Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=79453
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 5:17:01 AM CST
Photo courtesy of VetDogs
WASHINGTON – They’re lean, they’re mean, they’re highly trained fighting machines. And they like to play fetch in their down time.
Hundreds of military dogs have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, assisting in mine and bomb detection. They have proven highly successful at protecting U.S. troops from enemy forces, but their abilities also extend to protecting troops on the front lines and at home from the stresses and fall-out of war. Here’s a breakdown of how man’s best friend is helping protect and rehabilitate our troops.
Dogs on the frontlines:
The history: The use of dogs in combat is definitely nothing new. Large dogs were used thousands of years ago by the early Greeks and Romans to intimidate their enemies. But the U.S. did not actively use dogs in military maneuvers until World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
According to the Military Working Dog Foundation, the American Kennel Club mobilized patriotic dog owners across the U.S. to donate quality animals to the military, forming the Canine Corps, or as it would later be called, the K-9 Corps. More than 19,000 dogs were procured by the military between 1942 and 1945, and the animals were used as sentries, scouts, messengers and mine locators.
U.S. military dogs proved so successful that the Army later used 1,500 dogs in the Korean War, and employed about 4,000 dogs during Vietnam.
Today, the American military reportedly has several hundred dogs deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, working as patrol dogs, mine and explosives locators and drug detectors.
The training: One of the major military animal training centers is located in Texas at Lackland Air Force Base, where the 37th Training Wing oversees the Military Working Dog Program.
The program obtains dogs from U.S. and European breeders and the Department of Defense breeding program, according to Senior Airman Candace Romano of the 37th Training Wing Public Affairs Office.
The great majority of U.S. military dogs are German and Dutch shepherds, and Belgian malinois bred for their size, intelligence and loyalty.
“Every dog considered for the program is required to pass a rigorous consignment test and medical examination,” said Romano in an e-mail.
“The dogs are tested for reward, drive, environmental capacity, defense against threat, gunfire tolerance and strength of bite,” said Romano. “In addition, the dog must perform detection capability tests.”
Training takes on average 120 days and it costs $12 a day to maintain each dog. In the Air Force, the typical single deployment (depending on the mission) lasts six to 15 months, and the average working life of a war dog is eight to nine years.
A vital part of training, according to Army Sgt. Harold Corey in a Department of Defense article, is to make lessons both challenging and fun. Treats work in the beginning, but overall the dogs want to play.
“A dog is like a 5-year old child. To get a kid to do something, you make it fun,” Corey wrote in the article. When the dog finds the object of his search, be it explosives or drugs, he is rewarded with playtime.
The training often is even more rigorous for the dog’s handler. To qualify, military service members must be senior airmen or higher, have at least 33 months in service and complete an 11-week handler’s course. Handlers work at least 12-hour days and weekends during training to bond with their dogs and become a successful team ready for combat.
And successful they are. According to Corey and the Department of Defense, military dogs are a force multiplier. “They can do the searching of five or six soldiers and do with their nose what a solider has to do by prodding and digging. They make the job easier.”
Helping combat troops: Dogs make the job easier on troops in more ways than one. In December, two black Labrador Retrievers named Boe and Budge made history when they were deployed to Iraq as the first skilled therapy dogs used to help troops combat stress.
“The therapy dogs will be another method that our Combat Stress teams can use to break down mental health stigma – to assist soldiers so that when they go home, ‘Iraq is not on their backs,’” said Major Stacie Caswell in a statement.
The dogs and their handlers will join the 85th Medical Detachment Combat Stress Control unit of the Army to help soldiers prevent and control the stress of living in combat zones.
“The dogs are an ice-breaker to open the door to communication,” said Jeff Bressler, executive vice president of VetDogs, the nonprofit organization that trained and donated Boe and Budge to the Army.
According to Bressler, many troops have difficulty approaching superior officers with personal issues, but the dogs allow troops to ease into conversations with others about problems they may be having.
“The biggest thing people face over there is home-front issues because they have no control over what’s going on at home,” said Bressler. “The second one is sleep issues. A lot of people have trouble sleeping because of what they’ve seen in combat.”
Troops are encouraged to interact with the dogs through petting or playing a game of fetch, activities that have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and provide comfort and relaxation.
“I felt more relaxed after being able spend some time with her,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brenda Rich of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Medical Operations in a January press statement. “For a few minutes it was just me and the dog and nothing in this environment seemed to matter.”
Dogs on the sidelines:
While dogs provide protection and comfort to troops in combat, they also can help when troops return home with more than emotional battle scars.
VetDogs, a subsidiary of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, was originally created to provide wounded military veterans with specialized service dogs to help them maintain their independence and mobility.
According to Harvey Naranjo, sports and activities coordinator of Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Occupational Therapy Amputee Section, three service dogs are assigned to the hospital on a daily basis, and they assist on average eleven to fifteen patients a day.
Service dogs can be trained to fetch dropped items, provide balance, and carry a backpack of up to 18 pounds. But, just as importantly, the dogs provide companionship and help injured troops readjust to civilian life.
Over the last few years, Bressler estimates that 20 service dogs have been placed with wounded veterans and active military members, and there are currently 40 more veterans on the waiting list.
Injured soldiers and active duty military personnel are eligible for a service dog at no personal cost. All training, room and board for both the dogs and their future owners are covered by VetDogs thanks to private and foundation donations that help them reach their annual $2 million budget.
“All of our services are provided free of charge thanks to contributors across the U.S.,” said Bressler. This is good news for Boe, Budge and the countless troops they and other military service dogs assist.
What you can do to help military dogs: To donate to VetDogs, visit http://www.vetdogs.org/ or call 1-866-VET-DOGS.
Operation Military Care K-9, run by the United States War Dogs Association, also accepts financial donations and supplies to send to deployed canine troops.
Requested items include dog biscuits, bedding, shampoo, and toys. For a full list of supplies, visit the organization’s Web site at http://www.uswardogs.org/id40.html.