Military Working Dogs of Gulf War, Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan

I watch my dogs basking in the sun, the tip of their tail swishing just as I think of them, standing against the door frame. Can they read my mind? I know they will shake off their dreams and follow me as I stroll around the yard.
Their heart chooses to follow mine.
That’s how dogs are.

118 Military Working Dog Teams were deployed to the Gulf region for Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. In the War on Terrorism a big threat are explosives hidden on a person, in a vehicle, or a roadside location. Therefore, Explosives Detection Dogs were, and still are, specially trained to alert when they sense the specific chemicals used in explosives, either packed, hidden or even as powder remains on the humans that handled them or on their clothes . Explosive Dogs are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and in many other US locations for this purpose alone.

Military Working Dogs of Gulf War, Iraq War and  the War in Afghanistan

2000, Robby’s Law, one reason to cheer for former President Clinton

Before President Clinton passed “Robby’s Law” in 2000, military working dogs were considered “military surplus equipment” and deemed unfit to adjust to civilian life. This meant that once the military could no longer use, need or afford a canine, the once treasure four-legged was either released or euthanized instead of honored. After “Robby’s Law” was passed, handlers (who had already formed a strong bond with their canine mate) and their families were first to be offered the opportunity at adopting these military animals at the completion of their service.

Military Working Dogs of Gulf War, Iraq War and Afghanistan War

Some soldiers even used their military operational bonus to buy the dog that served with them.

MWD watching and soldier sleeping
MWD watching and soldier sleeping.

“Fluffy was my Comrade in arms first, then he walked into my heart as my friend and became my buddy then he became part of my family.
He was not a pet! He was a soldier first. During our time in Iraq he checked on me and I checked on him. He was one of the team, he was my battle buddy! If I sat down he would sit no farther than five feet away. If I got up and moved ten feet he would get up and move ten feet. “

Russel, on K920Fluffy (Iraq War vet) – USAWarDogs.org
Photo of U.S. Army veteran Joe Steenbeke with military dog Tess in Afghanistan Credit Reunite Joe and Tess, Facebook
Photo of U.S. Army veteran Joe Steenbeke with military dog Tess in Afghanistan Credit Reunite Joe and Tess, Facebook

For the dog training program, Iraq came too late after Vietnam

The first 30 dog teams sent into Iraq in 2004 were the “guinea pigs”, all tactical lessons and experience gained during the Vietnam war lost. What made it worthwhile for the dog teams were the canines, with their honest, open and loving personalities.

Iraq  Afghanistan - buddies, militry dog and soldier

The Paradogs: the parachuting dogs of war

By 2008 German Shepherd dogs already jumped from aircrafts at 25,000ft, strapped to a member of the special forces assault teams. Later, Belgian Malinois dogs, lighter and stubbier, were considered better for the tandem parachute jumping and rappelling operations often undertaken by SEAL teams. The tandem jumping was done to protect the canines on landing.

Ready for tandem jumping. Source Foreign Policy
Ready for tandem jumping. Source Foreign Policy

A military dog would only be allowed to jump solo form a helicopter if he lands in water and only if properly outfitted with a flotation vest. Such dogs were trained to accompany soldiers on ‘High Altitude High Opening’ (HAHO) parachute jumps. After landing, men and MWDs would still have to travel 20 miles to their targets.

Military dogs trained to accompany soldiers on 'High Altitude High Opening' (HAHO) parachute jumps. Source Foreign Policy
Military dogs trained to accompany soldiers on ‘High Altitude High Opening’ (HAHO) parachute jumps. Source Foreign Policy

These MWDs had small cameras fixed to their heads and, trained to penetrate the enemy lines before their human partners, would hunt for Taliban or insurgent hideouts. The cameras will sent live images back to the troops while the dogs warn of possible ambushes.

MWD dogs equipped with Canine Tactical Assault Vests
MWD dogs equipped with Canine Tactical Assault Vests

The elite American unit, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force, has pioneered the parachute technique from heights over 20,000ft.

U.S. Army soldier with the 10th Special Forces Group and his military working dog jump off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment during water training over the Gulf of Mexico:

U.S. Army soldier with the 10th Special Forces Group and his military working dog jump off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment during water training over the Gulf of Mexico. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, U.S. Air Force.
Training over the Gulf of Mexico. MWDs show no fear. A military dog would only be allowed to jump solo form a helicopter if he lands in water

2009: U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and a MWD wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009:

U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009

Navy Seal teams are trained to parachute from great heights and deploy out of helicopters with dogs. In 2010 the Seals bought four waterproof tactical vests for their dogs that featured infrared and night-vision cameras and an ‘intruder communication system’ able to penetrate concrete walls. The MWD’s handlers — using a three-inch monitor from as far as 1,000 yards away — could immediately see what the dogs were seeing. The vests, which come in coyote tan and camouflage, let handlers communicate with the dogs through a speaker and were strong enough to protect the dogs from harm due to everything, from bullets to ice picks. The four vests together cost over $86,000 at the time, says a 2011 NY Times article.

