Commando Dogs: Going After bin Laden — And IEDs

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A Military Working Dog is trained at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas / Air Force photo by Christopher Griffin

The mystery mutt who accompanied the SEALs on their mission to Osama bin Laden’s lair is coming in for a fair amount of attention. After all, people love their dogs, and if one can help take out the world’s most wanted terrorist, all the better. Their noses know: the dog’s keen sense of smell, to sniff out explosives or terrorists, can’t be beat by man or machine. And, in a pinch, they can apprehend a fleeing suspect without killing him. Those were reasons for one highly-trained dog to accompany some two dozen highly-trained Navy SEALs on an uninvited visit to bin Laden’s compound early Monday morning.

Military Working Dogs — MWDs — as these animals are officially known, tend to be either German shepherds or Belgian Malinois. These breeds boast the best combination of desired canine attributes: good noses, strength, size, speed, endurance and intelligence. There are currently nearly 3,000 of them in the U.S. military, up 50% since 9/11. They’re paired with a handler, and the two become a single unit for a variety of military missions.

There are about 600 such dogs now serving with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Our IED dogs have been extraordinarily successful,” Major General Richard Mills said Thursday, after completing a year-long stint as the senior Marine in Afghanistan. With help from the dogs’ noses, U.S. military units detect most of the IEDs now planted by insurgents before they explode.

Just like the SEALs, military dogs go through a rigorous training program. And, like the SEALs, more than 60% of dogs considered by the military wash out because of physical or behavioral concerns before becoming a full-fledged member of the team. There’s a physical, including X-rays, as well as tests designed to ensure that the animal is eager to learn, can be fierce on command, and isn’t fazed by loud noises (and it’s not only dogs).

“Military working dogs play an increasingly important role in Special Operations,” a 2009 article in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine said. “Canines endow the team with acute senses in light and dark settings, provide a show of force as a visible deterrent to enemy activity, and can maneuver rapidly and close quickly with the enemy in a highly compact environment.” Check, check, and check, in terms of the bin Laden mission. But, the article went on to note, “MWDs, like all military personnel, require certain conditions and support elements to maintain maximal effectiveness.” Well, most soldiers would say: like all military personnel…they’ve always treated us like dogs, and now they’re finally admitting it.

Dogs have become so important to the U.S. military in combat — and veterinarians are in such short supply — that the journal has suggested how doctors who treat dogfaces (slang for infantrymen) also can treat dogs. “Though many conditions in the dog are treated in a similar fashion in the human patient, differences in anatomy, vital sign and laboratory parameters and, medications and dosages, may give the medical provider cause for hesitation to attend to canine patients,” the 2007 piece said. “This article attempts to provide medical providers some basic knowledge of MWD patients, their conditions, and treatments.”

It advises the military medical community to treat sick or wounded dogs lacking veterinary care as the key resource they are. “Local health care providers (HCPs) such as physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and medics/corpsmen may need to intervene to preserve life, limb, and eyesight of certain sick or injured MWDs,” it said. “Humaneness notwithstanding, MWDs are a `weapons systems’ of relative rarity and considerable expense, and replacement of any `field loss’ is a lengthy and costly process. One cannot simply walk over to the supply clerk and retrieve another MWD `off the shelf.’”

But these can be touchy patients, and have been known to bite. “Though rare, dog bites have led to the loss/removal or functional degradation of various extremities – whether through the trauma itself or due to subsequent infection,” the guidance for military health-care professionals adds. “The HCP does not want any of the cases in these journal articles which can be found in Pub Med; (e.g. `Successful Replantation of an Amputated Nose after Dog Bite Injury,’ `Microsurgical Replantation of the Lip: A Multi-Institutional Experience,’ and especially, `The Therapy of Genital Trauma by Dog Bite’ to be mimiced.”

But dog heroes, like their human counterparts, sometimes need special care. Sure, some dogs can help veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, as we reported in Time last year. But dogs themselves can suffer from PTSD as well:

“When Gina came back from (southwest Asia) she was so messed up, she didn’t want to see anybody,” said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the…non-commissioned officer in charge of the MWD section. “She wouldn’t walk through front doors, she didn’t want to go inside buildings. She was terrified of everything.”

And then there is the simple wear and tear of war. “Severe canine hip dysplasia (CHD) can be career-ending for the Military Working Dog (MWD),” a 2007 article in the Army Medical Department Journal noted. Military dogs can be put on a diet 75% of normal to reduce their weight, as well as put on pain pills, to deal with CHD. If that doesn’t work, total hip replacement surgery may be needed.

“MWD Benny made a total of 3 deployments to Iraq after his total hip replacement in February 2004,” the article noted. “Unfortunately, MWD Benny developed significant lameness of his left pelvic limb due to the progression of degenerative joint disease and hip dysplasia during his third deployment and returned home early.” Repeated deployments to the war zone, it seems, are just as tough on man’s best friend as they are on man himself.