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Remembering 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. The number of human lives saved by dogs over the years, impossible to calculate, but easily hundreds of thousands.

Ron Aiello and Stormy

Aiello was himself in Vietnam when his partner, a German Shepherd named Stormy, alerted him to impending dangerTop of FormBottom of Form. 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. Top of FormBottom of Form 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, most were euthanized (and not necessarily in a humane manner).

“I don’t really know what happened to Clipper, but I suspect he was euthanized,” Burnam says.

Today, dogs working for the military are supposed to be retired to civilian life following their service to our country. “It’s the way it should be,” Burnam adds. It’s the way it should be, not always the way it is.

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. 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. Organizations like the U.S. War Dog Association help pay those costs.

Gen. John Pershing awards Sgt. Stubby with a gold medal in 1921. Stubby served in 17 battles and fought in four major allied offensives during WWI. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History)

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.

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 died in 1926 and 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.

All branches of our Armed Forces are utilizing military patrol dogs specializing in drug and bomb detection. There are approximately 3,000 of these canines stationed around the world with their handlers in Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Africa to name just a few. These dogs are being used to patrol air bases, military compounds, ammunition depots, military check points, leading patrols and clearing minefields. In addition, dogs on bases (even in the U.S.) serve as guard or watch dogs.

Cpl. Matthew Foster & Sgt. Mick

Several years ago, a U.S. General was boasted 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 their nose.

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.

The U.S. War Dog Association began OPERATION MILITARY CARE K-9 began in 2002, an initiative to send care packages to U.S. Military Working dogs and their handlers.

Another service is of the U.S. War Dog Association a prescription drug program for former military working dogs, as well as emotional support when dogs pass away.

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