MWD K9 gear - best body Armor available for military dogs. Source K9 Storm
MWD K9 gear – the best body Armor for military dogs. Source K9 Storm

The world record for highest man-dog parachute jump

In 2011 U.S. Military Handler Mike Forsythe, a former US Navy SEAL turned canine parachute instructor for military and search & rescue units and his dog Cara, strapped on a K9 Storm Vest tactical body armor and fitted an oxygen mask, jumped in tandem from over 30,100 feet, the altitude at which transoceanic passenger jets fly. Cara is a Belgian Malinois.

Highest man-dog parachute jump. Mike Forsythe and Cara. Photo source: K9 Storm Inc Handout Reuters
Highest man-dog parachute jump. Mike Forsythe and Cara. Photo source: K9 Storm Inc Handout Reuters

In October 2010 the Pentagon announced that after six years and $19 billion spent in the attempt to build the ultimate bomb detector technology, dogs were still the most accurate sniffers around. The rate of detection with the Pentagon’s fanciest equipment — drones and aerial detectors — was a 50 percent success rate, but when a dog was involved it rose an extra 30 percent.

War dog canine military service SEAL team repelling from a helicopter
War dog canine military service SEAL team repelling from a helicopter

Marines began a pilot program in Afghanistan with nine bomb-sniffing dogs, a number that reached approximately 650 at the end of 2011 and 2,800 active-duty dogs in 2013, making it the largest canine contingent in the world.

The MWD who took Osama bin Laden down

Not many know, but the 81 members of the American commando team who blitzed into Abbottabad, Pakistan, to capture and kill Osama bin Laden had a MWD with them. Some say he was the U.S.’s most courageous dog, yet little was known about him until recently. his name is Cairo and he is a Belgian Malinois.

MWD Cairo, the war dog who helped take Osama bin Laden down, the 81st member of SEAL team who blitzed into Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011
MWD Cairo, the war dog who helped take Osama bin Laden down, the 81st member of SEAL team who blitzed into Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011

MWDs in the War in Afghanistan

NATO soldier carries sniffing dog after gun battle in Kabul on April 16 2012. Source: Boston archive
A NATO soldier carries sniffing dog after gun battle in Kabul on April 16 2012. A brazen 18hrs Taliban attack on the capital ended when insurgents overcome heavy gunfire from Afghan led forces and pre-dawn air assaults from coalition helicopter. Source: Boston Archive

How MWDs contribute to the local Afghan economy

Maintaining a Military Base, building roads and maintaining them requires constant effort. Often local contractors are used, in an attempt to support the local (Afghan) economy. But to keep the soldiers safe, each local truck or worker has to be checked for possible hidden explosives (they are aware of or not). Here is where Vehicle Search dogs play an important role.

There is always peace between a MWD, a Marine and local Afghan children caught in the war.
There is always peace between a MWD, a Marine and local Afghan children caught in the war.

Surviving the harsh climate in Afghanistan

If you wondered how the MWDs survive the harsh climate of Afghanistan, know that (some) of their kennels are equipped with air conditioning and, often, if an army base has a swimming pool – that definitely is not for the benefit of the humans.

LCpl Natasha Mooney on patrol with Panchio in Helmand Province - Source British Army blog
LCpl Natasha Mooney on patrol with Panchio in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Dog Breeds preferred as MWDs by U.S. Military

U.S. military prefers mostly German and Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois, breeds because they are aggressive, smart, loyal and athletic.

Training together: Staff Sgt. Erick Martinez, a military dog handler uses an over-the-shoulder carry to hold his dog, Argo II, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The exercise helps build trust, loyalty, and teamwork. Source Foriegn Policy.
Staff Sgt. Erick Martinez, a military dog handler, uses an over-the-shoulder carry with Argo II during an exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The exercise helps build trust, loyalty and teamwork for Sergeant Martinez and Argo II, who have been working together for only two months. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Allen Stokes)

German Shepherd dogs are the standard breed because they are considered to be intelligent, dependable, predictable, easily trained, usually moderately aggressive, and can adapt quickly to almost any climatic conditions.

Buddies training together. Having each-other's  back.
Buddies training together. Having each-other’s back.

Single-purpose dogs are used for one purpose only: sniffing out explosives or narcotics. Retrievers (Labrador, Golden or Chesapeake Bay) are preferred, also Viszlas, various short-and wire-haired pointers, Jack Russell terriers and even small poodles. These are all nose, no bite dogs. These dogs are trained to locate either drugs or explosives – never both. “When your dog makes an alert you need to know whether to run away and call the explosives people or whether to go arrest someone.”

Praying together. A military dog and his human handler.
Praying together

It is empowering, yet worrisome to find out that military working dogs today train for such a diverse range of tasks: EDD (Explosive Detector Dog), NDD (Narcotics Detector Dog), SSD (Specialized Search Dog) – trained to work off leash, at long distances from their handler, in order to find explosives. SDD dogs work by hand signals, and can even receive commands via radio receivers they wear on their backs, attached to their bulletproof doggy vest, and TEDD (Tactical Explosive Detector Dog).

