The Dogs Of War: MWD Program

Training, Deployment & The Golden Years
MWD & Soldier

Santa Cruz Sentinel
February 4, 2012

SANTA CRUZ - Veterans returning from wars can often count on a reservoir of goodwill from the public to help them make the transition to civilian life. And there are programs to help them begin new, post-military careers.

But sometimes, it gets complicated.

Eric Falconer, for example, has spent months trying to match up some of the nation's most steadfast and loyal retired warriors with local law enforcement agencies, but without much luck.

That's because the vets in question are of the four-legged variety, and their situations and needs are unique.

Falconer, who owns Von Falconer K-9 Training in Bonny Doon, isn't holding his breath. Very few war dogs are adopted out to law enforcement agencies, since they're usually in the 9- to 11-year-old range by the time they retire, according to Ron Aiello, a Vietnam veteran, former war dog handler and president of the New Jersey-based U.S. War Dogs Association.

Gerry Proctor works as the public affairs officer for the 37th Training Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, the official military working dog school for the U.S. Department of Defense. The dogs offered to law enforcement agencies, he and Aiello say, are usually those that wash out during the training program.

"When we have a young dog that can't pass its certification, but it's still a good dog, we'll offer it to law enforcement," Proctor said. "We always try to first find another government agency that can use that dog" before offering it to civilians.

But that's only a small percentage of the dogs that enter Lackland's program each year. The rest receive their certifications, then deploy with their handlers on missions around the world.

When they retire, Proctor said, they return to one of the roughly 200 U.S. military kennels scattered around the world that serve as their home bases. From there, they're usually adopted by handlers, though civilians can adopt those that haven't already been snatched up. But demand far outstrips supply, Proctor said, generating a waiting list that's more than a year long.

Before they're adopted out, they have to receive medical clearance - and some are even treated for the post-traumatic stress disorder that often afflicts both two- and four-legged soldiers living and working in war zones. Most dogs with PTSD are skittish, nervous and gun-shy, but "that does not stop them from being adopted by civilians," Aiello said.

Retired war dogs also go through a battery of tests to determine their level of aggressiveness and how suitable they are for life in the civilian world. Among them is a "bite test," which Proctor said is "a good indicator of the dog's propensity to be aggressive when it's not being called on to do that. If the dog passes the test, it is allowed to be adopted to the public."

For a select few, unfortunately, the aggression is too hard wired. According to Proctor, eight of the 350 war dogs that retired to Lackland in 2010 had to be euthanized.


Hundreds of dogs are adopted out of Lackland each year, some because of age or health reasons, and others because they couldn't obtain or maintain their certifications.

To stay certified, those dogs must maintain a 95 percent accuracy rate, author Lisa Rogak writes in her recently released book, "The Dogs of War: The Courage, Love and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs."

The book was published in October, about five months after Cairo, a specially trained Belgian malinois attached to an elite Navy SEAL team, participated in the raid that led to Osama bin Laden's death.

That four-legged soldier's exploits raised awareness about the role of war dogs, which have been delivering supplies, food and messages to troops, locating and comforting wounded soldiers and sniffing out bombs since World War I.

The most common breeds are German shepherds and Belgian malinois, Proctor said, but some labrador retrievers and mixed breeds also are among the elite. In one part of her book, Rogak writes that "dogs today are chosen not only for the strengths and talents inherent to their breed, but also for their brown and black color so as not to call attention to their presence."

But Proctor said that's not true.

"The performance of the dog is the most important factor," he said.

Though some military working dogs are bred in the United States, most are acquired from European sources, since they have centuries of experience breeding sporting dogs, Proctor said.

"While you certainly do have that with U.S. breeders, they cannot provide the numbers we need to sustain our program," he added.

He also denied the claim in Rogak's book that war dogs are given ranks higher than their handlers to keep their handlers in line. After all, she wrote, "if a human soldier were to physically or mentally abuse a superior in some fashion, it would be grounds for a court-martial."

"It's like hitting a higher rank, and that's not allowed," one handler is quoted as saying.

But Proctor said he doesn't know where that idea came from. "Dogs," he said, "do not have a rank."


All war dogs start their training regimens at Lackland, when they are about seven months old and at their most "moldable" age, according to Aiello. Depending on their interests, abilities and skills, they learn everything from tracking and patrol to detecting drugs and bombs. Proctor said about 350 dogs graduate from the program each year, and there are now about 3,000 dog-and-handler teams deployed around the world, in all branches of the service.

