US Military, American Dogs?

Dogs in the US armed forces work right along with American soldiers, as both head out together on dangerous assignments throughout the world. Our soldiers come from the United States, so it seems obvious that their canine partners would come from breeders here at home. The fact is, over the past 50 years, the vast majority of American military dogs are provided by breeders from other countries, mostly Germany, Slovakia, and countries in the former Soviet Bloc. This was largely due to a supply problem. Foreign countries simply became better able to provide more dogs on shorter notice.
  • service
  • military/police
AKC Gazette in May 2008

Now, with the increasing complexity of new challenges, US military leaders are more receptive to obtaining dogs from America. The number of dogs needed for all the new jobs the military wants to accomplish has risen sharply. This means American breeders may once again become a greater source. The question is, are American breeders ready to meet the new challenges?

A Window Into the World of Military Dogs

Since the late 1950s, Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas, has been the center for American military dog training. Here, military dogs are evaluated and prepared for service, and handlers are taught how to work with the dogs.

Although many details of the procedures are secret, in the interests of attracting American dog-breeder partners, leaders at Lackland discuss what it takes for dogs to succeed in the military.

Before dogs serve in the military, they go through a long and careful evaluation period. Future military dogs leave their kennels around one year of age, then spend a few months working with a special trainer. After this training, the dogs are introduced to evaluators at Lackland for a 15-day testing period. If they make it through that, they then move onto an even more intense 120-day training. Every aspect of their physical and mental health is tested.

Only 33% of all dogs entering the military system make it through these 135 days.

Since 2000, Ursula Shriver has been in charge of the evaluation program. Based at Lackland, she has the rather bland title of "purchasing agent." Her title belies the sensitivity she brings to the job, which she compares to an agent for a baseball team scouting for excellent prospects.

Shriver says that American breeders are welcome to try out, "but the dogs must have several qualities for us to even consider them. In the past few years, the requirements have increased even more."

Intensive Health Testing
Like a line of show dogs, the first round of testing focuses on health. All dogs coming into the military get X-rays of their hips, elbows, and spines. Without basic soundness, there is no way they would succeed. "These dogs must have excellent general stamina," Shriver explains. "They are constantly jumping and getting up on their hind legs."

Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Vincent-Johnson, DVM, is commander of the National Capital District Veterinary Command, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She oversees initial health evaluations of dogs entering the military, as well as subsequent veterinary care. Her office is also in charge of military veterinarians. "We need to do all these tests to make sure there is nothing that would shorten the dog's career," Vincent-Johnson explains. "In addition to X-rays, we do blood analysis, worm tests, and urinalyses. If a dog has a minor problem like a skin irritation, we temporarily reject them, then re-test later."co

The physical examinations done on dogs closely resemble testing of human recruits. There is a reason for this, as Vincent-Johnson explains. "These dogs are considered active-duty soldiers. They get the same care. If they are injured in battle, they get evacuated just like a person."

Basic Training
After confirming physical soundness, the recruit is ready for more intense stages, in which they are introduced to simulated real-world scenarios.

"The dogs have to be comfortable with the sound of gunfire," Shriver explains. No better way to figure this out than to fire a gun near the dog. In close proximity, a tester fires six rounds. "It's really loud," Shriver states, "and we look to see if the dog is fearful or nervous."

As the shots are fired, a handler pets the dog, not to comfort the animal, but to further test him. "We're looking to see if the dog gets aggressive and bites the handler when the shots go off," Shriver explains.

In the weeks ahead, the dogs are introduced to several stressors. Placed on uneven surfaces, or encouraged to negotiate very tight spaces, the dog's ability to remain calm is evaluated. In bright light and complete darkness, the dogs are asked to move quickly up and down sets of stairs. Throughout, evaluators see whether the dog pushes ahead with confidence, or becomes nervous.

Captain Greg Blaylock is a leader in the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force base. He oversees dogs that make it through the 135 days of training, as well as the human handlers who partner with those dogs in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. "We know the kinds of situations the dogs are likely to encounter, so everything we do is meant to see how they would do with real threats. We need to test their courage and if they are stable in all kinds of environments." He says any dog that remains confident and poised through the training at Lackland is likely to succeed in battle.

Like the soldiers, military dogs must maintain intense focus. Addressing potential breeders, Shriver asks, "Is the dog distracted by sights, sounds, or smells? That's what it would be needed in a real situation."

During basic training, the military has many ways of testing distractability. One is to use mundane objects like balls and kong toys. "The dog should have excellent drive," Shriver says. "He should be able to maintain attention on that kong or ball at all times."

Ability to Connect
Military dogs have a tough mindset, but with a softer side that allows them to quickly, and deeply, connect with human handlers. "They must be very easily socialized," Shriver explains. "Handlers constantly move from one base to another, but the dogs remain at one base and meet with new handlers all the time."

