Not all heroes wear capes — we’ve all heard that one.
But not all heroes stand on 2 legs, either. In March, we celebrate the 4-footed heroes: our veteran K-9s.
K-9s who work in fields such as law enforcement and the military often face unique challenges upon retirement, just as their handlers do. These dogs can suffer from a medley of problems and can experience difficult transitions when they return to a “civilian” lifestyle.
Dogs have stood beside their human companions in war and law enforcement for hundreds of years. “We can find traces of tracking dogs in the service of forensic investigation at least as far back as ancient Greeks. An ancient papyrus found in Egypt contains a satire by Sophocles called Ichneutai (The Tracking Dogs),” say Ressi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak in K9 Working Breeds: Characteristics and Capabilities.
Through the centuries, many different breeds of dog have been used in war and on the home front for police work. German Shepherds, Belgian malinois, Doberman Pinschers, Yorkshire Terriers, Boxers, Beagles and more have all been notable for their heroics.
K-9s perform a wide range of tasks in their professions. Military K-9s can be found in almost all branches of the military, including the Navy SEALs, where they perform tandem jumps and rappel with their handlers. These impressive K-9s are also used for takedowns, reconnaissance, explosive detection and more.
Stateside, our police K-9s are also required to undertake rigorous tasks. They too participate in takedowns, as well as explosive detection, drug detection, recovery (of property or persons) and more.
Training for some of the K-9s means that it’s important for the average Joe to remember that these dogs are usually unapproachable. They are trained to respond to certain people and consider others a threat. This is both for their safety and that of their handler’s.
If you see a working dog, never approach him without permission from the handler.
No specific breed is used exclusively for military and police work, but there’s no doubt that the job is a demanding one.
After an extremely active and punishing lifestyle, conditions like arthritis or hip dysplasia can flare up wildly. “Because of the demanding nature of their jobs, many of these dogs require additional care, especially as they age,” says Paws of Honor, a nonprofit that works to assist retiring K-9s. This means suffering for the dogs and high medical costs for the handlers.
In some areas in the country, communities have come together to help offset those costs and ensure retiring K-9s get the medical care they need. One such example is Cape Cod’s Cape and Island’s Police K-9 Relief Fund, which exists solely to fundraise on behalf of retired K-9s.
Unfortunately, these organizations are based on community members’ desire to help, so they don’t exist everywhere.
Some retiring K-9s suffer from psychological medical issues, such as C-PTSD (canine post-traumatic stress disorder) and separation anxiety. “By some estimates, more than 5% of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD,” reports the New York Times.
K-9s who have PTSD can display a wide range of behaviors. Some change “personality” drastically, becoming shy if they were once bold, or aggressive if timid. Others avoid areas and buildings that they previously had no problem entering.
If these dogs is still on active duty, this becomes a dangerous situation for the dog and the handler, and often the dog must be retired.
Watch this dedicated military dog in action, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense:
When some K-9s retire, their handlers are allowed to make these dogs part of their family. Unfortunately, in other cases, some of our furry heroes are left dangling, looking for a new home. Their unique life experiences have shaped them in ways that can make them difficult to adopt.
Until retirement, K-9s are considered property of their parent organization (i.e., the military or a police department), which foots the bill for the dogs’ medical care. However, upon retirement, a K-9 becomes property of his person — and his medical care responsibilities go with him. These bills can mount quickly.
If you choose to support your retiring K-9s by donating to an organization, investigate the organization first to ensure that it’s not a scam. Look around in your area to see if there’s an organization you can support — even if you can’t donate, helping to raise funds for our furry, 4-footed heroes goes a long way.
We salute our K-9s and thank them for their service to our citizens, community and country.