By AUSTIN WRIGHT
March 14, 2012
For a pair of pooch-loving lawmakers, no dog should be left behind.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) are pushing legislation to better ensure that a soldier’s best friend — the military working dog — is provided a good home and veterinary care in retirement.
“These dogs are friends, compatriots, comrades in arms, and they really deserve better,” Blumenthal said. “The current system is haphazard and unfocused — not through any ill will or bad intentions. It just fails to do as good a job as we should be doing.”
The bipartisan proposal would give all military working dogs — used for guard duty and sniffing out bombs, among many other tasks — an immediate promotion, classifying them not as equipment but, rather, as “canine members of the armed services.”
It also would call on the Pentagon to set up nonprofit agencies to pay for some or all of the dogs’ post-military health care costs, which can be sizable given they often leave the services because of hip problems or other medical issues. “For a vet coming home who loves the dog and wants to care for it, it can be a significant financial burden,” said Blumenthal, adding that the proposal would not cost taxpayers because it relies on charity contributions.
Additionally, the bill would direct the Pentagon to transfer retired dogs to locations where they’re likely to be adopted — in most cases, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where military dogs are trained and there’s already an adoption program.
Under the current system, Blumenthal said, “a lot of these dogs are left overseas,” and the bill “would enable more of them to come home.”
The senator, a self-described “dog lover” who has a cockapoo named Baxter, said he’s not about to send his pooch into harm’s way. “He’s a great dog,” Blumenthal said, but “he doesn’t have the temperament or the build.”
Blumenthal’s interest in the issue was sparked during a trip to Afghanistan, where he witnessed a demonstration in which a working dog ran ahead of its handlers to sniff for roadside bombs. “It was very compelling to me,” Blumenthal said. “The dogs are trained to do dangerous work, and they do it well.”
Jones, whose 15-year-old black lab recently had to be euthanized, also said his motivation for the bill comes in part from stories of working dogs risking their lives for their human handlers. “Many times there’s an explosion that destroys the dog but saves the lives of American troops,” he said. “They should be considered more than just part of the equipment.”
The congressman got fired up discussing the issue and had to remind himself of a dog’s place in the animal kingdom. He referred to a canine as a “person” but offered a quick correction: “Not a person. It’s not a person.”
Regardless, he added, “It needs to have a higher level of respect.”
War dogs date back to ancient times — used by Greeks and Romans to harass their enemies — and have remained a part of warfare ever since, despite advances in technology and weapons.
Working dogs gained much attention last year when it became known that the Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan had a dog on their team. There was speculation the dog was used to check the compound for bombs, find anyone who might have been hiding or sniff door handles for booby traps, The New York Times reported.
“The capability [the dogs] bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine,” Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said at the time, according to ABC News. “By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our industry.”
The U.S. military’s working dogs are trained at a 400-acre facility at Lackland, where about 800 dogs at a time are readied for a variety of duties. They are taught basic obedience, how to attack and also specialized tasks like detecting drugs or explosives in what you might call doggie boot camp.
And just as in the military’s basic training programs, some enlistees don’t make the cut. “They have to be able to withstand heat and go through rough terrain,” said Ron Aiello, president of the United States War Dogs Association. “Some dogs just want to play.”
Those that flunk out often move into police work, Aiello added, saying that “law enforcement dogs don’t have to be as rugged as military dogs.”
The most successful breeds, according to the Air Force, are German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois.
Working dogs typically serve in the military 10 to 12 years and are then eligible to be adopted by former handlers or civilians. First, though, they have to be retrained for life outside the military — and, once again, some don’t pass muster.
“They calculate whether they’re good with children, whether they’re good with other animals,” Aiello said. “The dogs have been trained to attack on command and trained to be called off on command, and you don’t want that in any way in their minds anymore.”
Last year, 444 working dogs left the services, according to an Air Force report. Of those, 328 were adopted or transferred and 116 died while serving on active duty, seven of them killed in action. Sixteen were euthanized because they were deemed unfit for law enforcement and too dangerous for adoption.
Blumenthal and Jones said they hope their legislation will streamline the adoption process, prevent decommissioned working dogs from being left abroad and ultimately cut down on the number of dogs that are put down.
Their bill also directs the Pentagon to create a way to recognize military dogs for their service, especially those that are killed in action or perform exceptionally courageous acts.
“Of course, the dog doesn’t understand this,” Aiello said, “but the handler does.”
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Original Article: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0312/74033.html