Military dogs don’t exactly lead lives of comfort. When not deployed, they generally sleep on the floor of concrete kennels. They work hard, giving it their all while training and working in all kinds of conditions around the globe. Sometimes they get hurt. Mostly, life just takes a toll, no matter how much they love their handlers or their work.
The people who adopt these heroes when they retire often end up with astronomical veterinary bills as the dogs grow older. For years, the U.S. War Dogs Association (USWDA) has been trying to get these K-9 veterans the medical coverage they deserve — kind of a Veterans Administration for the four-legged set. But regulations prohibit federal funding of such a program, so the organization’s founder, Ron Aiello, has been looking for alternative ways to take care of these retirees.
This Veterans Day we have great news: USWDA has teamed up with the American Humane Association and Red Bank Veterinary Hospitals to launch the first of what they hope will be many free specialty medical programs for retired military dogs and contract dogs. Red Bank will use its five hospitals across New Jersey to provide free specialty care, including diagnostics, surgery, and pain management. (Applause!)
The only hitch is that for now, at least, owners of these hero dogs have to get their dogs to New Jersey. USWDA will try to arrange free lodging during diagnoses and treatment, but transportation isn’t (yet) covered. Still, it’s a strong start to this brand-new program, which Aiello hopes will evolve into a nationwide network of veterinary clinics by early 2015.
“Right now I feel so blessed that we are able to offer this service to our retired MWDs and CWDs,” Aiello told us. “For 11 years now we have been supporting our active military working dogs and their handlers through Operation Military Care K9, and now we are able to continue that support in their retirement years.”
Any adoptive MWD or CWD owners interested in participating in the program should go to the U.S. War Dogs Association site and fill in the necessary paperwork, including supplying adoption forms.
This is the best Veterans Day present for these dogs and the people who love them. Job very well done, everyone! Can’t wait to watch it expand throughout the United States!
On September 19, I saw a photo of a familiar dog on my Facebook newsfeed. A black Lab named Turbo. I looked at the name of the person posting it. Jon Silvey. Also familiar. I searched my emails and saw the start of his first note to me in May of 2012, from Afghanistan:
I just returned to my task force kennels after a few extremely long mission and was greeted by a few care packages. I was lucky enough to receive a heart felt care package from you containing a little piece of home and an amazing book. I am so grateful of all the supporters from back in the States but was especially overwhelmed by your book…
I re-read our subsequent correspondence, and messaged Sgt. Silvey to get an update. By great coincidence, he had adopted Turbo that very day. “He just retired today after 10 years of service,” he wrote. “He has served 3 tours as a specialized search dog, and has been with me 5 years. We have worked with Special Forces from different branches and countries.”
It was heartwarming to read — in hindsight now that he has become Turbo’s “dad” (this from a father of four human children) — what he wrote about working with this black Lab with a great nose — and about my book as well.
Let me just first say how much I love my job. I have been in the Army for some time now and done a lot of different things but nothing compares to showing up to work and seeing Turbo’s excite-full face every morning. So I am very appreciative to receive a signed book from you that depicts what we all know already but what others in the States and abroad need to know. People need to grasp that dogs are such an important part of the fight and they save many lives.
I can truly say that I have never had a battle buddy that I trusted more with my life than
Turbo. He always lends an ear when I need someone to talk to and he never interrupts. He doesn’t talk much but when I look into his eyes I know that he is listening to every word I say. Thank you for addressing this and putting it out there for people to read.
He wrote me that he feels like he was meant to be with Turbo. A series of coincidences put them in each other’s realm on various occasions, and he finally ended up being matched with Turbo at SSD (specialized search dog) school at Lackland Air Force Base. He wrote in later emails that he has deployed and mobilized four times before that deployment with Turbo, but as an MP without a dog.
He couldn’t believe his luck in getting Turbo for his first deployment as a dog handler – a job he calls “the best in the Army.”
I’ve done a lot of things in my Army career and worked with some of the best the Army has to offer but nothing compares to being a dog handler and working with Turbo everyday. Turbo does more than find explosives. He finds ways to motivate me and others around him on a daily basis.
Being an SSD, he has two jobs. He is an explosive detector dog and a morale officer. Around here everyone knows Turbo or has heard of him. He brings joy and comfort to everyone he works around and everyone that he passes by. Soldiers and contractors stop me all the time so they can pet Turbo or take pictures with him. They always tell me stories of their dogs back home and how Turbo reminds them of their dog.
In another email from Afghanistan, he continued talking about his partner.
