Can Caring for Working Dogs Improve How We Care for All Patients?

One of the central themes in the AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines, the first set of complied guidelines for the care and handling of these amazing canine citizens, is the idea of cooperative care.


I will never forget the first time I walked into a small exam room, just a few weeks out of vet school, and saw a Border Patrol officer sitting there with his canine partner. The dog was muzzled and looking straight at his handler, but there was no doubt he had seen me enter, and every muscle in his lean body was taut and ready for the sign to uncoil. I had already had some questionable encounters with German Shepherds and was still a novice at reading some of the subtler aspects of canine body language, but there was nothing subtle about what this dog was saying.

Just as clear as the memory of my nerves as I approached is the memory of my surprise when that dog stood stock still, looking calmly into his handler’s eyes, throughout my exam. With only an occasional word from the officer when his attention wandered, he allowed me to do more than most dogs do without wiggling away or flinching. If I remember correctly, this dog had a perianal fistula and must have been painful, and the officer and his superiors did everything they could do treat him in spite of the significant cost.

Of all the memorable things about that encounter and others over the years, with working animals ranging from scent dogs to seeing-eye dogs, there is a common thread that changes everyone who really looks at it: the bond.  

The bond between these dogs and their handlers is so strong you can nearly see it shimmering in the air between them. One head turns and so does the other. Eyes meet, even if some of the eyes see nothing. A hand rests on the top of a soft head. A quiet word changes the energy of the room. The need to rely on one another for survival in some way creates a connection beyond what I can fathom, and I love my dog more than I can put into words. But… don’t we all want our dogs to be treated as if our own survival relied upon theirs? And don’t we all hope our dogs, should their care be in someone’s hands besides our own, be handled as gently as I had to handle that Border Patrol dog?

As Memorial Day approaches, it seems like a great time to visit with Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, DACVECC, DACVSMR. Dr. Otto is Executive Director and founder of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center ( and was chair of the task force who created the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines. Dr. Otto has worked in some of the most difficult situations imaginable with some truly heroic dogs and handlers, including at 9/11. One of the central themes in the AAHA Guidelines, the first set of complied guidelines for the care and handling of these amazing canine citizens, is the idea of cooperative care – with the dogs, with their handlers, and with our veterinary teammates. We certainly owe to these heroes our compassion, empathy, and gentle handling, but in truth those are skills we can never polish up too much in our work as veterinary professionals.

Here’s an excerpt of my conversation with Dr. Otto on this week’s episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, “Gems from the Guidelines: Working with Working Dogs.”  

Katie Berlin: I would imagine that especially in the case of an assistance dog, seeing the dog distressed would be potentially very detrimental to their person. That bond is so strong. 

Cynthia Otto: Oh, absolutely, and another thing that we have to think about is if we have a visually impaired handler and you’re doing things to their dog, the handler is picking up that the dog is stressed.  

How we communicate during our whole exam and making sure that that handler is absolutely attuned to what’s going on [is so important.] Because as the handler gets stressed, the dog gets stressed, and as the dog get stressed, the handler gets more stressed. And then not only are we creating stress, but we’re also not able to pick up some of those subtle findings.

What we find, because these handlers and dogs are so attuned to each other, is that handlers will bring in a dog and say, “You know, there’s just something off.” I can’t even see a pulled muscle or something that is going to impact that dog’s performance and that dog’s safety and the handler’s safety if that dog is on guard. We really want to maximize that low stress environment to maximize what we can observe and give back to that dog. 

KB: Those all seem like really good lessons for people in practice in general. To listen. 

CO: I’ve always used the phrase, “I don’t want to be a dog whisperer, I want to be a dog listener.” I think we need to listen to these dogs and acknowledge that the handlers may not have the medical knowledge, but they know their dogs.

Even if I have a completely normal CBC/chem and my usual physical exam, which might be a very quick hands-on, isn’t picking it up, there are going to be more subtle things. Now we have to start thinking about sports medicine – what about functional movement? What’s going on with how that dog’s performing? Are there some subtle things that we really need to dig in on? Because if we do have a pulled muscle, that certainly could interfere with dog’s ability to function. 

Catch the rest of Dr. Otto’s episode anywhere you get your podcasts, including Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher; on YouTube; or find links to all of these platforms, full audio and video, and transcripts to every episode at 

Learn about the Penn Vet Working Dog Practitioner Certification  

Make a donation: Penn Vet Working Dog Center, Search Dog Foundation, Assistance Dogs International  

Find the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines here.

Love Central Line? Please subscribe/follow and leave us a rating and review – it helps others find us! Send us feedback anytime at 




Subscribe to NEWStat