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.