By Katie Marsico
As conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other parts of the world continue, average U.S. citizens and politicians alike continue to have divided opinions on our country’s involvement. While most Americans agree on the necessity and sense of supporting our troops, many may not realize that military forces include four-footed members who serve just as courageously and loyally as their human counterparts.
Just as the men and women who protect our country receive extensive training before going into the field, so do Military Working Dogs (MWDs). U.S. armed forces currently adopt such animals from reputable breeders and people who specialize in supplying dogs for police and military work. As Sergeant Scott A. Rozen explains, breed selection and the length of training depends on the type of duty to which each canine will eventually be assigned. Rozen is a Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and serves in the Dog Training Section of the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in Lackland, Texas. In addition to spending almost 19 years working with MWDs, he has also partnered with them in several field operations, including Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom.
“MWDs might perform handler protection functions, detect humans in buildings or outdoor areas, or possibly discern the presence of substances, such as narcotics or items that emit an explosive odor,” Rozen says. “Typically, we select German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois for dual-purpose patrol/detection dogs. For single-purpose detection dogs, we generally consider sporting breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Hungarian Vizslas, and German Shorthaired Pointers.” Rozen says that they’ll sometimes engage other breeds or mutts if they demonstrate overall aptitude and meet performance standards.
According to Rozen, once an MWD is chosen, it takes approximately three to six months to go from initial training to certification. The exact time span is largely determined by how many different functions an animal is being taught to perform. Once the certification process is complete, they become active MWDs, although they may not necessarily enter combat zones, depending on the nature of their specific training. All MWDs receive their basic training at Lackland and are then assigned to a military base. In the course of their service, they usually work with a single handler at any given moment. Ultimately, however, such men and women are sometimes reassigned to another base, which precipitates a change in handlers.
Yet standards of care for MWDs remain consistent. Ken Licklider is the owner of Vohne Liche Kennels. Based in the small town of Denver, Indiana, he and his staff provide training to both dogs and handlers connected with operations at Lackland, as well as in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. As a retired USAF Law Enforcement Superintendent who currently deals with MWDs and police dogs in the capacity of a private contractor, Licklider attests to the quality attention given to the animals’ health and well-being. “It’s truly the best of the best,” he says. “These dogs are pampered.” According to data provided by Lackland, the canines have veterinary support available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, they receive monthly weight checks and medications to prevent parasite infestation, as well as semi-annual physicals that include teeth cleaning, X-rays, and blood work. As Licklider explains, excellent care is more than a kindness—it’s an absolute necessity. “MWDs save lives daily, in the Iraqi theater and across the globe. They protect soldiers and detect explosive devices. In a word, they’re irreplaceable.”
Given the monumental role MWDs play, most handlers and trainers are quick to point out that the animals are both service members and faithful companions. Ron Aiello is President of the U.S. War Dogs Association (USWDA), a nonprofit organization in Burlington, New Jersey, developed to promote education and memorials related to the valorous canines. A retired U.S. Marine corporal who served in Vietnam, Aiello has particularly powerful memories of his MWD, Stormy. To this day, he still contends that the relationship he shared with the German Shepherd was stronger than anything he’s experienced with domestic animals since that time.
“When you’re in combat, you’re with your dog every single second,” says Aiello. “You eat, work, and sleep together. That creature is your partner, comrade, best friend, and source of protection from danger. I’ve had dogs that I’ve loved since Vietnam, but I have never realized the same bond that I had with Stormy.” Though Aiello was ultimately reassigned and forced to part ways with her, he recalls other MWDs that left equally indelible marks on their handlers’ lives. Dogs that charged gunfire to pursue the enemy, covered soldiers’ bodies to shield them from attack, and sacrificed their very existences to give troops the extra few moments they needed to radio for backup or dive to safety.
Licklider’s experiences and observations have similarly taught him that, while MWDs are treated like family members, they’re also workers who have a critical impact on life-or-death situations. “Dogs and their handlers who are deployed absolutely depend on each other to survive, as well as to protect others. These canines are not just pets—they’re partners.” But what happens to the furry part of the partnership once a war ends or when age and physical limitations make soldiering impossible? What retirement—and tribute—does America offer its MWDs?
MWDs are accepted at Lackland between 12 and 36 months of age. After they are assigned to a military base, however, they receive periodic validation testing and additional training to obtain annual recertification. Despite optimal veterinary care, Rozen concedes that similar to humans, canines inevitably grow old or suffer from illness and injury. As he explains, “Once the determination has been made that an MWD is no longer fit for duty, that dog can possibly return to Lackland to assist in the preparation of future handlers for work in the field.” He notes that other options include adoption by handlers themselves, civilian law enforcement agencies, or potentially civilian families, assuming an animal is deemed by professionals not to be aggressive. Prior to 2000, many MWDs were simply euthanized after their run of service concluded, but legislation passed that year enabled them to be adopted out to qualified families.
As tribute to both active and retired MWDs, as well as those that have fallen in service to their country, the USWDA is dedicated to furthering recognition ranging from memorials to commemorative stamps. Additionally, proposed legislation currently in Congress would provide for the establishment of a national monument to honor the canines. With about 2,000 such dogs currently deployed across the globe and tens of thousands having aided America since as far back as World War I, Aiello is emphatic that such accolades are well deserved.
“MWDs search out bombs at vehicle check points. They discern danger ahead of time, whether that means trip wires, booby traps, or human attackers. If it were not for these wonderful dogs, there would have been another 10,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In today’s world, whether the setting is Iraq, Afghanistan, or bases within the United States, they continue to save the lives of both troops and civilians on a daily basis.”
Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center
National Disaster Search Dog Foundation
Pups for Peace
The U.S. War Dogs Association
Vohne Liche Kennels
What happens when a military man or woman gets called for deployment and must leave the beloved family pet behind? In the past, there were “three completely unacceptable options,” according to Steve Albin, founder of the Military Pets Foster Project. These options included putting the pet up for adoption, taking her to a shelter, or simply abandoning the furry or feathered friend. When Albin was given this information he was inspired to begin a military foster project as an offshoot of NetPets.org, an online shelter and rescue community that he also maintains.
“I found out that 25,000 known military pets were put to sleep after their [guardians] were shipped out,” Albin says. “What kind of a morale builder is this?”
The program was an immediate success, garnering support from all levels of the military, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and once the Military Pets Foster Project was endorsed by the Department of Defense, the U.S. Military felt compelled to modify the way it classified pets.
“Prior to April 2002 all pets in the military had been classified as household possessions,” Albin says. “Since April 2002 they are classified as a part of the family.”
Albin works tirelessly, matching all of the foster families himself and making sure to foster as close to the military family’s home as possible. He also interviews foster family candidates to make sure they have a background in caring for each particular type of animal. His efforts have paid off; Albin has assisted with 9,600 successful foster matches and has only had to change foster homes about a dozen times, due to “hidden compatibility issues.”
There are no limits to the kind of pet the Military Pets Foster Project will place, and so far, Albin has placed everything from chinchillas to potbellied pigs. Also, the program comes at no cost to the military pet guardians who participate, and they are only required to pay normal monthly expenses for maintaining their pet, such as food, vaccination fees, grooming, etc. However, if a pet needs veterinary care and his or her guardian cannot be reached, the program takes care of the expenses.
As a result, the Military Pets Foster Project is always in need of financial donations, and the program’s increasing popularity means it is always seeking additional foster homes all around the globe.
To find out more information, make a donation, or apply to be a foster home, visit NetPets.org.—Sarah Dahnke