By: Cate Burnette

K9 Veterans Day is March 13

Dogs have been working animals much longer than they have been family pets. As far back as the Holy Roman Empire, dogs were trained to guard and protect their families and the lives of the soldiers who owned them.

In honor of K9 Veteran’s Day on March 13, VIP Pet Services would like to share what it’s like to work with a Military Working Dog or a K9 Police Officer – what makes these dogs tick, how they’re trained, how they protect their communities, and what happens after they retire.

Jobs of Military Working Dogs (MWDs)

Over the years, canines have played many roles in the military, but in this modern age of domestic and international terrorism, the dog’s outstanding visual and olfactory (smell) senses often take the place of regular soldiers. In the attempt to intimidate or subdue a foe and protect military personnel, dogs have been successfully trained for many military duties.

The most common duties for military dogs include:

  • Sentry Dogs work on a short leash and are taught to give warning by growling, alerting or barking. Trained to accompany a military guard on patrol, particularly at night when attack from the rear is most likely, sentry dogs are utilized to guard supply stations, airports, war plants and other vital installations.
  • Scout or Patrol Dogs are trained to work in silence to detect snipers, ambushes and enemy forces within a particular area. These dogs must be super intelligent and possess a quiet disposition. Because they are able to detect the presence of the enemy at distances up to 1000 yards, sentry dogs and their handles normally walk ahead on combat patrols, well in front of the infantry. They alert by going on point in absolute silence.
  • Messenger Dogs work between two handlers delivering vital information by travelling silently and taking advantage of natural ground cover.
  • Mine Dogs are trained to find trip wires, booby traps, metallic and nonmetallic mines. Originally used in North Africa during WWII, they historically had problems detecting mines during the noise and stress of combat.
  • Casualty Dogs are basically search and rescue dogs trained to find injured soldiers in obscure places when the injured can’t be located by human personnel. The minutes saved by using the dogs can mean the difference between life and death.
  • Explosive Detection Dogs are trained to alert on the scent of the chemicals used to manufacture explosives. Deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations world-wide, these dogs search for explosives hidden on a person, inside a vehicle or buried at a roadside location.

The modern military working dog is typically either a German (GSD) or Dutch Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois, chosen because of their loyalty, athleticism and aggressive natures. The GSD, preferred as the standard breed, is intelligent, dependable, easily trained and can adapt to almost any climatic condition. Labrador, Golden, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers specialize as bomb detection dogs because of their heightened sense of smell and loyalty to their handlers.

The military working dog may work with several different handlers over the course of a 5 to 8 year career.

Training and Breeding of Military Dogs

All US military dogs are trained by the 341st Military Working Dog Training Squadron quartered at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Approximately 15 percent of all military working dogs are bred at the facility.

In a November 2013 article in San Antonio Magazine, Dr. Steward Hilliard, chief of canine evaluation and reproduction at Lackland promotes the breeding of military working dogs, stating, “It’s a contingency plan. These dogs are among our most effective counter measures against terrorists and explosives. We are uncomfortable being solely dependent on Europe for such a critical resource. The global market is becoming very competitive to purchase these working dogs, so since 1998 we have been scaling up our own breeding program.”

The puppies bred in San Antonio are sent to foster homes where they are socialized with humans and other animals. At 7 to 9 months of age, they return to the military and are observed and evaluated as a MWD.

“We are looking for extraordinary dogs,” says Hilliard. “Not all dogs have the natural characteristics to be fearless and brave. When the pups we keep for training turn 1 year old and pass advanced training they will be certified and deployed for dual purposes, as counter measures for explosives or narcotics detection and patrol for apprehension and search for the enemy.”

Handlers work to build a puppy’s sense of drive, develop a biting grip and increase their “play drive” during training. They begin detection training by searching for a rubber toy with a particular odor. The puppies are evaluated on how hard they work to find the toy and how strong the bite hold is on the toy.

To train the dogs to attack on command, the handlers use a hard sleeve called a “bite wrap.” Covering the target’s forearm, dogs have to be able to maintain a biting group until the signal to let go. As they advance, MWDs learn to apprehend someone if told to, attack on command, search a building and help in the detection of explosives or drugs.

An example of explosion detection training techniques can be seen in this video posted by Tactical Explosive Detector (TED) dog handlers with the 82nd Airborne in southern Afghanistan.