Special Canine-Human Connections

In the popular imagination, the military seems like a rather cold place, with talk of guns and war. But there is a strong emotional connection between the handlers and the dogs they work with, and an intense appreciation for the dogs. These dogs are often heroes, warning or even rescuing their human partners in dangerous situations, and they receive the care heroes deserve.

Top-Notch Veterinary Care
Just like their human counterparts, all active-duty military dogs are regularly evaluated by medical professionals. "We do physical exams on the dogs twice a year," Vincent-Johnson says. "If the dog needs attention, or surgery, we get them to the right person."

Vincent-Johnson's office also stays updated on the latest health research, and communicates the information to field veterinarians in the US and overseas for immediate use. "For example," she explains, "a while back there were findings about nutrition and bloat. We developed new feeding guidelines and got it implemented across the world."

Intensive Training for Handlers
Because the dogs mean so much, human handlers receive extensive training in proper canine care. Vincent-Johnson oversees this effort. "We teach handlers how to recognize signs of problems and when to call a vet. We teach them basic care – how to groom the dogs and do basic first aid. They get quarterly training on all of this." The handlers receive training for specific environments the dogs will work in, as well as seasonal issues. "In the spring," Vincent-Johnson says, "we teach handlers about heat-related injuries or snake bites. In the winter, we cover things like frostbite."

Handlers who excel at veterinary training may advance their careers by enrolling in master veterinary classes. If they succeed, they will become managers of military kennels, and take charge of training future dogs and handlers.

Emotional Bonds Between Handlers and Dogs
Beyond the physical support of good veterinary care, military dogs also form a close emotional bond with their handlers. Blaylock, who has seen this up close for 13 years, never loses an appreciation for what these dogs do for their country. "It's amazing to see them out there, wagging their tails and loving their work with their human partners. They are what I like to call 'force multipliers' – they make everyone around them more devoted."

Unfolding Challenges

New technologies constantly arise for detecting explosives or other substances. But dogs always do better than machines. As Blaylock says, "What seems to keep working best is the decidedly low-tech system of dogs and their handlers." As new military challenges arise, this decades-old system is being tested, and expectations for the dogs intensifies.

Changing World, New Jobs, New Opportunities
Some of the new jobs are already being defined by the real world. For most of the history of bomb-sniffing dogs, they have done their work on the end of a leash. But it is becoming more important for dogs to be able to sniff explosives at a distance from handlers. "This would let dogs warn people of dangers further ahead," Blaylock explains, "which applies in situations like where there might be a roadside bomb in Iraq in front of a convoy."

"It's like a big chess game with people who come up with new threats against our country," Blaylock asserts. As those new threats emerge, he and others want to know what else dogs may be able to do. He believes we have hardly begun to know the full potential of canine noses. "We haven't tapped even one tenth of it. So we're going to just keep pushing and training, and see what we learn."

American Military, American Dogs?

Breeders who have excellent bloodlines may be in a perfect position to contribute to military success. Often, dogs that do not win in the show ring have potential in the military. How do breeders know when they have the right dogs, and how can they take the next steps?

What Military Dogs Don't Need
When American breeders consider whether their dogs have the right stuff, there are a few things they do not need to worry about. "Pedigree is not as important as work ethic," Shriver says. "The dog does not need the perfect look. We're more concerned that the dog has abilities to concentrate, hunt, or retrieve."

Show Lines, Military Attitude
Often, characteristics that disqualify a dog from the show ring are the very things that are promising to the military. "We want dogs that might be higher energy, the kind of dogs that get bored sitting at home while their owners are at work," Vincent-Johnson explains. "We want dogs that are more than what most owners wish for." When breeders see these kinds of dogs emerge in their lines – as long as the dogs meet the stringent health, temperament, and drive requirements – they might just be looking at terrific candidates for a fulfilling military career. This could be a source of great pride for breeders. Those wonderful dogs that do not make it in the ring have other exciting opportunities.

Other Ways to Contribute
In addition to providing dogs, breeders may also contribute by sharing knowledge about canine communication. "We are training the dogs to detect new kinds of explosives," Blaylock explains. "But the most important thing is for the dog to be able let a handler know what's there. The whole thing comes down to being able to interpret what the dog is telling us."

Welcoming American Breeders

For dogs with the right attitude, skills, and health, the military can be as exciting for them as it is for people. The American military is ready to hear from breeders willing to put in a little extra effort to provide great working dogs.

Blaylock enthusiastically welcomes breeders to do their part in giving the US military a more American character. "Absolutely, we'd love to rely on American breeders, and it would be great to have American breeders provide more 'pet patriots' to serve our country! But it has been difficult for them to meet our demands."

Do your dogs have what it takes?