History of Service Animals

For many long centuries, animals and man have roamed the earth in a quest for survival.  Both hunted constantly to fill their needs for food, water, and shelter.  And as animals and man roamed the forests and plains, they came into contact with each other – first as predators and later as trusted companions and friends.  And as both of these species evolved through the centuries, so did their relationship to one another.  So today, let’s talk about service animals.  When you think of a service animal, you may think about dogs.  And you would be right!  However, we must not forget that there are many other service animals who continue to help mankind.  Can you guess some of them?  Well, I can think of horses, oxen, yaks, cats, and camels.  And then there’s elephants, falcons, mongoose, and even carrier pigeons!  So, let’s take a deeper dive into some of the wonderful service animals around the world.

The most long-lasting and popular service animal around the world is arguably the dog.  And you may wonder how the dog gained this honored position.  Well, we must go back 200,000-400,000 years ago when grey wolves, called “wolf-like canids,” roamed the Earth.  Man was evolving at this time and was hunting, building fires, and starting settlements in caves and wooden structures in the same areas as the wolf-like canids.  Man and canids started coming in contact with each other.  Maybe these canids attacked man and man hunted the canids.  They both acted as wary predators.  But slowly over time, the canids came closer and closer to man’s settlements in search of easy food – maybe scraps left around the fire or small animals kept in cages like pigs and sheep.  The canids slowly became more accustomed to the sight and smell of humans, and humans became more accustomed to canids, sometimes leaving out scraps of food for them to build trust or stop attacks. The canids and man started to form a symbiotic – or helpful – relationship: the canids would use man for protection against larger animals and for food, and man would rely on the canids to alert them to danger or nearby food and water sources. 

Over many years, some of these canids became more accustomed to, and friendly with, man while the others stayed wild as wolves.  These friendly canids produced offspring who were then raised around man. And man would treat these special canids with care and attention, slowly gaining their trust and training them to do tasks like hunting and retrieving, or guarding their homes and animals.  Over the centuries, the canids’ descendants became the domesticated dog breeds we see today.  Man then trained these dogs to be herd dogs like border collies and Australian sheepdogs, guard dogs like German shepherds, bird dogs like golden retrievers, hunting dogs like hounds and terriers, sleigh dogs like huskies, or mountain rescue dogs like Saint Bernards. On every continent, specific breeds of dogs developed based on the terrain, people, and needs in that area.

Ancient Egyptians revered dogs as hunters, guides, protectors, companions, and even friends in the afterlife.  Egyptian Pharaohs had their loyal dogs’ images carved on their tombs, a symbol of the strong bond they had formed with their trusted furry friends.

Monks in the Middle Ages trained their dogs to retrieve items and turn the spit on the fire while roasting their meat.

Then in the 1500’s, the first reported incident of a dog guiding a blind man occurred when a German physician saw a dog guiding a blind man around the streets of Nuremburg.  By the early 1900’s, man harnessed the incredible abilities of dogs – their intelligence, adaptability to training, and empathy – to become guide dogs for the blind, with organizations popping up in the United States and the United Kingdom.  

At the same time, World War I was brewing in Europe and dogs were sent into battle, doing everything from running messages between battle stations, carrying supplies, guarding equipment, and providing comfort to soldiers.  Later, during World War II, dogs were again called into service as messengers, guards, and companions, but also for digging tunnels and hunting for food in the jungles.  

More recently, service dogs’ abilities have evolved even further than hunting, herding, protecting, and retrieving.  They now provide hearing assistance for the deaf, mobility support for the disabled, medical alert notification for diabetics and epileptics, mental health companionship, search and rescue assistance, and end of life comfort.  People now use them during flights to curb panic attacks or to paw them when they are about to experience a blood pressure drop or a seizure.  The dogs fetch bottled water, pills, and blankets.  Support dogs lay on the beds of the sick and dying in hospitals offering love and comfort.  And dogs have been used around the world in numerous search and rescue operations, digging through rubble, listening for voices, and barking alerts.

Dogs have also become an invaluable resource to law enforcement, acting as police K9’s chasing and detaining criminals.  They sniff out hidden bombs, people, and substances.  And dogs have even been sent into space to test the safety of space exploration for humans, with Russia sending dogs into space 71 times between 1951 and 1966!

But even though dogs certainly take a large share of the service spotlight, there are many other wonderful creatures around the world helping man every day.  

