Dogs are known for their loyalty and friendship, and many people go to great lengths to keep their dogs healthy. But ironically, in recent years, there has been a role reversal, with dogs contributing greatly to the health of their masters. In fact, many dogs are specially trained to “work in healthcare,” providing medical services of a sort to those who need it – and often even saving lives.

Guide Dogs

When you think of dogs improving human health, you probably think of seeing-eye dogs.

And it’s true: Dogs have helped visually impaired people for centuries, possibly as far back as Ancient Rome. Today, seeing-eye dogs are trained in selective disobedience, meaning that they disobey commands that they feel will be harmful to their handlers. For example, if they are given the command to move forward, but are by the curb of a busy street with cars rushing by, they will disobey.

But have you ever heard of hearing guide dogs? These dogs can assist those who are deaf or hard of hearing. They can alert their handler to a knock on the door, a baby’s cry, or a smoke alarm, and lead them to the source of the sound on command.

A third type of guide dog is the mobility assistance dog, which helps people with a wide range of mobility issues, such as spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, muscular dystrophy, or severe arthritis. They can push buttons on elevators or automatic doors, retrieve objects, or turn on lights. Some dogs can brace their partners or help with balance issues while walking, while others can pull a wheelchair behind them and help transfer their handler to a chair, bed, or bathtub.

Guide dogs help their handlers increase their independence. Those who are successfully helped often find that they feel more confident completing day-to-day tasks with their dogs by their sides.

Allergy Detection Dogs

For children with life-threatening allergies, simply going to school or hanging out at a friend’s house can be dangerous. Allergy detection dogs help provide these children with more independence, while still keeping them safe.

These dogs are trained to sniff out specific allergens, such as peanuts, gluten, or eggs. They will give an alert if these allergens are in the vicinity, potentially preventing their handlers from suffering anaphylactic shock.

Seizure Response Dogs

Dogs can also, amazingly, be trained to recognize the beginning of an epileptic seizure. Trained seizure response dogs can respond by barking, pressing an alert button, or running for help. They can remove their handlers from unsafe areas, stand guard over them, or help them regain consciousness using deep pressure stimulation. During the recovery period, a seizure response dog can bring medicine or a phone to its handler.

Diabetic Alert Dogs

Similarly, diabetic alert dogs are trained to recognize blood sugar highs and lows that can be extremely dangerous, due to a scent change that is imperceptible to humans. If a dog alerts, its handler knows to do a quick blood test and then inject insulin or ingest glucose. The dog also knows to find others for help or set off an alarm system if necessary. Handlers of a diabetic alert dog often experience an increased feeling of independence and security.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

For people with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychiatric service dogs can provide intensive support. These dogs can sense when their partners are about to experience a symptom, such as a panic attack, and can create a distraction or get help. They can also prevent symptoms by giving their handlers a sense of safety, creating a physical barrier between their handlers and other people (generating personal space), and compelling their handlers to go outdoors and exercise regularly.

Medical Detection Dogs

Perhaps the most recent development in service dog training has been the medical detection dog. For example, dogs can be trained to screen for certain types of cancers, usually by detecting the odor of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in a patient’s breath. Studies have shown strong promise in dogs being able to accurately detect ovarian cancer and bladder cancer.

They have also been used to detect clostridium difficile (a bacteria that causes an infection of the large intestines) by smelling feces samples, or even just by being exposed to air around an infected patient. More recently, they have even been trained to detect COVID-19 infection, which could be helpful in screening hundreds of people an hour in high-traffic areas like airports or stadiums. At this point, however, these findings are in their earlier stages and have rarely been published or peer reviewed, so it will take some time before changes can be implemented in this area.

While service dogs will never take over the healthcare field, they can be a helpful tool for providers and individuals with certain physical, neurological, or mental health needs. But who knows what the future will hold? Perhaps one day we will discover that dogs can assist an even greater number of people, sense an even larger variety of medical conditions, or revolutionize the healthcare field in a way that we can only imagine today.

Written by Robert Brown