A few years ago I boarded a flight from Atlanta to San Antonio. A nice young soldier in desert camouflage sat next to me.
As passengers continued to board, he asked if San Antonio was my home. I told him I lived in Atlanta and was attending a conference in Texas. I attempted a polite exchange and asked about his home. That was all it took for his story.
The soldier shook my hand and said his name was Travis. He told me his home was in Oklahoma, not too far from the Texas border. He said he was on his way to Lackland Air Force Base to begin training with a new partner. Because he was in uniform, I didn’t think too much about the reference to “new partner.”
Travis went on to explain that he was a K-9 specialist and pointed to the patch on his shirt. His new partner, a Dutch shepherd, had just finished “basic training” and was ready for deployment. Travis would spend 90 days at the base working and bonding with his new charge. Together they would return to duty in Iraq.
He went on to explain how very important the military working dog (MWD) program is to the forces serving in the war. Travis told me these dogs had saved thousands of lives of soldiers and civilians since the beginning of the conflict. He spoke of the power and intelligence of the animals, their bravery and devotion.
“No matter how much money we sink into technology, you can’t beat a dog’s nose — or heart,” he said with a laugh.
Travis spoke of his love for his previous partner, killed during a search-and-rescue detail of a building in Baghdad. By the time our plane landed, he and I were both wiping tears.
I often think about Travis’s story, and I wanted to learn more about the military working dog program. Specifically, what happens to these war heroes with a tail when they come home?
Wanted: A Few Good Dogs
Canines have been deployed as “war dogs” in every U.S. combat conflict since the Revolutionary War — although they weren’t officially inducted into the military until 1942. Their devotion and desire to please handlers, their courage and intelligence make them superior soldiers.
Most people think of “attack dogs” when they consider military and police dogs, but this is not the case. The biggest demand for military dogs since 9/11 is for explosives detection. The military trains canines to serve as:
- Search and rescue dogs: locate missing people, suspects and objects
- Detection dogs: detect illicit substances such as drugs, explosives even agriculture products
- Arson dogs: detect accelerants at arson sites
- Cadaver dogs: detect decomposing bodies
While a variety of canine breeds are used in military service, the Department of Defense employs a large majority of German and Dutch shepherds. These breeds demonstrate the necessary aggressiveness, intelligence and agility required for duty. Belgian malinois are also popular in the armed forces. A Belgian malinois was a part of the elite Navy SEALs unit that raided the Osama bin Laden compound.
An estimated 2,300 dogs are enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. The length of service and amount of time required to train the specialists varies based on the designated specialty of the dog. The Air Force is responsible for training canines for military service, and the Army provides the veterinary care.
Before 2000, retired military working dogs removed from commission because of injury or sickness, or if just too old to serve, were euthanized according to the Department of Defense mandate. It was not even possible for the handlers to adopt a retired MWD. The animals were considered equipment, and as such were destroyed.
In 2000, President Clinton signed into law H.R. 5314, “Robby’s Law,” to honor the service of the military working dog and make civilian adoptions of the heroes possible.
Robby’s Law changed the way the Department of Defense handles retiring military working dogs.
The DOD now goes to great lengths to make sure that every returning canine hero is provided with the best chance for a comfortable, safe, quality civilian life.
Adopting a retired military working dog is not simple. To begin the process, interested adoption candidates must complete a 2-page application. The document requests basic information to assist staff with coordinating the best fit for the prospective family and the dog.
Applicants submit the completed forms, and a follow-up interview by a DOD placement specialist is scheduled. The purpose of the interview is to determine the expectations and experience of the family and the living environment for the dog.
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Next, qualified applicants are placed on a waiting list. Because of the high demand for retired military dogs, families may expect to wait from 2 months to a year or longer for their new pet.
Ages of the “excess” or retired military dogs vary. Those adopted from field kennels may range in age from 8 to 12 years old, and they have typically served at least 1 deployment of active duty in some capacity. Dogs obtained from the “schoolhouse,” or the training program, may be as young as 2 to 4 years old. They did not satisfy the strict training criteria for deployment.
All dogs are given a thorough assessment to determine temperament before they are placed on adoption lists.
Eligibility ranking is listed as:
- Suitable (may be considered for families)
- Guarded (requires special handling for consideration)
- Not Suitable (may not be considered for civilian adoption)
The military working dog adoption process must pass:
- Suitability testing
- Veterinary screening
- Eligible home environment criteria
- Completion of required paperwork
Other considerations of potential applicants:
- Demonstrated skills and abilities to handle these specially trained animals
- Financial resources to provide adequate shelter, care and medical attention
Approved applicants are required to pay for transportation costs to the animal’s new home. Once adopted, the dog becomes a “pet” and loses his MWD status, including military benefits. The DOD offers limited continuing support services to families of the adopted dogs through a volunteer service program.
First priority for adoption of military working dogs is offered to the handler, then to law enforcement agencies and finally to civilian families. Around 300 dogs each year are processed from the Department of Defense to private homes. About 100 eligible former military working dogs are reassigned to law enforcement agencies each year.
Check out this video of an Iraq War vet named Bino, a 2011 finalist for the American Hero Dog Award:
Honor the Unsung Heroes
The number of human lives that have been saved as a result of these courageous public servants cannot be minimized. And some military dogs never make it home.
Veterans Day is designated for the observation and appreciation for the brave men and women — and dogs — who serve the county in all manners of public service, especially the military.
If you feel you have the right stuff to offer one of the magnificent, unsung, 4-legged heroes a great home, check out the official Air Force website for more information on adopting a retired military working dog.