By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2009 - Military working dogs have come a long way since the days of ancient Persia and Assyria, where they donned armor, spiked collars and warned of impending attack or charged on the enemy's cavalry. But they are as important as ever, and U.S. military leaders are making sure they are rewarded with a happy retirement.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Christa Quam holds her puppy, which will enter the military working dog program in a year at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The dogs are enrolled in a 60- to 90-day training program, where they are trained in explosive and drug detection, deterrence and handler protection. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Griffin
Defense Department officials have created a standard operating procedure used by all kennels to ensure excess military working dogs have a chance to go to deserving adoptive homes.
The department, in accordance with the November 2000 "Robby Law," enables military working dogs to be transferred or adopted out to former handlers, law enforcement agencies or families who are willing and able to take on the responsibility of former military working dog. The department adopts out about 300 dogs per year, about 100 of those to law enforcement agencies outside of the department.
Dogs are available for adoption throughout the United States and some overseas locations. Most available dogs have failed to meet working standards, while others become available after completing their military service.
Although the adoption process at the Military Working Dog schoolhouse at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is rigorous and contingent on demand and eligibility, families can adopt dogs somewhat quickly, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, the Pentagon-based executive agent of the military working dog program.
"Families can normally complete the adoption process in less than 30 days if they and the dogs meet the eligibility requirements," Hertog said. "The Robby Law changed the way the [Defense Department] does business, and we go to extraordinary lengths to make sure dogs are adopted out."
Air Force Maj. Kathy Jordan, 341st Training Squadron commander at Lackland, described the two-page adoption application as a simple tool to garner information about prospective families.
"It's an application, not an essay," she said. "We're seeking basic information about other pets or children in the household to ensure that we have the right fit and that you're able to properly take care of your dog."
A follow-up interview queries prospective families about their expectations of a military dog.
"Are the adopters looking for a dog to guard their house or go walking with them?" Jordan said. "Are they seeking a high-activity or low-activity dog? We collect these details because we want the adoption to be successful."
High demand for adoption -- not the adoption process -- can put prospective adopters on the waiting list for two to three months, Hertog said. On most days, about 250 dogs are training at Lackland, and a small percentage of dogs unfit to work in the field will become eligible for adoption. All military dogs are trained at Lackland and then are sent to operational units throughout the department.
Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherds, German shepherds and Labrador retrievers ranging from 2 to 12 years old are declared "excess" when they are no longer in the military program. Dogs adopted from field kennels typically are 8 to 12 years old, while dogs adopted from the schoolhouse range from 2 to 4 years old. Eligibility requirements include suitability testing, a veterinary screening, eligible home location and required paperwork completion, Hertog said.
The stateside and overseas demand for military working dogs, especially explosive-detector dogs, has spiked since Sept. 11, 2001, and the average retirement age has dropped from 10 and a half to 8 and a half due to the rigors of the their jobs, Jordan said. The military has added combat-tracker and off-leash specialized search dog capabilities to the program.
Most field dogs have deployed at least once, often multiple times, while dogs adopted from the schoolhouse rarely have deployed, Jordan said. She added that any given dog's experiences warrant a thorough assessment of their temperament and acclimation back into a home.
"These dogs, for the most part, have been aggression trained, so rigorous screening is critical," she said. "The bite muzzle process involves muzzled and unmuzzled scenarios for the dog, putting him in the training environment and seeing how likely he or she is to attack the decoy." Depending on the score rating at the end of the test, the dog is deemed "suitable," "guarded" or "not suitable." Adoption officials consider such factors as children, other dogs in the home, and prior handler experience when determining placement for a dog, Jordan said.
Families of handlers who have been killed in action also have first opportunity to adopt the handler's dog. Dogs wanted by neither their handlers nor law enforcement agencies are posted on the adoption Web site, she said.
"Even though our handlers get first call at adopting their dogs, they do not short-circuit the process in place," Hertog said. "Handlers who may have been with a dog for a couple of years still have to wait for the adoption process to run its course in order to call the dog their own."
The adoption process is not the only thing to improve over time, Hertog said. She described the schoolhouse as a "state-of-the-art" training and veterinary facility that has evolved since directives to Air Force major commands in 1965 had them assemble 40 handlers and 40 dogs at Lackland for 120 days of temporary duty in Vietnam. The trial run success encouraged officials to augment the military working dog program, she added.
"We lucked out - we're honored to be the executive agent for this program," Hertog said. "Our training program and dog school has existed at Lackland for decades, and it continues to get better."
The general added that she answers swiftly when people ask her and schoolhouse staff members if they feel guilty about sustaining such a sophisticated facility for dogs.
"No -- because these dogs work for us as our best detectors, ... especially our explosive detector dogs," she said. "There is nothing -- no piece of equipment or technology available today -- that can beat the scent of that dog's nose. So we're going to do everything we can to take care of those dogs."
The adoption program also has placed some terminally ill dogs with adoptive families, giving them an opportunity to live out their lives in loving homes, Jordan said.
"That dog is not just a piece of equipment -- it's what enables us to save lives; so we exhaust all avenues to ensure the dogs remain as healthy as possible," she asserted.
Contrary to popular belief, Hertog said, retired dogs, unless deemed by a veterinarian as seriously ill and suffering, or unsuitable due to aggression, are not typically euthanized following military service. Since November 2000, only a few dogs have been euthanized for lack of a good home, while thousands have been placed in private homes, she added.
Although the program will expedite processing for dogs out of the state and country, the general clarified why adopters must bear the brunt of transport for adopted dogs returning from overseas.
"Once that dog is adopted, it becomes a pet, and therefore loses its [military working dog] status," she explained, so it would be inappropriate for the Defense Department to transport that pet.
Despite regulations barring department-sponsored transport of adopted dogs, Hertog said, the department provides a number of services to adopting families. Adoption coordinators provide follow-up e-mails and calls to check on the dogs and families, and the coordinators also furnish information about low-cost Air Force Services Agency dog training for families who adopt in the San Antonio area, where most adoptions take place.
"The extra assistance is not required, and we're not staffed to do it," Jordan said. "We just have people who are passionate about the dogs and want to ensure smooth adoptions."
The program also offers a breeder and foster program for families who live in the San Antonio area and are interested in offering short-term care to dogs. More than 100 puppies at Lackland can be fostered for the first two to six months of their lives. Foster families must bring the dogs to Lackland for monthly check-ups and must work diligently to socialize the puppy.
"We want the puppies to spend time with the families to socialize them to their new environment," Jordan said. "Foster families are screened just as rigorously, if not more so, than adopting families."
The cradle-to-grave philosophy of caring for dogs is the hallmark of the department's military working dog adoption program and schoolhouse, Hertog said. "There is no shortage of suitable homes ready and willing to provide a comfortable retirement for our four-legged heroes," she added.
In an effort to further clarify the adoption process, the schoolhouse recently launched an adoption Web site for families who want to take in dogs for fostering or adoption.
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle serves in the secretary of the Air Force public affairs office.)
Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog
Defense Department Military Working Dog School