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They Also Serve

dog vet memorial

Happy K9 Veterans Day! There’s been a fair bit of buzz lately about our soldiers in fur. Animal Planet aired their documentary, GLORY HOUNDS, about Military Working Dogs and their handlers in mid-February. On January 1, a Rose Bowl Parade float, sponsored by Dick Van Patten’s Natural Dog Food, honored the canines who serve with our armed forces. And the Senate, led by John McCain, watered down a bill that would have changed the official status of our MWD’s from “equipment” to “canine members of the Armed Forces,” and be assured of a ticket home and an honorable retirement with medical care.

The bill was passed in the House and was also passed in the Senate, but it did not contain those three very important stipulations. MWDs are still considered equipment. According to the Senate’s version of the bill (which the President later signed into law) the military commanders have the option to send dogs home, and a COMMITTEE has been authorized to look into raising funds to take care of retired dogs, as long as no Federal Funds are used for that purpose. Nice reward for soldiers who daily risked their lives to protect us, huh?

It may be argued that dogs are only behaving as they are trained and ordered to do by their handlers, and have no conception of what they are risking. True, dogs live in the moment to a great extent – they can teach us a thing or two about that! Also true — they certainly are working in partnership with a handler. I’m sure it’s equally true that a MWD’s willingness to engage in dangerous maneuvers is motivated to a great degree by his love of and trust in his partner. Still, that doesn’t mean the dog is insensible of the danger he’s facing — especially after serving for a few months.

Come on! Dogs aren’t dumb! If they were, soldiers wouldn’t trust the dogs with their safety and lives as they do. Though dogs live in the moment, it’s been demonstrated that a dog’s mental stability depends on being able to predict what’s going to happen next, so MWDs certainly know that their jobs risk a lot of noise and danger! Even if the dog doesn’t fret about the danger as a human might, he knows the soldiers he’s patrolling with are anxious, on edge – and when they’re frightened. And, as trainers say, “emotions go right down the leash!” so what the handler feels, the dog does, too.

To me, the point isn’t that Military Working Dogs serve in exactly the same way as human soldiers. After all, they are specialists. You don’t see a human being asked to sniff out explosives, any more than you’d ask a dog to shoot a rifle. Of course dogs have specific talents which are different than those of their human comrades-in-arms! The point is that they go through intensive training, just like human soldiers. They live in primitive conditions for months and years, daily using their training in situations that put them in mortal danger. They often are killed, injured, or rendered incapable of doing their duty in the pursuit of it.

The difference is that a wounded human soldier will be flown home, cared for and given an honorable retirement. The injured canine soldier, unless his handler (on a soldier’s pay) can afford to send him home. If his handler can’t afford to adopt the dog and his medical bills, the Military Working Dog may in all likelihood be killed by his own military. Disposed of – as just another useless piece of equipment.


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Federally Sanctioned Abandonment

In most communities in the United States, abandoning a dog — or any domestic animal –is a crime.  So is failing to provide proper veterinary care for any animal having been in your possession.  Animals are considered property by law, but acknowledged to be living beings in that the owner is penalized and prosecuted if proper care is not provided.  But when it comes to Military Working Dogs, this is not the case.

The 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Services Act classified military working dogs as “equipment to be discarded when worn out.”  In 1997, President Bill Clinton amended this act to permit federal dog handlers to adopt their dog retirees. But worn-out equipment is not entitled to be flown home or cared for during it’s remaining years of life. These dogs who undergo rigorous training, who are assigned tours of duty alongside our sons and daughters, who serve beside their handlers and fellow soldiers in the same conditions, who meet the same dangers as the humans in their outfit, may be as casually discarded as a flat tire. 

I knew that thousands of dogs had been left behind when we pulled out of Vietnam and was very saddened by what I thought was a dark period in our military history.  Only recently did I discover that in the 21st century, MWDs are still considered “equipment.”  This is not the fault of any soldier who has served with these dogs.  They know the value of a Military Working Dog!   Many of them owe their lives to the almost 3,000 dogs currently serving beside our troops.  All of them know a fellow soldier who DOES owe his life to one. Many knew a dog that gave his or her life in defense of the unit.

The US House of Representatives passed H. 4103, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act, which states that Military working dogs should be classified as “canine member of the armed forces.”  It also authorized for transportation back to the states to facilitate adoption and directs the Secretary of Defense to establish and maintain a system to provide for the lifetime care of retired dogs.

Then it went to the Senate where it was piggybacked on another bill and watered down.  Spearheaded by John McCain, the reclassification requirement was totally stripped.  The mandate to fly dogs home changed to they “MAY transfer the dog.”  The Secretary of Defense’s mandate was changed to “MAY establish and maintain a system…No funds may be privided by the Federal Government for this purpose.”  How nice; they have permission to care for the dogs, still classified as equipment, maybe even fly them home, but no funds to do so.  This is the Bill that President Obama has signed into law.

I do not blame the President.  I do blame Senator McCain.  I don’t know his reasons.  He declined to comment to the sources I checked.  I cannot imagine how treating military veterans, who have up to $75,000 worth of training, who have served their country, who have saved lives in their units and who because of that service protected us here in the United States can be LEGALLY treated with less compassion and care than any abandoned beast in our backyards.

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