Military Working Dogs and Their Handlers

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Veterans Day is a time to honor all of those who have served our country in war or in peace, alive or deceased.  Its main emphasis is to thank living veterans for their sacrifices. In 1938 Nov. 11th became an official holiday.  It began as Armistice Day, a day to honor all Veterans of World War I.  In June of 1954 Congress amended the day from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor Americans of all wars.

Veterans Day is celebrated in more countries than just the United States.  Canada and Australia call Nov. 11th Remembrance Day.  In Canada the citizens wear red poppy flowers to honor their deceased veterans.  In Australia the day is more like our Memorial Day.  Great Britain also call it Remembrance Day but celebrates it on the Sunday closest to Nov. 11th.

The men and women who served our country in the armed forces are recognized as veterans. Military working dogs, who serve side-by-side with U.S. Soldiers are not.  As recently as the 1990’s military working dogs that were retired from service were considered “surplus equipment”.  In 2016 the National Defense Authorization Act allowed retired dogs to get a ticket home to the U.S. and their handlers to get priority when adopting them.

The Defense Department has a Military Working Dog Program.  This program has approximately 2,300 working dogs deployed across every military service in the U.S. and around the world.  The Military Working Dogs support the war on terror, help safeguard military bases and activities, detect bombs and other explosives and more. 

Working dogs have been used in the U. S. Military since the Revolutionary War. It was World War II that saw the biggest surge in working dogs with more than 10,000 specially trained canines. Most served as sentries, but others had roles as scouts, messengers and mine detectors.

Before Sept. 11, 2011 Air Force security forces trained about 200 working dogs a year for the Defense Department.  Now they are training more than 500 with most of those being used as sentries and bomb-sniffers.

With their acute sense of smell dogs can detect minute traces of explosives or drugs and alert their handlers of their presence.  Dogs also create a strong psychological deterrent. 

The most common breeds used as military working dogs are German and Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois.  These breeds are very smart, loyal, athletic and aggressive.

German Shepherd

Dutch Shepherd

Belgian Malinois

Military working dogs must complete a 120-day program that teaches the dogs basic obedience and more advanced skills such as how to attack and sniff for specific substances.  Training is based on positive rewards.  Once the initial training is completed, dogs and their handlers train as a team.  The handler needs to recognize what the dog is showing him.

Army veterinarians are posted around the world to treat military working dogs and keep them fit for duty. Military dogs do use body armor and gas masks and research is underway to improve the protection that is available to them.

Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas serves as the headquarters for dogs returning from service.  Dogs that are available for adoption here include those that don’t pass the aptitude test for serving in the military (only 50% will qualify), older dogs that have finished their military stint, and those that have been retired early due to illness or injury.

While more than 90% of returning military working dogs go home to live with their handler, others are available for adoption. Dogs that are not fit for family life are generally channeled into law enforcement or the TSA where their training can be put to good use.  Applicants for returning dogs are carefully screened to find the right match for the dog.  Some dogs are better in homes without cats, children or other dogs.

While we honor the men and women who have served our country on Veterans Day, let’s also take a moment to honor those who have served faithfully by their side.

By Mary Ellen Kosanke


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