I am honored to be able to do what I do everyday. Turbo just always seems to brighten up everyone’s day. As soon as they see him there’s an automatic smile from everyone and a cheerfulness that explodes from their faces. From time to time he is a cuddle bug but really he just likes to try to play fetch with everyone.
The secret to Turbo’s heart is a ball or a treat. If Turbo could talk I think he would say “I have never met a treat didn’t like”. As far as a 6th sense, I think all dogs have the gift to recognize the needy and lonely. Turbo always knows when I need that extra lick on the face or the paw on my leg that almost says “everything is going to be alright.” Dogs are truly amazing.
He sent along this pic of Turbo wearing booties, with an explanation.
Turbo wears booties a lot because of the gravel found at a lot of the FOB (forward operating bases) and PSS (police sub stations). Turbo also is older and has joint issues from time to time and wearing the booties helps him maintain a even surface while walking around. Turbo wears his booties on a lot of missions. Especially when he is searching areas that contain a lot of glass, chemicals, metal, and things of that nature. We call them his “Air Turbs”. He is thinking about his own shoe line. Lol!
I took this photo to show people some of the conditions the MWDs have to search in. It’s not a picnic by any means for them. They get down and search through some nasty stuff. Including human waste and garbage.
Our correspondence continued, and I asked where Turbo sleeps, being 99.99 percent sure of the answer. This is what he wrote.
Turbo always sleeps with me. When we are back at the kennels (which is really just a tent and doesn’t consist of any real kennels) Turbo sleeps on my bed with me. He has his spot and I have mine. When we are out on mission Turbo will sleep in my sleeping bag with me or right next to me. He doesn’t like to leave my side to often. Missions are all different and Turbo and I never know where we will be sleeping. On one mission in the mountains we slept on a hill side and when we woke up there was like a foot of snow on top of us. I just depends on the mission.
He went on to talk about Turbo’s most valuable asset: his nose, and his ability to use it to save lives.
Turbo and I walk point on missions. Given the nature of the enemy’s dedication of trying to blow us up. You really must trust your partner’s nose when you are out front walking a roadway, path, wadi, orchard, compound, or village. I can safely say that no one has ever suffered an injury due to Turbo missing anything. Everyone has followed behind us with no issues. I would go as far as to say that Turbo could find the needle in the haystack if you catch my drift. Even my wife and kids say that “daddy will be ok because he has Turbo and Turbo would never let anything happened to daddy.”
It’s as if Turbo should be wearing tights and a cape. He is not equipment. He is my hero and guardian. He is my battle buddy and my friend. He’s not only a Soldier with four-legs and a sniffer. He is Soldier that works for a simple pat on the head or a ball. He doesn’t care if it is to hot or raining. He doesn’t complain or run his mouth. He just does his job. That’s all he knows how to do, and he loves doing it. Turbo is my equal.
I got sand in my eyes as I read the words of this man working with Special Forces and infantry in Kandahar Province. It would be more than two years later that we’d pick up the thread of our conversation, when I found the photo of Turbo on his Facebook page.
He and Turbo had some close calls, and Turbo now has PTSD when he hears loud noises, poor fellow. But he’s safe at home now, with four children, two other dogs, and all the love and tennis balls he can handle.
Turbo’s retired life is becoming more real for him everyday. He couldn’t believe that he could have a ball or toy without having to do something for it. He slept with two tennis balls last night lol. He loves my two little boys and likes to just hang out with them while they play XBOX or watch TV. He was a little confused when I got in my ACUs this morning and wasn’t allowed to come with me to work. (Silvey is still an Army dog handler.) He still goes in front of me when I walk around the house as if he still needs to clear a path for me. He is my best friend and an amazing dog. I don’t think I could ever express in words how much he means to me. I am so happy he is finally home and look forward to our new adventures together.
Welcome home, Turbo. May you have years of the life you deserve. Thank you for your service, and Sgt. Silvey and family, thank you for opening your hearts and home to this beloved soldier dog.
In World War II, when the US war dog program was in its infancy, it depended almost entirely on people donating their dogs to the fight. I can’t imagine what it was like to say good-bye to the family dog – even in a time when dogs had a slightly different status in most homes – but people did it by the thousands.
One such dog was Rip, who was purported to be half Doberman, with what looks to be a strong streak of pit bull in him. Shortly after the publication of my book Soldier Dogs, I heard from Allen Moore, who was a little boy when his life intertwined with Rip’s. He was kind enough to send me some photos and documents about Rip’s life.
