Adopting a Retired Military Working Dog
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 I 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.
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