Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Working for Your Love, Not the Money

Pet Column for the week of December 17, 2007

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Millions of us wake up each morning and drive to work. We might be motivated because we enjoy our job, but for many, if it wasn't for the money, we wouldn't be headed for the office.

Meet Nala, who works 40 hours a week and is on call 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, detecting explosives at the University of Illinois. She's a Belgian Malinois, a dog breed similar to a German Shepherd. Although she drives to work everyday like the rest of us (albeit in a specially outfitted police car), has her own badge, and gets free admission to all sporting events, she doesn't receive a paycheck every two weeks. She works only for the praise of her handler, Officer Troy Chew, and a tennis ball. "She goes crazy for that ball," says Officer Chew, a police officer for the Department of Public Safety at the Urbana-Champaign campus, and Nala's handler since July 2004.

Nala is just one of the many dogs that work for a living. In the field of public safety there are a few jobs open only to our four-legged friends. Nala is considered an E.O.D., or explosive ordinance dog, trained to smell chemicals in bombs. "When she finds something, she creeps down to the ground and turns her head," says Officer Chew. More commonly seen are narcotics dogs trained to scratch where they smell drugs. Obviously, having a bomb-detecting dog paw at a live bomb might cause some problems and thus the difference in training.

Beyond the scope of the law enforcement field, since the creation of the Seeing Eye Foundation in 1929, over 14,000 dogs have been trained and partnered with the visually impaired. According to Dr. Amber Labelle, a veterinary ophthalmology resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, "dogs
probably see the world similarly to a red or green color blind human."

Dr. Labelle mentions that dogs have great night vision because they have more light detecting cells in their eyes than humans do. Dr. Mitzi Zarfoss, another veterinary ophthalmology resident, explains that "dogs are far less likely to need glasses than humans are, because they wouldn't have survived this far evolutionarily without good eyes." Although we cannot ask dogs how well they see, their eyes have certainly helped thousands of non-seeing humans go about their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps the newest class of working canines is seizure-alert dogs. Scientists are not sure how some dogs can innately detect a seizure in an epileptic child 15 minutes prior to onset, but somehow they can. As if being able to detect a seizure was not good enough, researchers in Cambridge, England, have proven that dogs have the ability to smell cancer in patients long before any manmade test can.

More than likely, many dogs have these incredible abilities. But as Officer Chew says, "A lot of it has to do with knowing your dog's subtle changes in body behavior that tell you they have picked up on something."

Thanks to the teamwork of Nala and Officer Chew, and the thousands of other dogs working each day, this world is a safer and brighter place. If only we all could work for love and a tennis ball.