I want to share Rip’s story here, because it’s emblematic of the good dogs and loving handlers who helped usher in one of the most successful military dog programs in the world. It also shows the heart that we’ve always had for military dogs, and the fact that adoption of these dogs was going strong way back then – a policy that experienced a brutal turn for handlers and dogs during the Vietnam era.
Allen Moore fondly remembers the wallet of his dad, W.M. Moore, who’d been a dog handler in World War II. “Dad carried a picture of Rip with the garrisons cap in his wallet for many years until it almost fell apart. Not a picture of his wife and kids just HIS DOG. I for one, never felt slighted.”
Rip was just one of the handful of dogs under his father’s care during the war, but he’s the one who came home with him and spent the rest of his life with him. The details of Rip’s life before becoming a soldier dog in June 1943 are few, but he had a family and a house with a white picket fence. The photo below shows a young Rip with his pre-war owner. It must have been hard to give up this young dog as a military recruit.
After training as a handler with the K-9 Corps, W.D. Moore eventually was assigned to Rip V541. Rip had already been to Alaska for part of his soldier dog duties. The two shipped off for the Pacific Islands together. Here’s one life-saving adventure they had together, as told by his son:
“Dad and Rip landed on Leyte Island in early 1945, and were there about a year or less. One night they and another handler and his dog were on point in a wide V shaped zone. Rip began to growl so low that it could only be felt by Dad’s hand on Rip’s chest. After a while, the growl became more intense and more frequent. Dad started paying more attention and began to hear some sounds coming from out in middle of the V where no one was supposed to be. At that time Dad opened fire with his carbine in the direction of the sounds and the troops along the V opened fire with machine guns. The next morning when they investigated, they found some Japanese equipment and blood but no bodies. Rip had alerted to either an attack or infiltrators. He probably saved the platoon.”
His dad understandably thought of Rip as a hero because of the lives and limbs he saved as a scout dog. The military thought the dog was pretty heroic, too. When Rip was released from his duties in 1946, after nearly three years of serving, the military presented him with a certificate of honorable discharge (below).
I’d love to see certificates like this given to retired military working dogs today. But that would entail the military officially seeing dogs as canine members of the armed forces again, and not as equipment, their current designation. (Their status could change if Congress passes the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act and the president signs it into law. The senate passed it earlier this year.) Obviously the dogs don’t care about a piece of paper with words on it, but it would mean a great deal to most people adopting these dogs, and serve as a constant reminder of their years of hard work on behalf of the nation. (It could occasionally help score these dogs an extra biscuit or two to have one of these hanging on the wall.)
Back in World War II, most dogs were rehomed, either to their original homes, or anyone who wanted to adopt a military dog. As it happened, W.D. Moore was not going to let Rip go to anyone else, and he was able to adopt him and bring him home to live with him and his young family in Colorado. Check out the letter below, which releases Rip to him. (For some reason the letter says the dog is going back home to him, but he’s not the one who donated Rip.)
He went home with W.D. Moore, and settled nicely into family life. At first, neighbors were a little concerned about having a war dog in the neighborhood, but they quickly realized Rip was just a regular dog at heart. “He never bit anyone, he just didn’t like cats,” recalls Allen Moore. But when needed, his inner soldier came through.
Moore remembers the time when a drunk man was stumbling home from a bar a block away after being retrieved by his two children. “His hands and arms were on the kids’ shoulders. Rip must have sensed the kids were in danger, so he went up to the man and put his mouth on the man’s hand an pulled it away. After some cursing and other things, the man tried to put his hand back on the kids’ shoulders and Rip stopped him again. After that the man stood there and called for help, and Dad came out and called Rip in.”
Winters in Colorado were surely a good deal different than his time in the South Pacific. I love the photo below. It looks like Rip is waxing nostalgic about those warm islands.
And here he is in warmer months, “standing watch” at yet another picket fence, this one belonging to his beloved handler’s family.
The years went by, and Rip became as integrated into the family as any human family member. The dog was deeply devoted to his former handler. “He always knew when it was time for Dad to come home,” say Moore. “Rip always waited for him to drive up and open the gate. He’d jump into the car or truck and ride with him for the 50 foot drive into the yard.” What a welcome!
But one day, Rip went missing. “Dad was beside himself, not knowing where and how it could have happened. We couldn’t believe he was kidnapped, but we realized that’s what must have happened,” says Moore. Two weeks after he disappeared, Rip showed up at a relative’s house a few miles away. He was hungry, thirsty, tired, and his foot pads were sore and worn. The relative tried to secure Rip at the house until Moore’s dad could get him after work. But the dog must have realized he was close to home. He escaped, and continued on his journey home. “When Dad got home from work, Rip was waiting for dad as usual.”
