Celebrating Military and Military Working Dogs
Ron Aiello, president of the non-profit U.S. War Dog Association, estimates that American military working dogs conservatively saved over 10,000 lives in Vietnam alone, and that number likely doubled or tripled in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, at any given moment, there are roughly 3,000 military working dogs working somewhere around the globe. The number of military lives (not to mention civilians) saved by working dogs? Aiello answers “incalculable.”
Aiello was himself in Vietnam when his partner, a German Shepherd named Stormy, alerted him to impending. Aiello heeded the warning and moments later, a sniper opened fire, just missing him. “My dog saved my life more than once, and most handlers say the same thing,” Aiello says.
John Burnam also served in Vietnam. His dog was a German Shepherd named Clipper. “One time, we were leading a patrol in an area we had previous combat experience in,” he says. “This was an open space with rows of rubber trees. We spread out in a wide formation. Then all the sudden a guy to my right gets hit and badly hurt. There were explosives with trip wires booby-trapped all around. We had nowhere to go but forward; it was our only choice. Clipper guided us through this area and past at least five booby traps. He saved my life and (the lives of) others on that day.”
After partnering with Clipper for about a year, Burnam returned home in 1968. The Department of Defense classifies military working dogs as equipment. Lots of equipment was left behind in Vietnam to be used by the South Vietnamese military instead of spending money to bring it back, including the dogs. While some dogs did work for the South Vietnamese military, the vast majority were euthanized (and not in a humane manner). It was a real tragedy.
Today, finally, there’s some appreciation for these dogs – though still they don’t enjoy all the perks of our pets. Due to budget restrictions, for example, they don’t always have all their medical and behavioral needs supported financially. It’s no secret many U.S. veterans have limited ability to pay for themselves, let alone their dogs – and the U.S. War Dog Association does raise money to help.
A 2000 bill signed by President Bill Clinton requires all military working dogs suitable for adoption to be available for placement after their retirement. Because working military dogs are highly trained, fiercely loyal, and may have unique medical issues, all retired dogs available for adoption go to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Adoption Program. Typically, over 300 dogs are adopted through the program each year.
Another bill, this one signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, guarantees the safe return of all retired military dogs to the United States after serving abroad. In the past, the handlers often had to come up with the funds to transport the dogs home. Note the government doesn’t always support the safe return and reunification with dog handlers as they should. Organizations like the U.S. War Dog Association help pay those costs.
Canine service to our country began during World War I. Although there was no official program back then, dogs were used by the military. The most famous military working dog was a Bull Terrier named Stubby, who repeatedly returned to the front, even after suffering from exposure to gas and wounds from shrapnel. A recent feature film was even made by the heroic dog.
Stubby, a dog that today would be identified as a pit bull, was the most decorated canine war hero ever. Stubby saved hundreds of human lives. Gen. John J. Pershing awarded a gold medal to “Sgt.Stubby.” The same year, the dog visited the White House to meet President Warren Harding and again in 1924 to meet President Calvin Coolidge. Sgt. Stubby, the only dog ever decorated by three U.S. Presidents, died in 1926. His remains are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution.
America’s military officially began its working dog program in World War II, and dogs have served our nation in every war (or military action) since and serve on military bases in the U.S. and around the world every day.
Sgt.Stubby happened to be a Bull Terrier; the history of military working dogs began with a “bully breed.” That’s in quotes because most dogs described as a “bully breed” are merely mixed breed dogs. Still, many government bases don’t allow dogs you’d look at and call a “pit bull” or a “bully breed.” as a pet for military family members. They must live off base with a dog called (rightly or not) a pit bull. How contradictory is that?
Several years ago, a U.S. General was boasting in an interview with me about new million dollar military equipment to assist soldiers to find landmines. Then he added, “No matter what we’re able to do, we can’t duplicate a dog’s nose.” But military working dogs go beyond the mechanics of olfactory systems.
In 2003, Master Sergeant James Kohlrenken, then superintendent of operations for the 341st Training Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, Lackland, TX told me that also mutual trust and the canine instinct define good working dogs. He told me, “These dogs have a nose for smelling trouble.”
Kohlrenken added, “They (working dogs) have good instincts and a strong desire to please. Handlers can depend on their canine partners.”
“The relationship soldiers have with their dogs is a difficult one to describe,” adds Burnam. “We really do depend on one another. The soldiers know it and the dogs know it.”
While many agree that America’s soldiers don’t receive the recognition they deserve, military working dogs obviously don’t serve for acclaim.
Memorial Day is about remembering those who served our country, and continue to do so – with two legs and four.