Black Labrador K9 Fire service dog with fireman next to the title text Labradors as Service and Therapy Dogs

Labradors as Service and Therapy Dogs

Service Dog is a term that is used to refer to all types of dogs who are trained to help people with various disabilities and impairments. It can also be used to refer to a dog who works with the military, police, customs officials, and search and rescue (SAR) services.


Because of their size, strength, intelligence, and temperament Labradors tend to make great Service Dogs. They can be found working as Assistance and Therapy Dogs, as well as assisting the military and police.


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Labradors have many characteristics that make them great Service Dogs.  They are an intelligent breed who can be taught to obey several commands as well as perform all sorts of tasks.  They are friendly, eager to please, and want to serve their owner.  Labs are very loyal and like to stick close to their masters, which is important if they are serving someone with a disability. They are protective but not aggressive. Labs are friendly and get along with most people and other animals.


Labradors usually need a lot of mental and physical stimulation. Acting as a Service Dog automatically supplies them with both these needs.  They tend to be calm dogs but have plenty of energy, which means they aren’t overly excitable but are able to perform lots of necessary tasks. Labs are also hyper-aware of everything going on around them, which means they can alert their owner to danger or other things that need immediate attention. Another bonus with Labradors is that they often love to be in the water which can be very helpful as a Service Dog working with people with disabilities or as a Therapy Dog.


In this article I will introduce you to several Service Jobs which Labradors can perform:

  • Assistance Services
    • Guide Dogs
    • Hearing Ear Dogs
    • Disability Assistance Dogs
    • Medical Detection Dogs
    • Therapy Dogs
  • Emergency Services
    • Military
    • Police
    • Customs
    • Search and Rescue (SAR) Services


Assistance Dogs

Since Labradors are such people-lovers and are even-keeled dogs they tend to make good Assistance Dogs.  Labs can be trained to help guide the blind, aid hearing-impaired owners, assist the disabled, alert their owners and caregivers to various medical conditions, and can act as therapy dogs to those who are in need.


Training Labradors for several of these services begins when they are puppies. They are raised by volunteers who have been specially trained to teach Labrador puppies the skills necessary to be Assistance Dogs.  These puppies need to be highly socialized around many different groups of people and animals. They need to be comfortable in different situations and surroundings. They need to be able to focus and obey no matter what is happening around them.


Once these puppies are grown they go into assistance training where they learn the specific skills they will need to be Assistance Dogs.  The training they receive depends on what type of assistance they will be providing. Once they have been trained, they are paired up with a specific disabled person, and the two of them begin training together. These Labs help people with disabilities to have much more freedom, and they provide them with loving companionship.


Guide Dogs

Labs tend to make excellent guide dogs for the blind because of their size, intelligence, temperament, and people-pleasing attitude. A Lab can also have a stubborn streak that comes in handy in this occupation. If a Lab is confronted with a dangerous situation he is able to take control and ignore a command that could lead his partner into harm.


Seeing-Eye Labrador guiding a person across the street
Guide Labrador (Photo courtesy smerikal )

Several breeds are trained to be guide dogs but Labs are the most popular. These guide dogs help their partners to have more freedom in the outside world and to live a more independent life.


Hearing Ear Dogs

Labs are also often trained to be Hearing Ear Dogs. These Labs are put through 4-6 months of specialized training where they are taught obedience as well as auditory awareness.  They are specifically trained to help people who are hearing impaired or deaf.


There are so many sounds that we take for granted in everyday life. Hearing Ear Dogs are trained to alert their owners to these sounds. Hearing Ear Dogs alert their partners to sounds like a doorbell, a phone ringing, a siren, or even a crying baby. These dogs give alerts in several different ways. Sometimes they will run back and forth between their owner and the sound to make him aware. Other times they will nudge their owner awake. Sometimes they will pull their owners out of danger.


Disability Assistance Dogs

Since Labs are so eager to please, intelligent, and have natural retrieving instincts, they are easily trained to help provide assistance to many types of handicapped owners. In these situations, the Lab is trained to perform tasks that require dexterity or mobility that their owners may not have. Each Lab is trained in some general obedience skills and then he is trained to do specific tasks that will help his particular owner. These tasks can range from picking up dropped items, to bringing in the mail, too many other helpful duties.


Disability Assistance Dogs are trained to help their owners with any tasks they cannot physically accomplish themselves. Some specific examples of tasks these Labs may perform are picking up small items like keys, cell phones, wallets, etc. These Labs can be trained to help their owners get dressed. They can bring them articles of clothing and some can even help with zippers. Some help with everyday tasks like loading and unloading the washer and dryer, or bringing their owner items from the fridge. You can see how these Assistance Dogs help give their owners more freedom and independence.


Medical Detection Dogs

Recently, Labradors have started to be trained to be medical detection and alert dogs. Some Labs are able to aid their owner through an epileptic seizure, and others detect when a diabetic’s blood sugar is getting too low. There have even been some who have been able to detect tumors in cancer patients


How are they able to do this? Dogs have 125-300 million scent glands, while people only have about 5 million. This means that a dog can be anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive to scent than a human being.


Different diseases can create different chemical reactions within a person’s body. These reactions can create different scents that are expressed in a person’s sweat and breath.  Medical Detection Dogs are trained to recognize these scents.


