Saluting Military Mutts

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MAURICIO LIMA / AFP / Getty Images

Marine of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, puts his sniffer dog near a roadside bomb while anti-explosives squad members check final details to blow it up, during a 48-hour operation in attempt to hold back insurgency activities in a stronghold Taliban area in Marjah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on March 31, 2010.

Here at Battleland, we marvel at the military world in all its crazy glory. One of its elements that seems to have gotten a lot of attention in recent years is the growing use of dogs to perform various martial missions, ranging from IED hunting to helping vets with PTSD.

So we were interested when a copy of Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond ended up on our desk. Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a prolific author of children’s books – lavishly illustrated with photographs – and this is her latest. Battleland conducted this email chat with her this week from her home in Montana:

Why did you write Dogs on Duty?

First of all, I’m a dog lover, and I feel that there’s something very special in the relationship between humans and dogs that is more intense and fundamental than our relationship with any other animal. I’m also fascinated in the ways we’ve found to use that special relationship to help us solve our human problems. So this book has been a natural for me—it delves into how we’re using the dog’s highly developed sense of smell to save human lives.

What is the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?

I guess that would be the ways in which the handlers and dogs are bonded. The most elite dogs, the Specialized Search Dogs (SSDs), which search off leash for explosives and weapons, train at Lackland Air Force Base with their handlers.

Each handler is given two dogs to work with for a month, then must choose which one to continue training with. What a difficult decision that must be—which of these amazing animals do I feel will best protect me and my comrades? These teams stay together all through the handler’s service, which can last for years.

The other kinds of Military Working Dogs are matched up with their handlers on their home bases. These teams stay together for the duration of the soldier’s war zone service, which may be only six weeks, so they need to be able to bond over and over again with different handlers.

What is the neatest thing a dog working for the U.S. military has done since 9/11?


Dorothy Patent / Walker

For me, the neatest thing is the saddest thing, how these dogs come to understand the life and death nature of their work, how a Military Working Dog will heroically throw itself on the body of its wounded handler in an attempt to protect him or her.

What are the most important tasks military dogs do?

These dogs can have a number of different roles—tracking down a suspect, guarding a military base, detecting drugs or explosives. To me, the most important role is finding explosives, as in that role they are saving human lives.

How many dogs are in the military?

These numbers change all the time, but according to Lackland Air Force Base’s website, more than 350 dogs currently serve in Afghanistan, and that number is expected to increase greatly.

In addition to those dogs on the front, hundreds more serve on military bases across the United States as guard dogs and drug or explosive detectors. When important dignitaries such as the President travel, these dogs are used to make sure the venues used are clear of weapons and explosives. They have become completely integrated into the functioning of the U.S. military as their value has become realized.

What breeds does the military prefer? Why?

A number of breeds are used, and if a mixed breed shows promise, no one cares about its pedigree. But the Belgian Malinois is considered the best breed in some ways, especially for work in warm climates. It’s smaller than a German shepherd and has a shorter coat, so it does better in the heat. These dogs also are highly intelligent, have a high energy level, and have a strong desire to please their handlers.

Labrador retrievers are also popular, especially for IED detection. Various breeds are used in other countries as well—for example, the British often use spaniels.

How well are dogs in the military treated?

The military understands how valuable these dogs are and makes sure they are well treated. One of the most advanced veterinary hospitals in the country is located at Lackland AFB and is used to treat Military Working Dogs when they are ill or injured.

Would you change anything about how the military uses dogs?

The government works hard to find homes for dogs that leave the service, but at present, if a dog that’s being adopted is overseas, its new owner must pay to transport the dog back to the United States, which can be very expensive. People are working to have this policy changed to make finding homes for these dogs easier.

Readers can call their senators urging them to pass a bill which has already passed the House unanimously but is stalled in the Senate because it is attached to the 2013 Defense Authorization Bill.

It’s called the “Canine Members of the Armed Forces” Bill, Senate Bill S.2134. This bill helps give Military Working Dogs the respect, honor, and care they deserve for putting their lives on the line to help keep our fighting forces safe.

It would change the status of Military Working Dogs from “equipment” to “canine members of the armed forces” and would also help provide for the transport of adopted retired dogs back to the U.S., authorize appropriate veterinary care for retired dogs, and would provide for public recognition of the services these brave dogs perform.

What happens to veteran dogs?

If the dog is still able to work, it is offered first to other public services, such as for police work. Second on the list is the handler or handlers who have used the dog. If none of these need the dog, or it is unable to continue working, it’s offered to the general public.

Did you stumble upon any military cats?

Somehow the term Military Working Cats just doesn’t ring true! I don’t think anyone has found a way to get cats to be as willing and able to help humans solve their problems as dogs do.