Veterans Day: Honoring our Military Working Dogs
November 11, Veterans Day, is the day we set aside each year to honor all American veterans, both living and dead. It’s important to recognize and thank veterans for their dedicated and loyal service to their country and to acknowledge the invaluable part they have played in keeping our country safe and free.
Today, MWDs play an integral role in the safety and security of many military missions. Each division of the armed forces and many other government agencies, including the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), use working dogs as valuable additions to their teams. Typically, MWDs are involved in patrol work and in explosives and drug detection. When not deployed, many MWDs assist in drug interdiction along the U.S. southern borders and work as drug and explosive detector dogs with the Secret Service and TSA. And, the role of the MWD continues to expand.
The U.S. military has recognized what great additions well-trained dogs are in many areas of service. So much so that they’ve dedicated the entire 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, as the home of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Working Dog Program. This squadron is responsible for raising and training MWDs to detect drugs and bombs, and to perform patrol functions in support of missions all over the world. In addition to breeding and training dogs, this squadron is also responsible for training all handlers, kennel masters, and specialized mission function dog teams for the DOD. They also support the TSA canine detection program, sharing training facilities and in procurement of their working dogs. Having responsibility for dog training for the DOD and TSA means they take care of an average of 900 dogs every day.
MWDs may spend their entire working lives with the military or other government groups, so it's important that they receive the best veterinary care possible. The Holland Working Dog Hospital, named after an Army veterinarian who died in the line of duty in Iraq, is a state-of-the-art veterinary facility dedicated to providing for all kinds of health care needs, from skin diseases to orthopedic surgery. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital provides health care services for all dogs throughout the program. MWDs that have been injured during missions in the Middle East receive emergency care by deployed Army veterinarians and then, once stabilized, are flown to Germany and then on to the Holland MWD Hospital if additional specialty treatment is needed.
The hospital, which has been AAHA accredited since 1977, employs over 40 personnel, including a mix of military and civilian veterinarians, many of whom are board certified with specialties including small animal surgery, internal medicine, critical care and emergency medicine, radiology, behavior, clinical pathology, and epidemiology. They also have an American Board of Veterinary Practitioner’s (ABVP)-certified veterinarian (specializing in canine and feline) on staff. Services available include routine and emergency care; advanced imaging (including CT and available MRI); in-house laboratory; and high-tech services such as orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation services. In addition, the hospital provides unique clinical rotations for numerous veterinary and veterinary technician students annually. Lieutenant Colonel Cheryl Sofaly says, “We recognize the AAHA Standards of Accreditation as an adjunct to the high quality of care we strive to provide to each and every dog on a daily basis. AAHA Standards support our vision of providing world-class veterinary care guided by ethical consideration for the health and welfare of each dog.
“Not only do we support the dogs within the breeding and training programs, we provide a consultation and referral service for veterinarians caring for MWDs worldwide. Each year, many dogs return to our hospital for advanced diagnostic, medical, and surgical care as well as post-injury rehabilitation. Our staff provides around-the-clock care for over 900 onsite dogs in various stages of life and training and referral services for MWDs and other government agency dogs currently in service,” says Sofaly.
Military working dogs, although very resilient both mentally and physically, can be affected by traumatic experiences, and some have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Dr. Walter Burghardt, a veterinarian, psychologist, and animal behaviorist, is currently studying and treating MWDs with canine PTSD. In recent years, there have been more cases where highly trained dogs, who love their work, experience stress after incidents similar to what people experiencing PTSD go through. Dr. Burghardt works with MWD handlers and veterinarians in the field to help them identify signs and symptoms of PTSD. He’s been working with several dogs and the goal is always to get the dogs back to work as soon as they are ready.
In 2005, the 341st Training Squadron began an operational breeding program to help fulfill the DOD’s need for working dogs. The dog of choice for this program is the Belgian malinois. About 100 Belgian malinois puppies are born at the facility every year. The puppies are raised by foster families to ensure they develop good social skills before being returned to the center for training. Roughly 50 percent of these have what it takes to go on to be MWDs. For the working dogs that don’t pass the tough military certification program, 60 percent may go to other law enforcement agencies or organizations and the remainder are adopted as pets. For the dogs that have finished serving their country and are ready to retire, there is also an adoption program which allows these canine heroes to be placed in approved homes for their golden years. Most (95 percent) of these retirees are adopted by former handlers, but the remaining 5 percent are adopted by non-handlers. For information on adopting a retired MWD, email MWDadoptions@us.af.mil.
Military Working Dogs perform some of the most dangerous tasks—work that would be difficult, or even impossible—for their handlers and military personnel. MWDs often put their lives at risk, and because of their dedication and training, they have prevented countless injuries and have saved thousands of lives.
This year on November 11, Veterans Day, take a moment to think about, appreciate, and, if you have a chance, thank a veteran, including all those MWDs that are an integral part of maintaining our country’s independence and freedom.
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