills. These include being able to meet strangers in a friendly manner, sit politely for petting, walk nicely on a leash, walk through crowds, be comfortable around walkers and crutches, and get along well with other dogs. Therapy work is a great way to spread the Lab love around.
Labs make great therapy dogs. Here, a twenty-month-old female black Lab assists with physical therapy.