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Dogs of Service

Honoring All Veterans: Men, Women, and K9s

Veterans Day is a time to honor the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice serving this great nation. But we also want to take the time to recognize another service member that sometimes gets forgotten: The military dogs that serve alongside these men and women.

By now, especially with the recent news  , most people should know that dogs are an essential part of the military. These dogs are trained to detect explosives, sniff out narcotics, and can also provide companionship in what could be the hardest time in a person's life.

In order to honor these dogs, it's good to learn what they do, a bit of history and how these brave dogs become Military Working Dogs or MWDs.

The Grueling History

Dogs have been serving alongside Americans in every conflict since the Revolutionary War.

One famous military dog from WWI was a pit bull named Stubby  . He saved an entire company from a sarin   gas attack. He also fought in several military campaigns, saved numerous lives, and went on to meet 3 different presidents. Sergeant Stubby remains one of the great military dogs   of the 20th Century.

Sergeant Stubby, the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, and the most decorated war dog of World War 1.

The most popular dogs used for the Military are German and Dutch Shepherds, as well as Belgian Malinois. They are chosen because they are instinctively more aggressive breeds that are easily trained, loyal and athletic.

The Training Process

The Air Force alone is allowed up to 579 MWDs and currently has about 477 assigned worldwide.

The Lackland Air Force Base in Texas breeds and trains military working dogs and sends out about 230 Canine/Handler teams per year. The base has almost 700 kennel spaces, with 400 dogs currently occupying those spaces. There are personnel that specialize in puppy development and work to specifically train military dogs. Each dog is handpicked and goes through extensive temperament and physical evaluations before their military training even begins.

A German Shepherd trains using a dummy with their handler.

MWDs are not just given to any handler. Handlers are also required to go through specialized training and certification, either at a military police school or at Lackland AFB.

Once the dogs reach 6–7 months old, their specialized training begins.

  1. Training starts by establishing a handler-dog relationship, this is done through close contact, feeding, grooming, exercise, and play.
  2. Once a bond has been established, basic obedience can begin. This is similar to any civilian dog training other than it never stops. This obedience training is done every day to ensure that the dogs will always obey their handlers commands no matter what!
  3. After passing obedience training, the handler and their dog can then begin advanced training. This type of training involves basic obedience, but also includes controlled aggressiveness, attack methods, and enclosed and open searches. This is also when they start their specialized training like explosives or narcotics detection. Every stage of training is critical for the handler and the MWD.
  4. After becoming an official military dog, their handler is required to train with them 4 hours a week – which is about 30 minutes a day. This is to ensure that the dog is always able to stay on task when on military assignments, and that their obedience and tactical training is always fresh.
A German Shepherd jumps through a wooden training hurdle while his handler looks on.

Military dogs are not all trained the same since there are so many different areas where these dogs are needed. Typically they are trained to detect explosives, chemicals, and narcotics, and to search out the “bad guys”. They are also trained for search and rescue, and are given the skills to be acclimated back into “civilian” life once their tour is over.

Military canines usually serve the majority of their life, retiring around 10–12 years of age.

The Bond Between Dog and Handler

Until the year 2000, Military dogs used to be seen as military surplus. They were not seen as war heroes and when their “job” was done they were either left behind, or euthanized. That was until President Bill Clinton enacted “Robby's Law  ”.

Robby’s Law gives handlers the option to adopt their military dog once their duties have been completed or once the dog has retired. Handlers are not required to adopt their MWD, but most of them choose to keep their long-time companion. If their handler does not want to adopt their MWD, the dogs are taken back to Lackland AFB.

It’s common for handlers to adopt their military dog partners, so the current wait list for civilians to adopt retired MWDs is 18 months–2 years!

A German Shepherd jumps through a wooden training hurdle while his handler looks on.

An additional law was passed in 2016 requiring that MWDs are brought back to the US after overseas retirement. This is known as the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act  .

Since becoming official members of the military, MWDs are ranked higher than their handlers. This custom came about to prevent handlers from mistreating their canines. Military dogs are members of the armed forces, so they are honored just like their human counterparts.

The base commander and a veterinarian both have to approve the dog’s readiness to be adopted before they can be placed with their handler or any other adopter. If they are not ready they will live at Lackland AFB, and can be helpful in training new handlers or for MWD demonstrations.

A German Shepherd military dog morns the loss of their handler at the gravestone.

The bond between a MWD and their handler is essentially unbreakable, and if a dog is killed in combat they are deeply mourned and honored (vice versa  ). If a MWD is reassigned to a new handler, it can take weeks or even months for the dog to trust their new handler fully.

We Salute These Dogs!

Military dogs work extremely hard and save countless lives. It is important to know what these dogs do for our country, because without their help many different military assignments would not be able to be properly performed.

A male German Shepherd sits on a metal stool in front of a draped American flag.

I think it's important for us as Americans and for the military to recognize that these dogs are forced to perform duties that most people wouldn't choose to perform, Collen McGee, public affairs officer at Lackland Air Force Base, said. The only people who truly, truly know what they give us are their handlers and the soldiers who work with them.

Thank you to the men, women, and canines who sacrifice their lives so we can have ours.

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