Seeing eye guide dogs

Working Animals Around the World

December 8, 2014

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Working animals around the world is estimated to total around 300 million and rising. The great majority of working animals are involved in the transport and agriculture industries. They are carrying loads, ploughing fields, herding other animals and performing tasks that sometimes cannot be done by humans alone. In many communities, working animals play a fundamental and sometimes critical role in sustaining and improving livelihoods, by contributing to food security, poverty reduction and income generation.

Australian working animals - Horses

Australian working animals – Horses

A working animal is an animal that is kept in a domestic or rural situation and that has been trained to perform particular tasks. Working animals range from dogs such as sheep dogs, guide dogs and sniffer dogs, to transport and harness animals such as horses and oxen, right through to elephants that can be used for transport as well as tasks such as logging. Other more unusual working animals are cormorants and dolphins used for fishing, and carrier pigeons that are well-known for their message-carrying duties during wartime.

Working animals can often double as members of a family, such as guide dogs and sheep dogs, or they can be purely for functional purposes, such as dairy cows to provide milk. In many cases, a working animal will have undergone some form of disciplined training to encourage the animal to cooperate to carry out their required tasks. Some may also be used for meat or other products such as leather when they reach the end of their working lives. These animals are referred to as draught animals or beasts of burden.

Working animals - Dogs sniffing for drugs

Police using dogs to detect drugs

By far the most common working animal is the dog, which often transcends beyond being a mere pet to being a valuable contributor to humanity, as in a rural situation for controlling livestock, or in a domestic situation as a seeing-eye dog for the vision impaired. In those cases the animal is not merely a pet, but is taught and trained to perform specific, regulated tasks to assist its owner.

The history of working animals goes back thousands of years, when dogs were used by hunter-gatherers to assist in tracking and killing prey for food. Domesticated animals such as horses can also double as entertainment for their owners, so a farm horse may be used for riding for pleasure as well as to pull a cart for transporting people or goods.

As well as domesticated animals, many animals are also taken from the wild to perform work. Dolphins, camels, cormorants, monkeys and elephants are good examples of these. Some of these animals have been used purely for entertainment such as performing in a circus, although this is becoming less frequent.

Not all working animals are, or can be, domesticated. Instinctive behaviour such as a cat catching a mouse is not a trained behaviour, so some animals are utilised purely for their instinctive behaviours. Dolphins and cormorants instinctively chase, catch and eat fish and over time these behaviours have been observed and harnessed by humans for their own purposes.

Common Working Animals

Pack Animals

  • Horses
  • Llamas
  • Elephants
  • Oxen
  • Mules
  • Donkeys
  • Reindeer
  • Dogs
  • Goats

Transport/Riding Animals

  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Ponies
  • Camels
  • Donkeys
  • Mules
  • Yaks
  • Ostrich

Herding Animals

  • Horses – trained to herd/lead packs of brumbies
  • Dogs – herding sheep

Harness Animals

  • Oxen
  • Water buffalo
  • Draught horses
  • Mules
  • Donkeys
  • Reindeer

Searching and/or Retrieving Animals

  • Dogs – drug detection, tracking criminals, searching for truffles, finding cadavers
  • Pigs – searching for truffles
  • Rats – locating land mines

Hunting Animals

  • Dogs – foxes, duck, etc
  • Cormorants – fish
  • Ferrets – rabbits

Animals Assisting Humans

  • Dogs – seeing-eye guides
  • Miniature horses – seeing-eye guides
  • Monkeys – domestic tasks

Unusual Working Animals

Dolphin Diver Deliveries

The US Navy has trained dolphins, beluga whales, seals, sea lions and other marine mammals to perform specialised underwater tasks such as detecting mines, delivering equipment to divers, locating and retrieving lost objects and guarding ships and submarines.

Using Snakes for Massage Therapy?

Non-venomous pythons are used to provide snake massages in zoos in the Philippines.

Rats Saving Lives

Giant African rats have been specially trained to sniff out land mines and detect explosives.

Monkeys Helping Around the House

Capuchin monkeys have been successfully trained to help out with domestic tasks for blind or disabled people.

Cormorant Fishing

Trained cormorants have been used for hundreds of years in China to catch fish.

Eagles Hunting Wolves

The steppe hunters in Mongolia use trained golden eagles to hunt wolves. These powerful raptors, with their 3 metre (10 foot) wingspans, swoop in at over 80 kph (50 mph), and kill the wolves with a combination of the force of the impact and the strength of their talons.


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