Remember Canine Heroes This Veterans Day

Dogs serve in military, too.
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On Veteran's Day, it's timely to consider that it's not only humans who serve in our nation's military. There are also more than 2,500 military working dogs (MWDs) on duty worldwide.

MWDs train alongside soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines; they also might parachute out of planes and accompany Special Forces soldiers on dangerous and secret missions.

Colonel Bess Pierce, DVM, DABVP, DACVIM, associate professor at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, is one of the veterinarians responsible for their care.

Pierce explains that, in addition to fulfilling their roles as military service dogs, canines work closely with law enforcement agencies and the Transportation Safety Administration to detect drugs or explosives. Almost all working dogs receive scent training and assignments might include everything from a presidential detail to search and rescue or border patrol, with most dogs involved in explosives detection. Pierce says that working dogs are capable of tracking target odors for either an object or a person, and that the lowest known level of a scent tag detected by a dog is 500 parts per trillion.

Dr. Pierce explains that the military screens and chooses working dogs in a manner akin to how it chooses elite soldiers, selecting those with suitable temperaments and physical characteristics. They're looking for healthy, athletic dogs that are not fearful or easily startled. The dogs also need to have a particularly acute sense of smell and demonstrate that they have the heart and the drive to work hard. "These dogs love to work and they're miserable when they don't have a job to do," she says.

About 26 percent of working dogs are Belgian Malinois, about 46 percent are German shepherds, and the remaining are Labrador Retrievers, German short-haired pointers or other breeds. Malinois are particularly favored for military missions that require high maneuverability and heat tolerance.  Malinois have a "legendary work capacity and drive," says Pierce, and their lean body mass makes them light and portable. "They're long and lean, like marathon runners."

In the past, working dogs were primarily assigned to teams or units with rotating handlers, but today's trend is to pair dogs with single handlers and deploy as a team, she says, depending on the dog's function. "We try to match personalities. Like with any relationship sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When it does work, the dogs and their handlers often form a very intense bond."

With so much time and training invested in the dogs, it makes sense to keep working dogs as healthy as possible. Consequently, in her role, Dr. Pierce practices some of the most advanced veterinary medical care available. "We owe it to (the dogs) for their service," she says, "and they receive a very high level of preventive and rehabilitative care."

Dr. Pierce relishes the rewards of her profession. In an essay titled, "In Praise of the Working Dog," she wrote, "I would encourage anyone to embrace the opportunity to become involved whenever possible. There are those who are concerned that dogs are 'forced' into service and unduly stressed. Worry not. When properly trained, managed, and appreciated, the happiest creature in the world is a dog with a job."

A working dog's career usually lasts seven or eight years. In the past, attack-trained military dogs were euthanized at the end of their useful working life if they could not be placed with a state or municipal law enforcement agency. Non-attack trained dogs were routinely adopted. Today, by law, all military working dogs are evaluated for potential adoption and any MWD found suitable for adoption is adopted. Go to www.lackland.af.mil/units/341stmwd/index.asp to learn more about the MWD program and how to adopt a former military working dog.

To learn more about the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, visit www.aavmc.org.