Man's Best Friend
The dog has been considered "man's best friend" since Neolithic times, 10,000 years ago. Throughout the ages, people learned to modify its appearance and temperament through selective breeding to produce animals capable of performing a wide variety of tasks. Here are just a few of the amazingly skilled workers of the canine world.
Alaskan malamute The Alaskan malamute is the workhorse of the sled dog world, built to haul hefty loads over great distances. Shaped by harsh Arctic conditions, it is one of the most unaltered of breeds, having retained its original form and function over hundreds of years. The malamute is known for its extraordinary endurance, but not for speed. Powerful and independent, yet sociable by nature, it is well suited to a family environment as long as it has plenty of exercise and space to roam.
Though its origin is unknown, the Alaskan malamute is named after the native Inuit tribe called Mahlemuit. The Mahlemuit lived along the northwest shores of Alaska and used the dogs as their hunting partners. The dogs hauled the heavy seal and polar bear carcasses that the tribe used for meat over many miles to their villages. This arduous work required them to be large and strong, rather than fast. An essential component of the Inuits' lives, the dogs were treated as members of the family.
The promise of gold in 1896 brought a flood of outsiders -- and their dogs -- to Alaska. In order to supply the vast numbers of dogs needed during the gold rush, native dogs were interbred as well as bred with dogs brought by the settlers. The pure Alaskan malamute was in danger of being lost.
In the 1920s, a dog-racing enthusiast began to breed them for sled racing, and they rebounded. But it was their reputation as hard workers and faithful companions that ensured the breed's survival. Some were chosen to assist Admiral Byrd in his trek to the South Pole in 1933, while others were called into service during World War II to work as freight haulers, pack animals, and search-and-rescue dogs.
Although they are still used as sleddogs for recreational mushing, most malamutes today are unable to compete successfully against the smaller and faster breeds used in dogsled races. But their versatility keeps them employed as pack dogs, weight pullers, and show dogs.
Height: 23-25 inches
Weight: 75-85 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: The largest of the sled dogs, the Alaskan malamute is heavy-boned and compact, designed for strength, balance, and endurance. Its dual-layer coat consists of a long, coarse guard coat and a short, dense, oily undercoat, providing the ultimate in insulation.
The bearded collie, affectionately called the beardie, is a highly intelligent herder. Bred for centuries to drive sheep from the mountains of the Scottish Highlands, it has maintained the strength, speed, and agility characteristic of a real working dog. Its boundless energy paired with a deeply ingrained herding instinct spurs it to give chase whenever it has the chance. Stable and self-confident, the beardie generally shows no signs of shyness or aggression, and its tireless and affable nature makes it a devoted companion and lively family pet.
One of Britain's most ancient breeds, the bearded collie was developed in Scotland as a herding dog for sheep and cattle. Its ancestors likely included herding dogs from the European continent, such as the Poland lowland sheepdog and the Komondor, which were bred with the local Scottish dogs to produce a more able and agile herder -- the beardie.
An independent worker, the beardie worked long days on the rugged terrain and displayed keen intelligence and self-reliance when it came to the safety of its charges. As the shepherd was often miles away and unable to deliver commands, it was up to the dog to make decisions concerning the sheep's welfare. Though flocks intermingled freely on the Scottish hillsides, it has been said that a beardie never brought home a single sheep that belonged to another herdsman.
Over the past few decades, the bearded collie has been superseded as top herder by the border collie, which possesses a stronger instinct for driving sheep. Having lost popularity as a working breed, the beardie was destined to die out, but for the efforts of a handful of shepherds who still considered it the top dog. Today, the beardie is rebounding, not only as a working sheep dog in the British Isles, Australia, and the U.S., but also as a show dog and beloved family companion.
Height: 20-22 inches
Weight: 40-60 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: The bearded collie sports a double coat to insulate it from the harsh elements that whip the northern Highlands. Its feet are well-padded and fully furred between the toes, offering the dog protection throughout the arduous workday. Powerful and muscular hindquarters enable it to spring high -- or bounce -- above tall vegetation in the fields, as well as make the sharp turns and sudden stops required of a sheep dog, even when running at top speed.
Often called a nose with a dog attached, the bloodhound is famous for its superior sense of smell. Its phenomenal ability to pursue any scent -- even ones more than 100 hours old -- has earned the breed employment worldwide in rescue and criminal searches. A diligent and committed worker, the bloodhound has been known to follow a trail for more than 100 miles. Naturally gentle and loving, the dog makes a wonderful companion, but is an independent thinker and will often rely on its instincts to make decisions instead of following orders. Most bloodhounds cannot be walked off-leash as they are hardwired to pick up on a trail and follow it to its end.
Though no one knows just how far back the bloodhound's ancestry reaches, the breed almost certainly developed from one of the most ancient lines of tracking dogs. Experts believe that an early version was recognized throughout the Mediterranean long before the Christian era.
Known as the modern representative of the oldest race of hounds that hunt by scent, the bloodhound can be traced back to the monastery of St. Hubert's around the 8th century in what is now Belgium. There, the dogs were used to track wolves, big cats, and deer. By the 12th century, the English elite used them in pack hunting. The first recorded use of bloodhounds by organized law enforcement, however, wasn't until 1805, when the English Thrapthon Association for the Prevention of Felons acquired the dog to search for poachers and thieves. The dogs have tracked missing people and criminals ever since.