Jobs of Police Dogs

Police dogs were first used in 1907 as guard dogs and for search and rescue with the New York City Police Department. Although the first K9 Police dogs were German Shepherds, many departments also currently use the Belgian Malinois, a breed imported from Europe and known for their intelligence, high intensity, athletic endurance, speed and intelligence.

Because K9s are considered a specialty unit – technically a police department could run without them – they are considered non-essential equipment, unlike police cars, human police officers, and their training. Eighty-plus percent of a police department’s budget goes toward salary, and the remaining 20 percent is needed to acquire equipment and training for human officers. There are simply not enough funds for most agencies to include the cost of K9s and their upkeep in the general budget. Some departments have resorted to bringing in rescue dogs from shelters as a cost-saving measure.

In recent years, pit bulls rescued from shelters are being socialized and re-trained as police dogs. Several organizations work together to cover the cost of training the pitties that are then donated to various agencies. Training shelter dogs to do police work is a cost-effective measure because police departments no longer spend excessive amounts of money buying their four-legged officers from breeders. Lives AND money are saved using this program.

Police K9s search and identify objects first by scent, then by hearing, and finally by silhouette. A working KP can search an area 4 times faster than human officers and with better accuracy than their handlers. These canine officers track suspects, detect narcotics, electronic devices and explosives, search for cadavers and help their handlers with the public enforcement of laws. Their jobs last an average of 6 to 9 years.

Police dogs are taught both passive and aggressive ‘alerts.’ A passive alert is typically used for explosive or bomb dogs and involves the animal sitting down whenever they smell the chemicals used to make the bomb. An aggressive alert, common for drug dogs, tells the handler that drugs are on site by training the dog to paw at the spot where the drugs may be hidden.

Training of Police Dogs

K9 police training commonly lasts around 10 weeks and each dog costs approximately $15,000 to obtain and train using money seized from criminals engaged in drug trafficking. They live with their handlers while on duty, becoming part of the officer’s family.

A K9 officer must first become an expert at basic obedience training. They have to be willing to obey the commands of their handlers without thought or hesitation. This compliance checks the dog’s inherent aggression and allows the human officer to control how much force is used against a suspect. These animals are also endurance and agility trained, enabling them to jump over walls and climb stairs and acclimated to the sounds and smells of urban life.

Depending on their innate abilities, K9 officers may receive specialty training. They learn to search for drugs, bombs or illegal weapons using the same techniques that military working dogs are trained for in similar jobs.

This video shows how a high drive police dog is trained to stop instantly at the command of his handler.

What Happens After Retirement?

As late as this time last year, military working dogs ineligible for retirement were either sold to non-military security firms, left behind in foreign territories when troops moved out, or humanely euthanized by military personnel. Their distraught military handlers were often sent home not knowing the fate of the dogs they had nurtured and trained.

By raising awareness of the plight of these animals through social media, animal activists and ex-military personnel forced both houses of the US Congress to sign the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that allows military dogs to retire to US soil and be reunited with their handlers. The language of the bill was introduced in the House by Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and in the Senate by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO).

“Today, America’s military working dogs are one step closer to being guaranteed treatment as the heroes they are,” says Dr. Robin Ganzert, American Humane Association president and CEO. American Humane Association (AHA) was one of the major corporate sponsors of the bill and helped mold its language in conjunction with the 2 Congress people.

Over the past year, the AHA has privately funded the transportation home of 21 military working dogs and contract working dogs and helped reunite them with their former human handlers.

A video showing how the British Army retires their MWDs demonstrates a marked contrast between UK and (now former) US policy.

When the K9 police officer retires, he or she is typically allowed to remain with the human officer in the home as a member of the family. If the human officer is unwilling or unable to keep his K9 partner, the animal may be sold to another department or as personal protection dogs to individuals.

The recent story of a K9 that was being sold away from his retiring Marietta, Ohio Police partner caused such furor in the national media, the Mayor and City Council reversed their decision and allowed the officer to buy his partner for just $1.

K9 Police Officers and Military Working Dogs put their lives on the line every day they are out in our communities and working on our military bases. In the opinion of this writer, they deserve to live out their lives in retirement with the handlers who know and respect them best.


Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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