Horses have been an amazing helper to man for many centuries.  In ancient Rome, they pulled golden chariots around dusty racetracks or into battle, their sturdy hooves thundering past at tremendous speed.  They plowed fields in humble hamlets or raced across plains carrying fierce Indians hunting buffalo.  They thundered hundreds of miles across the United States delivering mail for the Pony Express, and pulled carriages, wagons, and stagecoaches over multiple continents, delivering passengers, packages, and food.  They charged into brutal battles and raced through the night on historic rides by Paul Revere and Sybil Ludington.  European nobles trained their beautiful steads in the art of dressage – prancing and rearing in beautiful and artistic performances for fascinated crowds.  The mighty horse was once the most popular form of transportation before trains, motorbikes, buses, and automobiles came on the scene.  Today, they are still an important service animal to many people and communities, carrying people, food, and packages, working as law enforcement horses, competing in dressage, track races, and Olympic events, and even working as therapy animals in jails and hospitals.

Another very popular service animal is the cat.  For centuries, the cat has been honored or hated, depending on the time in history.  The ancient Egyptians honored cats as gods who offered protection against serpents, while other civilizations considered them the helpmates of witches.  In the last couple of centuries, cats have come back in favor as service animals due to their hunting skills and uncanny night vision.  They quickly eliminate rats, snakes, and mice from houses, streets, cities, and even battleships, thus curbing the spread of deadly diseases and keeping mankind safe and healthy!  I have even seen videos where electricians use cats to carry wires through tunnels since cats are so curious and love to explore dark caves and hidey-holes.

Of course, the amazing yak has been a helpmate to man in the Himalayans and other remote, mountainous regions for centuries.  Their large bodies, strong backs, and big lungs make them perfect for carrying heavy loads across large distances and at high altitudes.  Plus, their milk is a favorite ingredient in meals, just like we enjoy cow or goat milk.  Most climbers rely on yaks to help them reach tremendous mountains such as Everest and K2 and bring all their gear to base camp – everything from tents and food, to hiking gear and medical supplies.  If man had to do this all by himself, he would be too exhausted to hike the mountain once he reached it!

And just like the sturdy yak, mighty oxen have been helping man through the centuries, plowing fields, pulling wagons, and dragging heavy beams, bricks, and blocks across many continents on Earth, helping man to grow life-sustaining food and build amazing structures and monuments.

And we must not forget our fluffy, flying friends.  In the medieval ages, falcons were used by the nobility as hunting birds due to their incredible speed, strength, and eyesight.  Falcons were trained to hunt and retrieve rabbits, birds, and other small creatures to add food to man’s table.  And pigeons have been used to carry secret messages across many miles and through historic battles.  Man found that pigeons’ long flying ability and instinct to return home made them very useful when other forms of secret communication were not available – such as telegrams, letters, and phones.

Camels and elephants have been used in service for centuries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  They can travel long distances and their bodies are strong and sturdy, allowing them to carry heavy loads of supplies, timber, and men for thousands of miles across vast deserts, thick jungles, and high mountain ranges.  They have been used by kings, sultans, Bedouins, and common folk for transportation and load carrying throughout history and to this day.  

In Europe, Africa, and Asia, the wily mongoose is man’s best friend when it comes to the slippery, slithering cobra!  While most animals and people are frightened of cobras and their deadly bites, the mongoose has a natural component in their DNA that makes them resistant to the snake’s deadly venom.  Looking like a small cat or a large, furry rat, they are quick and agile with strong teeth and sharp claws – the perfect match for the striking cobra.  In ancient Mesopotamia – or Asia – the mongoose was revered as a god and prayed to for protection against serpents.  The mongoose has been celebrated for its life-saving abilities in stories and films from Disney’s “The Jungle Book” to Sherlock Holmes’ mystery, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man.”

I hope you have enjoyed this episode about animals who have served man throughout history.  If you would like to learn more about amazing animals, listen to our other episodes including: “The Midnight Ride of Sybil Ludington,” “Unsinkable Sam, the Battleship Cat,” “Jeep, the Flying Coyote,” “The Life-Saving Dog Sled Race,” “Bobbie, the Wonder Dog,” “Gunboat Judy: The Heroic Dog of WWII,” “The Horse’s Impact on History,” and “The History of Cats and Crows at Halloween.”  There is something for everyone, from dogs, cats, and horses to coyotes and crows!

I would love to hear from you and learn about the service animals in your life.  Do you have a special cat, dog, horse, or other animal?  What do you call your pet?  What are your pet’s special talents?  If you could have one service animal, what would it be and why?