Documentary Gives a New Appreciation for the Working Dog

Blue-Collar Dogs shows that canines are not just man's best friends, they are sometimes his most valuable employee

When I hear the term “working dog,” three images come to mind.

One is from my childhood, a classic Sesame Street clip that may have given me my first appreciation for the acoustic guitar. It features a hard-workin' cowdog who lives exclusively to herd cattle. How wonderful to find the full-length version on YouTube.

The second is from my reporting career: when Parma resident Debbie Dove and her dog Ecru introduced the service dog profession to six classes at Wickliffe Middle School last May. Though Ecru was just 3 years old and sometimes inattentive — it took a few commands for him to respond — his aim to please was crystal clear.

My third image was captured just last week. I don't watch a lot of cable television and wouldn't have watched a show called Blue-Collar Dogs on Nat Geo WILD if it weren't for this column. But I had never understood the devotion of service dogs
to their owners until I saw an episode titled Canine MD.

Now my third working dog image is that of a yellow labrador retriever puppy opening a miniature wooden door by pulling a knotted white rope.

The door didn't lead to anywhere; it was puppy-sized, you might say. It was just a prop to train the puppies at Bergin University of Canine Studies' Assistance Dog Institute. And the pudgy sack of skin and fur seemed to love the work as much as our old family puppy used to love eating construction paper.

Bergin University trains labs and golden retrievers — breeds chosen for their desire to please and willingness to partner with man — to serve people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, post-polio syndrome and other conditions to people confined to wheelchairs.

Is it nature or nurture? Maybe that's a question for another column. But from their first moments of consciousness, as early as three and a half weeks old, the pups begin training on complex tasks like shaking paws, flipping switches and opening the aforementioned tiny doors with rope.

“It's a positive thing that is embedded in their hearts and minds,” said Dr. Bonita Bergin, Ph.D., the university's founder and president.

By 12 to 16 weeks, they've learned nearly all service dog commands, and will eventually be trained to lift up to five pounds at lap level, pick flat things like credit cards off concrete floors and understand “intelligent disobedience” to keep their people safe — a few silent, self-satisfied tail wags after a job well done.

Some even learn to read simple commands printed on cards in English, Spanish or stick figures.

This segment of Blue-Collar Dogs also featured dogs that detect epilepsy, diabetes and cancer: science continues to expand the horizon of medical dogs beyond event Lassie's imagination.

Shot in documentary format, the full three hours included law enforcement K-9s and the hard work they  do. All stressed a similar theme — that humans haven't yet fully grasped canine cognition.

If Nat Geo WILD repeats the series like they did last week, it's worth a watch.

No wonder that hard-workin' cowdog felt compelled to sing.


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