You probably already know that at one time dogs had to work for a living. From the time dogs first began to share their lives with humans they began proving that they were indispensable. Dogs helped humans on the hunt. They guarded their homes and livestock. They provided protection. They worked as pack animals. They even participated in religious ceremonies.
That was thousands of years ago. Through the centuries dogs assumed more and more complex roles. It wasn't enough to have one kind of hunting dog, for instance. Dogs branched into scenthounds and sighthounds; and then they were further developed into different kinds of hunting dogs such as bird dogs (different dogs for upland gamebirds or water fowl); dogs to flush birds, dogs to retrieve birds; dogs to work on gamebirds and other mixed game. The dogs came in all sizes in order to hunt various kinds of birds. And that's just among sporting dogs. There was an entire group of dogs developed just to hunt birds.
The same was true for every other kind of work that dogs performed. There were dogs that hunted small game, such as rabbit. There were dogs that hunted in packs, such as Beagles and Foxhounds. There was an amazing variety of dogs simply bred for hunting purposes. There were also all kinds of dogs bred for herding, for traditional "working" jobs, to exterminate vermin, and even a countless variety of dogs simply bred to be lapdogs.
As a result, today there are over 400 breeds of dog in the world, the descendants of all these dogs who have had jobs in the past. But, what about today? After all, most people don't call a terrier today when they have a mouse. People don't have to hunt for their food as they once did. And you rarely see a dog being used as a pack animal. So, what purposes do dogs serve today beyond being our beloved pets?
Actually, dogs probably work as hard today as they ever have. Many of their jobs today are more sophisticated than in times past, as you would expect in modern society. Dogs have ably kept pace with changes in our culture and made themselves as useful as ever.
One of the most important ways dogs assist people today is by using their nose. There is still no instrument as sensitive as a dog's nose when it comes to discerning odors. Thanks to this sense of smell, dogs are used in airports for bomb and narcotics detection. In many airports dogs routinely sniff each piece of luggage before it's placed on a plane. At great expense (training and great breeding are not cheap), sniffer dogs are kept on hand to explore subways for suspicious packages. And law enforcement uses these dogs for drug detection, arson detection and other possible crimes where a dog's nose can find evidence that a human would miss. Many of these dogs are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers.
Dogs were used after the World Trade Center tragedy to go through the rubble looking for survivors and remains.
The dog's nose is also in demand when it comes to tracking. Bloodhounds and some other breeds are in demand when it comes to searching for missing persons or wanted persons. They can follow trails for miles, even following a trail by automobile. "Testimony" from a trained tracking dog which has not been used for other purposes can even be accepted in court.
Dogs excel as service animals, aid dogs and therapy dogs. Guide-dogs for the Blind has been breeding and raising their own dogs for decades using mostly Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. These dogs excel in terms of temperament and having the right characteristics for the job they are asked to perform. It isn't an easy job, but the dogs are an inspiration to dog lovers and those who care about this program.
Any dog can become a therapy dog, provided the dog has the right temperament, learns appropriate behavior (usually through obedience training), and meets the veterinary requirements for the therapy program. Therapy dog programs give dogs and their owners a chance to make a difference in the lives of people who may be confined to hospitals, nursing homes or who otherwise can't have pets.
We shouldn't forget that there are still many dogs who are still performing their age-old duties. Millions of people in the United States still enjoy hunting with their dogs, whether they go out hunting regularly or just occasionally on the weekend. There are few things a sporting dog or hound enjoys more than having a chance to do what he was originally bred to do. If you don't hunt, you and your dog may still enjoy taking part in a hunt test which tests your dog's abilities without actually hunting or killing any animals. The dogs still have a great time.
The same is true for herding dogs. Many ranchers and farmers still rely on working sheep or cattle dogs for herding their stock. They may have livestock guardian dogs to protect their herds. Even if you live in the city, your dog may enjoy a chance to take part in some of the organized tests or trials for these breeds. Your dog will probably have a great time.
For dogs with protection instincts, Schutzhund (protection training) offers a chance for dogs to learn the skills needed to be a safe protection dog. This kind of training is often provided for police dogs.
Beyond these jobs for modern day dogs, all of our dogs share the job of keeping our hearts and hearths warm. That job hasn't changed throughout history.