Working Dog Breeds: The Best of the Best!

Ever wonder which dog breeds are best suited to various working dog jobs? In this article, I break down the “best of the best,” one by one.

Avalanche dog

Of all the canine companions, the hardest-working, highly disciplined, extremely diligent and most deserving of recognition is the “professional working dog.”

These pooches never take a vacation, they never ask for time off, they never call in sick, they never whine about the job, they never ask for a raise or better benefits or for an improved work environment, and they never go on strike! They truly represent the best of the best.

Working dogs sniff out everything from drugs, thugs, bugs and land mines. They are valued hunters, herders and EMTs. Working dogs become our eyes, ears, arms, legs and our brains. They keep us safe and can restore dignity and independence.

I find it impossible to read stories about the heroic efforts of military dogs, search and rescue dogs, special assistance dogs or detection dogs that are trained to discover specific medical conditions without shedding a tear or two.

We have all witnessed the trusted police dog, service dog and therapy dog in various daily activities. Have you considered the training and effort these specialists must accomplish and demonstrate before they can exercise their assigned duties?

Ever wonder which breeds are best suited to each of the professional canine disciplines?

Service Dogs

Chances are, if you were asked to describe a service dog you would immediately think of a “seeing eye dog.” Dogs have been used to guide the blind for several hundred years.

But modern service dogs are not limited to guide dogs. Canines are trained to assist humans in many capacities: sight, hearing, psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, phobias), autism, epilepsy, diabetes, even allergies.

Service dogs may carry medications, oxygen tanks or pull wheelchairs. In many countries, including the United States, service animals are protected by law and must be permitted access to public places.

Service dogs are bred and selected for temperament, size and ability to train.

Breeds proven to be especially effective as service dogs by percentage of use are:

The cost of breeding and training a professional service dog ranges from $20,000 to $60,000. The fee to purchase a service dog ranges from a few thousand dollars to no cost to qualified individuals.

Search and Rescue

Think of a search and rescue dog, and you probably see images of the Saint Bernard with a flask of brandy strapped around his neck. These famous dogs were bred by the monks serving the Swiss Saint Bernard Hospice for the search and rescue of avalanche victims in the Pennine Alps in the early 1700s. The more legendary of the early search and rescue dogs was a Saint Bernard named Barry, who reportedly saved between 40 and 100 lives.

Search and rescue (SAR) dogs today work in a variety of conditions and circumstances executing their heroic roles. Subcategories of SAR dogs are trained to rescue and recover victims from:

  • Wilderness
  • Avalanche
  • Disasters
  • Drowning

SAR dogs may be trained and commissioned by government agencies such as FEMA, or they may be civilian volunteers. Breed selection depends on the specific use, but most successful in the criteria required for SAR success are:

Therapy Dogs

Some confusion tends to arise during a discussion about therapy dogs. It is generally assumed that a therapy dog and a service dog are one and the same. Not true. While service dogs are used in the commission of assisting humans otherwise unable to perform a function on their own, therapy dogs and their human companions are volunteers who provide visitation to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and rehabilitation facilities.

Therapy dogs come in all sizes, colors and breeds (or a mixture of all). The main characteristic of a successful therapy dog is temperament. The mission of a therapy dog is to provide comfort, and they must allow people they are not familiar with to touch, pet and hug them.

One of the first official therapy dogs belonged to a World War II officer stationed in New Guinea. When the soldier was hospitalized, friends brought his Yorkshire Terrier named Smoky to the military hospital for visits. Smoky proved to provide such comfort and cheer to the all the hospitalized soldiers that he was commissioned to continue his visits for more than a dozen years!

Volunteer agencies provide training, accreditation and referrals for therapy dogs.

Livestock Dogs

The hearty and hard-working livestock dog classification includes herding breeds and guardian dogs. These canines have been used for centuries to guard livestock from predators and to drive herds to shelter and water.

Modern livestock dogs may be found on a western ranch or in the middle of New York City. They possess a variety of temperaments, and they perform as family and home guardians and also work with cattle. Some livestock breeds make excellent service dogs.

Breeds most commonly associated with the livestock dog category include the guardians:

And the herders:

Sled Dogs

Sled dogs are highly trained and skilled, and are used to pull a wheel-less sled across the snow or ice.

These animals typically work in teams, and much discipline, strength and endurance is required to succeed. Breeds associated with sled dogs include:

  • Husky (Eskimo, Siberian)
  • Alaskan Malamute
  • Samoyed


Hunting dogs work with hunters to detect, track and retrieve game. As with other categories of working dogs, those in the hunting dog category consist of a variety of breeds.

The hunting dog’s success depends on the attributes specific to the game he is hunting. Breeds associated with the hunting dog category are:

  • Terriers
  • Hounds
  • Retrievers
  • Spaniels

K-9 Forces

The classifications of K-9 force dogs include police, fire, military and tracker dogs. The category employs canines for their special abilities to serve and protect property and/or humans. Breeds selected by agencies for K-9 forces are bred for temperament, trainability and force.

Col. David Rolfe, director of the Defense Department’s Working Dog Program, observes, “Dogs have a way of inflicting fear that a human — even armed — cannot.” A dog is a very strong psychological deterrent. No one wants to mess with a big dog that means business!

Breeds particularly effective in the deployment of K-9 forces include:

It should be noted that not all dogs employed by K-9 forces are used for power and intimidation. The Transportation Safety Association and Drug Enforcement Agencies prefer to use Beagles and Labrador Retrievers for passenger and luggage inspection. Both breeds have an acute sense of smell, and they are not threatening to passengers moving though transportation centers.

Detection Dogs

Professional detection dogs have such an acute sense of smell, they can be trained to find human remains, termites, bedbugs, mold, drugs, bombs, firearms, chemicals, illegal agriculture and food products, even diseases.

The trait most desirable in breeds used as detection dogs (besides the obvious super-nose) is the ability to communicate their findings to humans. Breeds that demonstrate the super sniffer ability include:

Actor Dogs

True to the discipline of all professional working dogs, entertainment dogs are tireless laborers. They work long hours for a few bits of treats and the approval of their trainers. Despite rubbing elbows — err, paw pads — with the rich and famous, they remain undaunted by fame and celebrity.

The first major movie dog was a German Shepherd named Strongheart. Strongheart appeared in five silent movies between 1921 and 1927. He became the highest-grossing actor in the world at that time.

Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier made famous for roles in the critically acclaimed movies The Artist and Water for Elephants, exemplifies the charm and appeal of the successful actor dog. Uggie even received a VIP invitation from President Obama to have dinner at the White House.

Any breed can perform as an actor. Just give him a little charisma, personality plus, a good trainer and an occasional hot dog, and you have an Oscar contender — if the Screen Actors Guild ever decides to honor an actor dog with an award. I understand auditions are under way for the role of Sandy in the Broadway revival of Annie. Perhaps your aspiring thespian has the stuff to make it in the theater.

What’s the Number?

It is difficult to predict exactly how many professional working dogs there are in the United States. Rough estimates put the number in the tens of thousands.

The Seeing Eye organization alone graduated 372 dogs from its program in 2011. The 341st Training Squadron, responsible for all U.S. military dogs, reports a constant force of more than 800 canines. More than 15,000 police dogs are employed in the United States.

Dogs used in other sectors of service, such as livestock, hunting and entertainment, are among the countless working dogs. The professional working dog segment of our national workforce is truly a national treasure and represents the best of the best, regardless of the breed or combination thereof.

Their most important contribution is simply and unconditionally loving humans.