Military Working Dogs play a crucial part in America's armed services. The best known “Soldier Dog,” Cairo, put crucial canine skills to work in the SEAL Team Six operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Other Military Working Dogs serve as everything from bomb sniffers to troop companions to search and rescue dogs (and also serve in darker roles, such as duty at Guantanamo Bay). Their handlers and trainers, devoted dog lovers down to a man, form an unusually close-knit fraternity within the military.

Dogs' acute sense of smell and emotional sensitivity make them ideal for the battlefield, says Maria Goodavage, author of the new book Soldier Dogs (Dutton). “Dogs' senses of smell are so much more acute than ours—they can smell fear and adrenaline. Dogs know much more about us than we think,” Goodavage tells Fast Company, adding that, “There's nothing like the relationship between a dog and their [military] handler. They're together 24 hours a day and sleep in the same tent, sometimes even the same sleeping bag. These dogs depend on their handlers for everything; their bond is something we can't quite understand if we haven't been in their situation.”

Most of the dogs—primarily Belgian Malinois dogs—are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in a course that's grueling for both handlers and canines. Some smaller dogs enter into service too, such as the tiny Jack Russell terrier Lars J274. Lars' small size (Goodavage refers to him as having a “Napoleon complex”) makes him perfect for sniffing out bombs in submarines. Germany and the Netherlands have a tradition of breeding military dogs; trainers at Lackland often have to learn basic commands in foreign languages.

Military Working Dogs are returned to the United States and offered to adoption—often to former handlers—after completing service. This is a far cry from the Vietnam era, when the United States shamefully euthanized or abandoned war dogs. However, they are still formally considered to be military equipment instead of the co-species in arms that they are. There's even a new, bipartisan Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act currently making its way through both houses of Congress would change that.

Lex L479 watched over his handler as he slept in foxholes in Afghanistan. According to Goodavage, Lex would "sneak out from under his foxhole, eyes and ears on alert for anything unusual, and guard over his handler all night."
Ajax L523, like all dogs on deployment, got regular tooth brushings from his handler. Military dogs and their handlers, Goodavage notes, have an intensely close bond that results from being together nearly 24 hours a day in high-stress environments.
Air Force Technical Sergeant Adam Miller carries his dog, Tina M111, to "safety" in a training session held in 114-degree heat. Dog handlers in all branches of the military have to go through intensive training sessions--and can be punished harshly if they mistreat their dogs.
Davy, despite her name, is a female. Most soldier dogs are bred in Europe; foreign breeders sometimes give dogs names that are confusing to American troops--such as vicious male dogs named Freida, Kitty, and Judy.
Fenji, who wears "doggles" to treat an eye problem, received the same intensive training as all other IED-sniffing dogs. While on the job, she detects deadly roadside explosives for Marines to dismantle; for her, it's just a game.
If a dog is too gentle, they aren't allowed to go on patrol. Rex L274 failed out of aggression training courses due to his friendly disposition, but was a talented scout, bomb-sniffer, and morale booster for troops.
Most soldier dogs are given intensive training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Goodavage told Fast Company that the military is now letting San Antonio-area families serve as foster parents for American-raised puppies slotted for soldier dog duty.
Most new soldier dogs at Lackland AFB have to wear a bucket around their heads while recovering from surgery--corrective operations are common for most new recruits. The military officially considers soldier dogs to be equipment, something the new bipartisan Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act would change.
Marine dog handlers mourning the loss of a fellow handler--due to the specialized nature of their jobs, dog handlers are a close-knit fraternity within the military.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Brent Olson and Blek on patrol in Afghanistan. "Military dogs have an incredibly acute sense of smell and body language," Goodavage notes.
Lars J274, a tiny Jack Russell terrier, on assignment sniffing out bombs in submarines. Originally slated to be a drug-sniffing dog, Lars became a bomb dog due to a mix-up at dog school--Goodavage jokingly points out Lars had a "Napoleon complex" when they met.
Lars J274 is a rock star in the world of bomb-sniffing dogs. Despite his small size, he's been on several Presidential missions.
Soldier Dogs, by Maria Goodavage, is in stores now.

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Soldier Dogs: The Four-Legged Heroes Of Iraq And Afghanistan

DARPA develops drones, lasers, and robot pack mules, but they can't engineer the kind of canine courage that author Maria Goodavage found in these ruff riders.

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