Veterans Day and Dogs for Defense, Part 2. We begin with the United States exit from Vietnam and its effect on the Military War Dogs that served in that conflict.

 “The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory.”

-General David Petraeus

The Sad Truth About Our Exit from Vietnam

Surplus Equipment

When we exited Vietnam – in a hurry – the military working dogs that served our forces so admirably and saved untold lives were left behind, as they were classified as “surplus equipment.” Despite pleas from many handlers who were willing to pay their dog’s flight home, the military would not permit it. Consequently, some were transferred to the South Vietnamese military and police units who were not trained to handle them while others were euthanized. It is estimated that of 4,000 that served, fewer than 200 made it back to the U.S.

Never Again!

Following a public outcry, led by many irate former U.S. military-dog handlers, in 2000, Congress passed “Robby’s Law” allowing for the adoption of these dogs by law-enforcement agencies, former handlers and others capable of caring for them.

In a New York Times Opinion piece Oct. 3, 2017, Richard Cunningham, a sentry-dog handler in Vietnam and later a New York Police Department employee and fraud investigator concludes, “I’ve heard it said that without our military dogs, there would be 10,000 additional names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. I, for one, think that’s an understatement.”

Operation Desert Storm

Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm lasted from August 1990 – April 1991. During this time, 118 Military Working Dog Teams were deployed to the Gulf region for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Middle-Eastern War Dogs

The hot, dusty environments of Iraq and Afghanistan serve up a new set of challenges for military working dogs trained for explosive and drug detection, sentry, therapy, and service work.











Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, was a member of Seal Team Six that killed Osama bin Laden. A new breed of elite canine soldier, a Special Forces dog’s training covers such skills as bomb-sniffing and parachuting from helicopters.

In an Oct. 7, 2018 feature by Jon Michael Connor, Army Public Affairs on the U.S. Army website, William Cronin, director for the American K9 for Afghanistan and Mali, West Africa, says, “There’s no substitute for the detection of a dog. There’s no machine built yet that can reciprocate what a dog can do.“When you go into your grandmother’s kitchen, you smell stew. The dog goes in your grandmother’s kitchen, he smells carrots, pepper, tomatoes, and lettuce. I mean he smells all the ingredients.”

Dogs’ sense of smell is roughly 50 times better than ours, meaning they can sniff out IEDs before they detonate and injure or kill U.S. servicemen in the prolonged Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Ground patrols are able to uncover only 50 percent of these, but with dogs, the detection rate increases to 80 percent, claims the Defense Department.

Military Dogs Today

Conan, the Belgian Malinois who took part in the Syria raid that killed ISIS leader Baghdadi.

Army Colonel David Rolfe’s military career has gone to the dogs. As director of the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Program based here, Rolfe and his staff are responsible for the health and welfare of some of the most unheralded members of the fighting force: its estimated 2,300 working dogs.

These dogs, along with their handlers from every military service, are deployed worldwide to support the war on terror, helping to safeguard military bases and activities and to detect bombs and other explosives before they inflict harm.[3]

According to retired Air Force K9 handler, Louis Robinson, a fully trained bomb detection canine is likely worth over $150,000, and considering the lives it may save, you could characterize it as priceless.

To augment the Defense Department’s breeding program at Lackland, the AKC was asked several years ago to assist and then implement a plan for a detection-dog breeding program within the U.S., since government agencies have for decades relied heavily on European stock to meet their growing needs.

Consequently, an AKC Detection Dog Task Force was established to raise awareness and alert U.S. breeders, citizens and research organizations about the organization’s involvement. Well-attended conferences were held the past two years and another is planned in August in Durham, North Carolina, bringing experts together to determine how to better get U.S. breeders involved in producing sound dogs for explosive-detection and patrol-detection assignments.

A Perspectives report from the 2017 AKC Working Dog Conference notes “today over 80 percent of working/detector dogs in the U.S. are imported from Eastern Europe even though there an estimated 73 million dogs in the United States, of which about 10 million are purebred.

“. . . The primary difference between the domestic supply of dogs and those procured in Europe is that the European bred and trained working lines have a proven history of pedigrees from dogs selected for working traits. These traits are defined by the influence of competitive dog sports and the training requirements needed to participate at regional and national events.”