Here’s a poignant photo of the heroes getting a little older together in the comfort of their living room.
Time moves forward too fast sometimes, especially where our love of dogs is concerned. Rip was the Moore’s family dog for six years after his service to country. In 1954, he was an old fellow of about 13 or 14, and eventually, as with so many old dogs, the pain of the maladies of old age was just too much. W.D. Moore took out the camera one sad July day and took what he knew would be the final photos of his war pal. It was Rip’s last day, and he wanted to remember him forever. “You can see in the pics the distress on our faces and our swollen eyes,” says Moore.
Here’s a photo of Rip on his last day, with young Allen Moore, who would write me six decades later and send me images of these photos and documents of his father’s (and his) beloved dog.
And a photo that must have been so hard to pose for: W.D. Moore posing with his best friend, his hero, his comrade, his beloved Rip, on what he knew would be Rip’s final day.
RIP, Rip, and a belated thank-you to W.D. Moore, for giving his dog such a good life.
(A tremendous thank-you to Allen Moore, for providing me with these wonderful photos and documents, and for his patience while I found a bit of time to finally put this story together. All images courtesy of Allen Moore.)
Until the now-famous Navy SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, most people had no idea that dogs are a vital part of the military. But these four-legged heroes have saved tens of thousands of lives since World War II, when the U.S. embarked on its military working dog program.
I grew up steeped in the importance of war dogs thanks to my dad, who was a very young soldier back then. He told me about the bonds the handlers had with their dogs, and how the dogs – as important as they were on missions – were just as essential for the morale of troops. His stories struck a chord with me, and I was thrilled years later when I got a chance to write a book about brave, loyal, amazing dogs and their devoted handlers.
My book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, was published last month, and I’m excited that after all the hard work and boots-on-the-ground reporting the book entailed, people are really starting to take notice of these incredible dogs and their handlers. The book has received a lot of attention, including a great review in People magazine, and a fun stint for me on The Daily
. (Update: The book has become a New York Times Best Seller!)
This puts a wag in my tail, because I am passionate about these dog teams. The more people know about them, the better off the dogs and handlers will be. So today I bring you 10 surprising facts about today’s military dog teams. All photos except the plane jumper are of dogs and handlers featured in my book. Here’s to our paws-on-the-ground heroes!
1. Soldier dogs are selected for the military based in part on their love of a ball or a Kong.
This reward is going to be part of their “paycheck” for years to come (a handler’s heartfelt praise is the other part), and they have to want the ball really badly to work as hard as they need to in order to save lives in combat situations.
2. Soldier dogs believe in magic.
If they didn’t, they may not be the lifesavers they are. The main job for military dogs in today’s wars is sniffing out IEDs, which are the number one killer in Afghanistan. But how does a dog get to know the difference between an explosive and an interesting-smelling rock? Magic, of a sort.
A dog’s early encounters associating a scent with a reward are all about the surprising appearance of a Kong that seems to spring right out of the scent itself. Trainers hide a Kong toy or ball somewhere, and place a few drops of a scent in the area. When the dog hits the scent, he thinks, “Whoa! I’ve never smelled this before!” and shows a tiny change of behavior, perhaps stopping or wagging or tilting his head. At that moment, a trainer throws the ball so it lands right on the source of the odor, and the dog is cheered on for his “feat.”
This happens a few more times, placing the odor in various spots and having a ball “magically” land on it when the dog successfully sniffs the odor. Many dogs learn extremely rapidly to associate an odor and a ball. (Eventually they’re weaned from this and get the ball reward in a different way.) That dogs can believe the scent of something like potassium chlorate magically creates a bouncing Kong is just one of those things that makes them so loveable and endearing.
3. The bond between a deployed handler and soldier dog is like no other.
I was blown away by the love that even the toughest of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have for their canine comrades. When you’re at war and you’re together almost 24/7 (sometimes sharing a tent, or even a sleeping bag or foxhole, for weeks on end), when you depend on each other for everything, including your very lives, an incomparable bond forms. Hearing a war-hardened Marine’s voice break when he talks about his best friend is a very moving experience.
4. Not all soldier dogs are big, tough warriors.
Sure, breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common war dogs these days, but affable Labrador retrievers play a major role as sniffer dogs in Afghanistan. And there are also some very little dogs in the military. But I learned that “little” does not mean “diminutive.”
