Canine Ergonomics: The need for a SCIENCE of Working Dogs

I have long been fascinated by the important roles that our canines play in their collaboration with humans. My own personal hero in this area is Dr. Bonnie Bergin, the incredible woman who in 1975  originated the concept of the “service dog.” Seeing waiting lists for service dogs extending to 10 years, and low percentage of dogs making it through the program, she founded the Assistance Dog Institute and Bergin University of Canine Studies. Now providing college programming, and doing research on training and the use of assistance dogs, Dr. Bergin has been a model for us all.

“The dog, we now realize, thinks, feels and reacts in ways very much like humans, which explains its unique ability to fit into human society. And the plasticity, the versatility, the adaptability of the canine species is very much aligned with ours. So the time has come to elevate the dog to take its place beside humans, equines, bovines and other mammalian species as a specific subject of study at the college and university level. No animal does more for us, none share a more intimate relationship with us, nor can any claim more years of alliance with us – than the dog – our partner, our friend, our helpmate.”

Books from several disciplines line my shelves in the attempt to define and explore the nature of working dogs. In this vein, I very much agree with psychology professor, Dr. William S. Helton.

Editor of CANINE ERGONOMICS, the first book on the science of working dogs, Dr. Helton laments over the fact that the “scientific literature on working dogs is scattered across several non-overlapping disciplines and, in comparison to the magnitude of its societal importance, relatively underdeveloped.”

Currently, there is no recognized “science” of working dogs and therefore no recognized, specialized research in the area.

I suspected that Dr. Helton had been personally inspired by a working dog when we read this in the book’s preface:

“I looked up from the paper and there was Kiowa, a black and tan mixed-breed trained signal (hearing assistance) dog. He lay on the floor with one ear up and swiveling around searching for sounds. Kiowa, like a sonar or radar operator, was a vigilant worker, looking for relatively rare target signals among long series of irrelevant noises and sounds. Kiowa, moreover, was an expert, as he had learned to generalize his signaling to untrained but meaningful targets, such as water boiling or a bathtub filling.”

And, of course, I was right. I contacted the good professor in New Zealand and he graciously provided us with more about how his passion developed. Click here to learn more about the book, Dr. Helton’s work, and the assistance dogs he has trained.

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