Although the modern bloodhound got its working start in Europe, the breed is thought to have reached its greatest achievements in law enforcement in the United States. For over a century, it has proved to be a valuable and tireless member of police forces nationwide. So accurate is it in its tracking abilities, the results of its trailing are admissible as evidence in a court of law.
As many other breeds have entered the field of law enforcement, the bloodhound is used less today than in the past, but it is the dog that has set the standard for scent work. In addition to tracking criminals and search and rescue, the dog also successfully competes in show events.
Height: 23-27 inches
Weight: 80-110 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: The bloodhound's nose is its greatest asset. Large, open nostrils contribute to its unparalleled sense of smell, which is about one thousand times stronger than that of humans. The loose, wrinkled skin around its face and its long, drooping ears that drag on the ground trap scent particles, aiding the dog in following its trail. Muscular shoulders that slope backward are paired with an extraordinarily strong back to allow the dog to track close to the ground for hours without tiring.
Karelian Bear Dog
Karelian bear dog A fearless hunter, the Karelian bear dog is a Finnish breed used to pursue large mammals such as bear and elk. Robust, athletic, and intelligent, it will attack bears and other large game without hesitation. These strong hunting instincts make it generally aggressive with other dogs, particularly those within its own territory. Yet it remains highly devoted to its master and will submit to his or her command. A true working dog, the Karelian bear dog demands outdoor exercise and makes a good companion for an outdoorsperson.
For centuries, Finnish hunters used the Karelian bear dog to hunt bear, elk, moose, deer, and wolf. A lone hunter, the dog tracks its prey silently, barking only when the quarry is captured or treed. The sound of its bark can communicate to its human hunting partner what type of animal the dog has located.
The breed originated in the area of northern Europe known as Karelia and the isolation and remoteness of eastern Finland ensured that it remained relatively untouched until the 20th century. World War II took a devastating toll, bringing the breed to near extinction. But a group of dedicated enthusiasts stepped in to reestablish the species, and it is once again among the most popular dogs in Finland.
Though the Karelian bear dog is primarily a hunting breed its intelligence and brawn suit the dog to competition in obedience, search and rescue, and sled dog trials. Most recently, its work has led the dog into a conservationist role; it is now being trained to condition bears to recognize and avoid human territory in order to mitigate bear-human conflict in high-incidence areas.
Height: 19-23 inches
Weight: 45-50 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: In addition to its fearless nature, the Karelian bear dog's senses, particularly its sense of smell, are extremely acute. Its ears are very mobile and react sensitively to sounds. It is also equipped with a set of strong, evenly spaced teeth that meet in a scissors bite.
Portuguese Water Dog
The Portuguese water dog is a superior diver and swimmer, at home in the water and on land. This breed is strong and spirited, yet obedient and good-natured, traits that make it a favorite as both a working dog and family pet. Often referred to as a "thinking" dog, it learns quickly and thrives on new challenges. After having mastered a task, it will often attempt to improvise or modify it. A natural retriever, this high-energy dog needs to work -- whether in water, obedience, tracking, or agility tests.
True to its name, the dog was acclaimed for centuries along Portugal's coast as a robust, seafaring breed. An exceptional swimmer and diver, it was considered a working part of a ship's crew and assisted fishermen by driving schools of fish into nets, retrieving lost tackle and equipment, and carrying messages between ships as well as to shore. As marine technology increased, dependence on the dog decreased until they faced near extinction.
American interest in the breed didn't take hold until the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1972, only 12 Portuguese water dogs existed in the United States, but a dedicated group of breeders worked diligently to propagate the species, and within 10 years, the dogs' numbers increased to 650. Today, there are roughly 10,000 in America, and they are often used in water rescue.
Height: 18-23 inches
Weight: 35-60 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: Ruggedly built, the Portuguese water dog has a well-proportioned body and a broad-based tail that acts as a rudder when swimming. Webbed feet and a thick, waterproof coat enable it to dive to depths of 12 feet and to swim a distance of up to five miles.
For hundreds of years, the Saint Bernard has been hailed for its bravery in rescue work, saving countless lives throughout the treacherous terrain of the Swiss Alps. Its power, strength, and imposing size add to its abilities as a working dog. But this intelligent, gentle giant is also celebrated for its intense loyalty and affectionate personality.
The Saint Bernard, often reverently referred to as the Saint, was originally a shorthaired dog named after Saint Bernard of Menthon, founder of the Hospice in the Swiss Alps -- a shelter established in 1050 to provide comfort to travelers passing between Italy and Switzerland.
Though it is uncertain just when the dog arrived at the hospice, its popularity as a rescue breed began in the mid-17th century. In addition to being a faithful companion to the monks in residence, the Hospice dog, as it was then called, was hailed for its exceptional ability to find lost trails and lost people -- even those buried under several feet of snow. Once a dog located a helpless traveler, it would lick the freezing person's face to keep him conscious and lie on or beside him to keep him warm. By the mid- to late-1800s, the breed was internationally recognized and its popularity began to spread.
Over the past three centuries the Saint Bernard is estimated to have saved more than 2,000 human lives. Today, the Saint Bernard continues to be used in search and rescue efforts.
Height: 25-28 inches
Weight: 150-200 pounds
Special Adaptations for Work: The massive size and muscle power of the Saint Bernard allows it to rescue in rough terrain. Large feet with arched toes keep it sure-footed in snow and ice, and a highly developed sense of smell helps it to locate a body under many feet of snow. This breed is also thought to possess a sixth sense to foretell storms and avalanches, though its gift is likely due to its ability to hear low-frequency sounds.