I had the pleasure of meeting a Jack Russell terrier, Lars J274, on a nuclear submarine as he sniffed around for explosives last summer. He was a jaunty little fellow with a Napoleon complex. Submariners would laugh has he trotted down the narrow walkways, but he didn’t care. “Inside, he’s a big dog with a big attitude,” his handler told me.
5. Dogs are the ultimate anthropologists.
They study us. They observe us. They smell changes in our very chemistry. They learn to predict us. And they seem to know when their people are having a bad day.
Rex L274 was a big, sensitive German shepherd. He had failed out of aggression training because anytime he bit someone wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and seemed to look concerned and sad. So his career path changed, and he became a highly trained off-leash bomb sniffer.
His sensitivity to the people around him played out in the form of becoming a sort of unofficial therapy dog wherever he went. “He’d always find the one soldier who was having a hard day and hang out with them,” his handler, Army Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, told me. His favorite therapy was to cheer up down soldiers by getting them to play with a water bottle. After all, he liked playing with water bottles, so it would seem natural that they would too. He’d run up and bonk them with a water bottle (empty or full, it didn’t matter). Or he’d sit next to him crunching the bottle and periodically banging it against the soldier with the blues. Eventually the soldier would take the bait, and a grand game of tug-of-war or a big chase would ensue.
6. Some dogs really do jump from planes.
These extremely resilient, super-high-drive dogs are specially procured and trained by military contractors, not the DOD’s Military Working Dog program. Some join their human partners in parachute jumps from planes, others rappel with their handlers from helicopters. The dogs who do this are known as multi-purpose canines (MPCs), and are used used in Special Operations teams, including the Navy SEALs. They’re a tiny subset of military dogs, but can serve very important roles, as Cairo, the dog involved in the SEAL Team Six raid on the Bin Laden compound, demonstrated.
7. Soldier dogs can get PTSD.
Until last year, canine post traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the military, but now that it is, it’s being taken very seriously. Signs of Canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs any more.
As with people, some dogs can go to hell and back and not be badly scarred. Others are profoundly affected by less. There are treatments, but they aren’t as effective as they need to be. Research into canine PTSD is in its infancy, but I hope it will one day soon offer some better solutions for the dogs who are suffering so.
While at Lackland Air Force Base, which is where most military dogs get trained, I visited the base’s adoption kennels and was greeted by the loads of barking, energetic dogs. But this one beautiful chocolate Lab, Buck P027, was curled up tightly, staring out into nothingness. It turns out Buck had been a bomb dog in Afghanistan. He may have seen too much action or been close to one too many explosions. It was really heartbreaking to see this dog who was crushed by PTSD lying alone. Thankfully the next day he went home with a couple who loves him to pieces. They’re working on helping him through his PTSD every day. I am in touch with them and get regular reports on his progress.
8. Soldier dog names can be downright embarrassing to their handlers.
Dogs are named by their breeders, who are hail from places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and Germany. There are plenty of regal or at least normal names, like Rex, Nero, and Rocky. And then there are the unfortunate or oddball ones. Imagine being downrange in a life-or-death situation, and shouting for “Baby Cakes!” “Baby Bear!” “Busty!” or “Moo!” Yes, those are real military working dog names.
Male dogs sometimes have female names, like Kitty, or Freida, and vice-versa. The handler of Freida said it was very awkward calling his name. He swears the breeders are just messing with American handlers, and I have a feeling he’s right.
9. When soldier dogs die, their memorial services will rip your heart out.
Their bowls are placed upside down, to symbolize that they won’t need them anymore. Their collars and leashes are hung up in remembrance of the dog. And if the memorial is at a kennel, the dog’s kennel door is left open, indicating the dog will not be returning home. The handler, or someone who can handle the heartbreaking duty, reads a poem called Guardians of the Night. I can’t even think about it without tearing up. A lot of handlers can’t either.
10. Soldier dogs are still officially considered equipment by the Defense Department.
Most handlers consider their dogs their best friends, but to the DOD, military working dogs are still officially equipment.
“I try to articulate dog is not a piece of equipment, but a working, breathing animal that needs to be treated respectfully and kindly,” says Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Antonio (Arod) Rodriguez. “Your dog is your partner, and values meaningful interaction. You just don’t think about equipment in the same way.”
There’s some fantastic legislation in Congress right now that seeks to change this status. You can read about it in a post I wrote for Dogster. In it I explain how you can weigh in on this very important bipartisan bill, The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act. These dogs deserve all the support we can give them.
Reprinted with permission of the author (me!) from an article at Dogster magazine.