If you're a dog lover, you know they're special. But these service dogs go above and beyond to help people—here's how.

Julia Westbrook

These amazing dogs have truly earned the title of best friend. Take a look at the cool stuff these furry heroes are capable of. (Cape not included.)

Avalanche Rescue Dogs

On a powder day near Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley ski patroller Ben Stone and his Belgian Malinois, Kaya, are ready and waiting at the top of the lift. The extra snow increases the risk of avalanche and this pair specializes in finding and saving anyone trapped in the snow. Kaya is part of the Squaw Dogs rescue team. The dogs' keen noses allow them to search an avalanche site much faster than a human can. While the six-dog team is just one tool used during emergencies, they are a valuable one when time is of the essence: having all paws on deck gives rescuers the best chance of recovering a victim alive-or, more typically, the dogs give patrollers the confidence to say there's no one out there who needs saving.

The right dog for the job is one with a high play drive that can withstand frigid mountain temperatures. "Basically, it's all a game for the dogs," explains Stone. "We teach them that finding human scents is the most fun thing in the world and they always want to do it." Breeds that tend to fit the bill include golden retrievers, Labs, border collies and German shepherds.

Training a dog takes about two years just to get to the first test: a mock avalanche site. There are two to three human scented wool sweaters buried 3 feet deep for 24 hours, representing fainter scent and 1-2 live burials that occur just before the test. The team must find the live burials in under 10 minutes and then clear the site of the buried sweaters in 1 hour.

Cancer-Detection Dogs

Research suggests that dogs can accurately identify melanoma, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer, thanks to their super sniffers. Cancer cells emit different volatile compounds than healthy ones, which means they have unique scents, at least to canines. But as cute as a Labrador in a lab coat would be, having a machine do the diagnosing is much more cost effective. So, scientists are channeling all of that sniff data to develop new malignancy-spotting technologies. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers are using dogs to help isolate the compound that gives ovarian cancer its smell, and creating an electronic "nose" that can detect it-making it an exciting development in the fight against a disease that's notoriously difficult to detect.

Learn more: 6 Cancer-Fighting Foods to Add to Your Diet

Photo: PJF Military Collection/ Alamy Stock Photo

PTSD Service Dogs

Your pooch may make you smile, but for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a specially trained dog can help them manage serious mental-health symptoms, like panic attacks. "Animals are very intuitive," says Deborah E. Linder, D.V.M., M.S., D.A.C.V.N., from the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. "Dogs can notice the physical signs-your breathing is faster, maybe your eyes are darting around-even before you do." When they pick up on one of these cues, they're trained to perform a specific task, like nudging their handler to leave the triggering environment or interrupting a night terror. With a canine companion at their side, many people with PTSD regain the confidence to handle situations that had previously sparked anxiety, like being out in public or at a crowded event.

Rosco, pictured above, is a post-traumatic stress disorder companion dog who helps two-time Iraq war veteran Sgt. 1st Class Jason Syriac manage and recover from this condition. Syriac now also helps train other dogs for service members.

To learn more about PTSD service dogs, visit assistancedogsinternational.org.

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