Military dogs serve their country and are in the fight to defeat the enemy. Author Susan Orlean in her latest book, RIN TIN TIN, commented that the military dogs work as soldiers, and that the American public has a special relationship with them. American Thinker was given a glimpse into what a valuable asset military dogs are to America's war effort through interviews of those who work closely with them.
In her book Orlean points out that the name RIN TIN TIN conjures up memories of a military dog, either one found on the battlefield during WWI, starring in silent war movies, being the US Army spokesman during WWII, or in the television show as part of the US Calvary. Today, the dogs have evolved to become veterans that play a distinct role in American soldiers' lives.
A variety of breeds are used as military dogs, although they are mostly German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers. 70% of the dogs come from abroad, with the rest coming from an on base-breeding program. Outside breeders are chosen because they have a good track record, and know the required characteristics: speed, accuracy, adaptability, a certain level of aggressiveness, curiosity, athleticism, energetic, and a willingness to work. The dogs are either named by the breeder, or if they are from the breeding program are named for fallen soldiers.
The largest dog training facility in the world is at the Lackland Air Force Base where dogs are trained for most of the Department of Defense Agencies excluding special operations. There are approximately 350 dogs trained a year with 2,700 serving worldwide. Gerry Proctor, an Air Force spokesman, told American Thinker that the dogs are trained as either patrol and detection dogs, whose duties include attacking and detecting explosives or narcotics; a specialized source dog who works off leash, well ahead of the handler to sniff out IED's in war zones; or a combat tracker who tracks human scent, friend and foe.
Major Christopher Augustine, a SOCOM spokesman, could not go into a lot of detail, for operational security reasons, but did explain that just as with all military dogs, they "receive extensive training with their handlers and their supported units before they are considered mission capable." American Thinker was told by both the Air Force and Marine trainers interviewed that it is easy to "wash out" of handler school. Dogs brought into the program have an 87% graduation rate and must certify at a 90% success rate, which improves over time, while less than 15% of those who are military eligible become dog handlers. If a dog does "wash out" they can be put into the adoption program that is a feeder for other law enforcement agencies or a civilian adoption program, which has a waiting list of over one year.
A handler must be very effective in understanding everything needed to make that dog work and respond successfully. Proctor gave an example where they initially drag around a five-gallon bucket for a week before being given a dog to train with, since the dogs are considered a precious natural resource. Most of the time the dogs do not train with the same handlers they go into combat with. The key to a good team is to match the personalities of the dog and handler, never putting a green dog with a green handler, straight out of the schoolhouse. MSgt. Richard Reidel, training operations superintendent, sees his goal as providing the elementary training to the handler and dog so that they will be competent enough to then learn specialized skills in further training. Dog and handler are exposed to as many scenarios as possible.
The relationship between handler and dog varies among handlers. Some view the dog as a piece of equipment, with their own stock number, to others considering them as a family member. Unfortunately, at the end of the day the dog goes back to its kennel and the handler back to their barracks. Sgt. Charles Rutledge, who has worked since 2005 as a trainer and dog handler, explained, "I have been told multiple times I have too much affection for them. I don't have kids so I treat them like my kids. It hurts every time when we are permanently separated. I complained when they took the dogs away but understand the big picture, that there are times they have to get used to a different handler." The handler is expected to feed, play, and groom the dogs, and know basic vet skills, including applying an IV. They are constantly training and disciplining the dogs. Since dogs have different personalities some are trained/disciplined by rewarding them with a toy, by the handler raising their voice, or by the handler showing the dog affection.
Sgt. Rutledge gave examples of three different experiences he had with the dogs. Argo, a German Shepherd was a green dog that avoided doing the job of finding explosives. He was sent back to the schoolhouse and became a patrol dog. Jack, a German Shepherd, was afraid of dark rooms. He trained him for two months by putting objects Jack would want in a dark room, but close to the entrance and then moving them further into the room. Eventually the Sergeant was able to "extinct" the behavior, eliminating the fear. Axel was also a German Shepherd who he had for two months. However, Rutledge described Axel as the trainer, "He was a really smart dog and trained me in a different way to search for explosives, a new style."
Msgt. Reidel feels that military dogs are irreplaceable since, unlike robots, they can easily handle the terrain, and can use their sense of smell to find explosives and narcotics. Major Augustine explained that the mission of a special operations dog is to "be used as a less than lethal option on the battlefield, and provide early warning for potential hazards, many times saving the lives of the special operations personnel." Sgt. Rutledge wants Americans to know that these dogs risk their lives and told how his current dog, Hindi, whom he had since 2009, went deaf for a few days after an explosive went off close to her.
Since the military dogs are placed in combat situations do they experience traumatic stress disorder? Proctor noted that it is just beginning to be researched and it is much harder to detect than with humans because "the dog can't talk to you to tell what is on its mind. They exhibit characteristics of shell shock, will not work, become demur, and want to be left alone."
All interviewed describe the military dogs as invaluable to the war effort. The handler and the dog are an effective team who work together to save lives. This is evidenced as Proctor told the story of Marine Corporal Colton Rusk, killed by a sniper bullet in Afghanistan. Eli, his black lab military dog, laid on Rusk's body until they were found. It is obvious that these dogs are truly the soldier's best friend, extremely faithful to the end.