By their first deployment, the military's invested anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000. With that kind of investment, keeping the dogs in good shape is a high priority. Lackland has a $13 million veterinary hospital, where the dogs receive everything from checkups, ultrasounds and surgery to rehabilitation and dental care - including root canals.

"When word came out about Cairo being on the mission to get (Osama) bin Laden, they said he was a killer dog and that he had titanium canine teeth so he could kill," Aiello said.

One section of "The Dogs of War" specifically addresses the rumor, widely circulated after that raid, that all war dogs are outfitted with titanium teeth to make it easier to rip and tear at their target's flesh.

Cairo did, in fact, have two lower titanium teeth - but only because his permanent teeth had been broken on a bite sleeve during training.

"Just like a human, he had a root canal and then the two teeth were capped," Aiello said. "It was medically necessary."


Aiello does not know what happened to the civilian contractor dog teams that served in Iraq when U.S. troops pulled out in December. But the military working dogs that served there either moved on to new assignments in Afghanistan, or returned to their home bases, where they either retired or began working with handlers-in-training, he said.

That's good news to Falconer, who was worried the dogs - those four-legged soldiers that served so faithfully alongside their humans, saving thousands of lives in the process - would face the same fate as their counterparts in the Vietnam War.

Proctor would not discuss the history of military war dogs. But according to Aiello and Rogak, when U.S. troops began withdrawing in the early 1970s, military officials balked at the costs associated with bringing them home, including transportation, housing and feeding them. It was also widely believed at the time that the dogs could not be "deprogrammed" out of their wartime mentality, making them unfit for the civilian world.

Aiello estimates out of the roughly 5,000 dogs that served there during the war, only about 200 returned. The rest were euthanized, abandoned or handed over to the South Vietnamese Army, which largely viewed dogs as a food source.

"The war, by the time we were pulling out, was so unpopular that they were trying to sweep everything under the rug, and unfortunately, all those dogs got swept under the rug, too," he added.

But in late 2000, a new law went into effect that changed the military's policy of euthanizing military working dogs once they had outlived their purpose.


Under the "Robby Law," any war dogs that are deemed safe for civilians can be adopted by law-enforcement agencies, military handlers and the public. Unfortunately, the law came too late to save its namesake, a mostly healthy, 8-year-old Belgian malinois who was euthanized after he completed his final mission.

Robby's handler applied to adopt him once he returned to Lackland, and when his request was turned down, the handler turned to the media, Rogak wrote. The public outcry prompted legislators to draft the "Robby Law," which President Bill Clinton signed in late 2000.

Unfortunately, Robby had a slight case of hip dysplasia and arthritis, and his condition had deteriorated significantly by the time the law passed.

"In the end, there was no choice but to euthanize him," Rogak wrote.

Still, military working dogs that have become too disabled or old to serve are, to this day, considered "obsolete equipment," according to Aiello.

The same year the "Robby Law" went into effect, he and several other former handlers formed the U.S. War Dogs Association [], with the goal of raising public awareness about the role of war dogs. And, in memory of the loyal, four-legged partners they were forced to leave behind in Vietnam, the group also raises funds to erect memorials, honoring their decades of service and sacrifice.

In 2006, for example, the group dedicated the first-ever U.S. War Dogs Memorial in Holmdel, N.J. Meanwhile, another Vietnam handler is working to raise funds to build a national monument, one that honors the dogs that have been saving lives for nearly 100 years. For information, go to

And earlier this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced a bill that, if passed, will greatly improve war dogs' golden years by improving the adoption process, establishing a fund to help cover their health care costs and allowing them to receive letters of commendation.

"For their service abroad, these dogs deserve their loyalty and dedication to be returned when they are home," Blumenthal said in a statement posted on his website.

It may take years for Falconer to acquire a retired war dog, or one that washed out of the training program. But at least he can take comfort in knowing that times have changed since Vietnam.

"It was a total disgrace for the military to do that," Aiello said.


  • The Pentagon oversees the military working dog program.
  • Military working dogs have been serving alongside U.S. troops since World War I.
  • Of the thousands of military working dogs that served in Vietnam, only about 200 returned to the United States.
  • Roughly 3,000 war dogs are serving at locations around the world.
  • It is a punishable offense in the military to mistreat a dog.
  • Military working dogs are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • More than 300 retired war dogs are put up for adoption every year.

SOURCE: 'The Dogs of War: The Courage, Love and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs,' by Lisa Rogak

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