Federal and local government agencies and private vendors, according to a January 2019 AKC Detection Task Force Q&A draft, seek puppies 10-12 months of age. The Department of Defense conducts evaluations at its Lackland training center and requires the seller to bring the dog there, where it will be left for up to 10 days for assessment.

The task force is working in four ways to help fill the federal government’s need for quality canines.

Scott Thomas, the task force consultant, cites those directions:

  • It hosts the aforementioned conferences to create a neutral environment for the vendor, breeders and those purchasing dogs (private companies and federal government) to network and discuss issues.
  • The AKC is actively meeting with government agencies to discuss the needs and the long-term solutions both in Washington, D.C. and at Lackland Air Force Base.
  • The AKC has established a Patriotic Puppy Program to assist breeders in understanding how to raise detection dogs for sale to the government and private vendors. This system supports breeders and trainers with a website packed with current information, social-media updates and will soon be one of the largest databases for researching the genotype and phenotype of effective detection dogs.
  • The task force has a government relations element that has proven highly successful in establishing legislation to ease the pathway for domestic breeders to supply dogs to local, state and federal agencies in need of dogs.

Thomas added, “Domestic breeders are very excited. For our pilot, we initially sought out the two breeds most often in demand for single-purpose detection work – the Labrador Retriever and the German Shorthair Pointer.

“We had significant interest from breeders outside those two and just completed receiving applications from those. It looks like the initial pilot effort will have just over 100 dogs, a number we hope to expand significantly in the near future. I can see this effort being coordinated into a national breeding effort to meet our national security need.”

Military Working Dog Facts

  • Dogs have fought alongside American forces in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, but only officially since WWII.
  • There are about 2,300 war and military service dogs in service today, with about 700 serving at any given time overseas.
  • The Military Working Dog Breeding Program on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio provides working dogs to every service branch and numbers among the largest military service dog breeding programs in the world. Fact: Puppy dog training specialist is a real job.
  • Only about 50% make it through training.
  • 85% of military working dogs are purchased from Germany and the Netherlands
  • An average career for MWD’s spans 8-9 years
  • Over 90% of retired MWD’s are adopted by their former handlers
  • They can get PTSD. Symptoms of Canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs anymore.
  • The dogs, like their military counterparts, often find service in law enforcement after retiring from military service
  • Some even fight alongside elite Special Operations units
  • Every military working dog is a noncommissioned officer – in tradition at least
  • If a dog of war is lost in combat, he or she is honored by the entire squad. Feeding dishes are symbolically placed upside down and a poem called Guardians of the Night is read in their honor.

A Military Working Dog is reunited with his handler. Photo courtesy Animal Humane










Help for Today’s Military Dogs 

The American Humane Lois Pope Life Center for Military Affairs

Philanthropist Lois Pope is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s active-duty military, veterans, and military animals.

The driving force behind the establishment of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, D.C., the nation’s first and only permanent public tribute to the four million living disabled veterans and those who have died, she recently endowed the American Humane Lois Pope LIFE Center for Military Affairs. The Center builds on American Humane’s 100 years of work with the U.S. military by providing life-changing, life-saving programs to:

  • Help military K-9 teams on and off the battlefield
  • Help veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury obtain lifesaving service dogs
  • Reunite retired military dogs who are left overseas with their former handlers
  • Support military families in need with healing therapy animals
  • Recognize and honor the life-saving contributions of military hero dogs
  • Provide healthcare to America’s four-legged warriors when they finish service to their country so that they can enjoy the healthy, happy retirement they so richly deserve

With her help – and yours – American Humane is opening a second century of caring for our military heroes – at both ends of the leash.

Operation Military Care K-9

Began in the year 2002 with sending care packages to our US Military Working dogs and their Handlers. “We started with sending items to our U.S. Military Working Dogs to protect them from the harsh weather and terrain with items such as “doogles” to protect their eye from the sand storms, cooling vests to protect them from the high temperature and protect them from heatstroke, and dog boots to protect their paws from the heat and terrain.”







Other Links of Interest

American Humane – Military Dogs

Military Working Dog Handler

Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program

United States Marine Corps Working Dog Handler Program