A dog can have up to 225 million olfactory receptors in his nose and the part of their brain devoted to scent is 40 times greater than that of a human.

“A dog can see through his nose.”

Mike Dowling, former Marine Corps dog handler, Iraq
MWD and his handler keeping watch together
Keeping watch together

More single purpose dogs, like the dogs I depicted in my latest novel Silent Heroes: CTD (Combat Tracker Dog) trained to detect where IEDs and weapons caches are located; MDD (Mine Detection Dog): these dogs do slow off-leash searches for buried mines and artillery; IDD (IED Detector Dog), this is a temporary program created to fulfill the urgent need for bomb dogs, especially in Afghanistan.

Never Give Up - A MWD hurt by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device)
Never Give Up – A MWD hurt by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device)

Of course, there are dual-purpose dogs, multi-purpose canines, the special K-9 Corps of CIA.

What are vapor-wake dogs?

Scientists at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have genetically bred and specially trained canines that are able do more than just detect stationary bombs or bomb-making materials. These MWDs can identify and alert their handler to the moving scent of explosive devices and materials left behind in the air.
If a suicide bomber walks through a crowd, these dogs would be able to tell him apart without ever tipping off the perpetrator.
The cost of breeding and training vapor-wake dogs is around $20,000 each, still less than the cost of training most MWDs.

U.S. sergeant Matthew Templet and his bomb-sniffing dog Basco search for the explosives in an abandoned house in Haji, Ghaffar village, during a clearance patrol in Zari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 2010.Source Foreign Policy
U.S. sergeant Matthew Templet and his bomb-sniffing dog Basco search for the explosives in an abandoned house in Haji, Ghaffar village, during a clearance patrol in Zari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 2010. Source Foreign Policy

The Difference between a German Shepherd and a Belgian Malinois dog

But training is much more than teaching a dog commands. It is bonding, above anything else.

Dereck Stevens bonds with his military working dog before a practice drill at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Credit Bryce Harper for The New York Times.jpg
Dereck Stevens bonds with his military working dog before a practice drill at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Credit Bryce Harper for The New York Times

There is no count to the number of hidden bombs detected and the human lives saved by the MWDs today, yet it is certain that the use of these dogs marked a pivotal moment for the coalition forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when it comes to the moral of the troops and the freedom of movement for the ground patrols operating in combat areas.

U.S. Marines attached to 1st Battalion, 6th regiment, Charlie Company relax with their bomb-sniffing dogs Books and Good one in Huskers camp on the outskirts of Marjah in central Helmand, Afgganistan, on Jan. 25, 2010. Source Foreign Policy
U.S. Marines attached to 1st Battalion, 6th regiment, Charlie Company relax with their bomb-sniffing dogs Books and Good one in Huskers camp on the outskirts of Marjah in central Helmand, Afgganistan, on Jan. 25, 2010. Source Foreign Policy

The bond formed between military dogs and their human handlers is stronger than an outsider can imagine, helping the soldiers cope with a ghastly war.

Always by your side.
The bond between the human handler and the military dog goes very deep. Always by your side.

In crucial moments, when humans naturally tend to doubt themselves, a dog will sense the tension and still trust his handler, and this tips the situation in the favor of the human-dog team.

A dog sits at the grave of his owner, who died in conflict.
A dog sits at the grave of his owner, who died in conflict.

All dogs trained and used by the U.S. military are procured and trained by the 341st Military Working Dog Training Squadron, Lackland AFB, TX.

Marine war dogs memorial.jpg
Marine war dogs memorial
2012 army photo competition.Amateur Portrait category runner-up Cpl Dawson and his dog Lightning rest up in TCP West.Picture Captain Richard Willing MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images
Army Photographic Competition 2012…(STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL OCTOBER 10, 2012 00:01HRS BST) In this handout image supplied by the Ministry of Defence Crown Copyright, photo entitled ‘LIGHTNING AND HIS HANDLER’, depicting Cpl Dawson and his dog Lightning rest up in TCP West. (Army Amateur Portrait category runner up; Photo by Captain Richard Willing/MoD/Mandatory Credit Crown Copyright via Getty Images)

Doggles – goggles for dogs!

MWD with doggles, goggles for dogs, in an army helicopter
Doggles – it is all about protection

Dogs, the Silent Heroes of any war

Some might argue that the use of animals, and lately dogs, in war borders an ethical dilemma. Yet during conflicts, saving human lives (be it military or civilians, always dragged in combat) always takes first stage and it is certain that hundreds, if not thousands of men, women and children owe their life, in one way or another, to the military working dogs, MWDs, who served beside them.

My latest novel, Silent Heroes, When Love and Values Are Worth Fighting for, was written with respect for the military life and the local traditions and beliefs of all of those caught in the War in Afghanistan.

Silent Heroes: When Love and Values Are Worth Fighting for
Silent Heroes: When Love and Values Are Worth Fighting for – New Contemporary Fiction by Patricia Furstenberg

Silent War Heroes page on my website contains part of the extensive knowledge I absorbed while researching for Silent Heroes as well as links to all my articles about the history of human-canine relationship and that of the military dogs. I hope you will stop by.

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