Some Labs are trained to react if their owner is having an epileptic seizure.  The dog may be trained to do several different things. Sometimes they are trained to alert the parents or caregivers of a child having a seizure. Other times they are taught to lay by the person and protect them during their seizure. Still, others may lie in place to break the fall or even activate an alarm.


Labs that are trained to work with diabetics have to learn how to recognize a hypoglycemic scent.  They also have to be able to differentiate between an old scent and a new one. If they detect that their owner is having a hypoglycemic episode then they alert them. The owners are also taught what to do to verify that the dog is correct before they administer a treatment to themselves.


It is even thought that some dogs can detect an odor that alerts them to cancer in their owner. This is still in the early stages of study but some of these findings have been significant.


Therapy Dogs

Therapy Labrador being pet by women and children
Therapy Labrador (Photo courtesy USAG- Humphreys)

A Therapy Dog is one that goes with his owner to visit people in nursing homes, hospitals, day care centers, schools, prisons, etc.  These are often social visits but sometimes the dog can be trained to actually participate in therapy and rehabilitation sessions. Labs make great Therapy Dogs because of their friendliness and calm demeanor.


A Labrador must go through special training to become a Therapy Dog.  First, he needs to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. This test ensures that the dog is well-mannered and trained to behave during these interactions. The dog will also need to learn how to behave around people in wheelchairs, on crutches, or using walkers. There are also many sights, sounds, and odors he will need to become accustomed to as he encounters them in these establishments.


Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners are two organizations that can help train you and your dog and can get your Lab certified as a Therapy Dog. Many dog trainers also offer classes that can help train your Lab to provide this service.


The job of a Therapy Dog is to visit and socialize with people who need interaction, like the elderly or emotionally disabled children and adults. The dog is there to give love and affection. These sessions have proven extremely effective in helping these people to be less lonely and depressed. Labs are perfect for this service as they are so naturally loving and affectionate.


Emergency Services

A Labrador’s strong sense of smell and tracking abilities have made them highly effective in various emergency service areas. Also, because Labs are so eager to please, they tend to stick to a job until it is done. This trait has proven quite useful with difficult tracking jobs.


Military Service Dogs

Military Service Labrador being kissed by desert soldierLabradors have been used to help the military as far back as World War II, during which time they were used in Europe to locate hidden land mines. Their ability to locate these devices buried in the ground saved many lives. Labs were also trained to deliver messages from one military unit to another over terrain that would have otherwise been difficult for men to cross.


Military Service Dogs are still being used by the armed forces today. They can track down wounded soldiers and can detect the scent of even small amounts of explosive material.


Police Dogs

Police-Labrador leading policeman by leashLabradors also serve as police dogs, usually for scenting and tracking assignments. They may be trained to track criminals who are on the run or hiding in a building. Labs are also used to sniff out weapons, explosives, and drugs.


Another advantage to using Labradors for law enforcement activities is that people are more at ease with Labs and less frightened of them than they may be of breeds with more aggressive reputations, such as Dobermans or German Shepherds.


Customs Officers

You may also see Labradors at work with customs officers in airports, seaports, or at borders and other public locations. In this capacity, they often use their abilities of scent to keep dangerous and illegal materials from entering the country. They have been found to have the ability to concentrate better than other breeds, even in large, noisy, and crowded areas.


At national borders, these Labs may be used to sniff car bumpers, tailpipes, and other areas where contraband could be stowed. At airports, they are often used to sniff luggage for any illegal and dangerous materials. A well-trained Lab can recognize these scents even when the items are stowed in thick containers or packed with other strong-smelling items, like coffee, to throw off the scent. Someone attempting to smuggle drugs or other illegal materials may think they have done a good job in hiding their items but it is quite hard to fool the scenting skills of a Lab.


Some of the Labs used as customs dogs are donated and some are even adopted from shelters. Customs dogs need to have energy, be confident and have good concentration skills.


Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs

Search-and-Rescue-Labrador being trained by a Lieutenant
Search-and-Rescue Labrador (Photo courtesy State Farm)

Since Labradors are such good scent trackers and love being around people, they tend to make good search and rescue dogs.  To be able to perform search and rescue tasks, the dog needs to be able to focus and block out anything that could detract it from the trail. The Lab needs to be able to ignore distractions like children, other animals, and other tempting scents.


Most Labs love people but there are some who do not have that proclivity.  If the Lab doesn’t care for people, he will most likely not make a good tracking dog as he will not be motivated to keep on the scent.


Search and Rescue dogs develop a strong bond with their handlers. It is important that the Labrador trusts his handler and understands what is expected of him. These kinds of searches are always under the supervision of law enforcement officers.


After horrible disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes, Labs and other search and rescue dogs are often used to help locate survivors who are trapped. In the United Kingdom, search dogs are often used to find missing people.  They are trained to help track the elderly or confused who have gotten lost as well as hikers who have lost their way.


Final Thoughts

Labradors obviously provide many wonderful services that help different people in several different situations.  From assisting the blind to doing police work, they are quite versatile. Their personality makes them adaptable to these jobs and their intelligence makes them easy to train. Labs aim to please!


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