WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2009 - Military working dogs have
come a long way since the days of ancient Persia and
Assyria, where they donned armor, spiked collars and
warned of impending attack or charged on the enemy's
cavalry. But they are as important as ever, and U.S.
military leaders are making sure they are rewarded with
a happy retirement.
Defense Department officials have created a standard
operating procedure used by all kennels to ensure excess
military working dogs have a chance to go to deserving
The department, in accordance with the November 2000
"Robby Law," enables military working dogs to be
transferred or adopted out to former handlers, law
enforcement agencies or families who are willing and
able to take on the responsibility of former military
working dogs. The department adopts out about 300 dogs
per year, about 100 of those to law enforcement agencies
outside of the department.
Dogs are available for adoption throughout the United
States and some overseas locations. Most available dogs
have failed to meet working standards, while others
become available after completing their military
Although the adoption process at the Military Working
Dog schoolhouse at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is
rigorous and contingent on demand and eligibility,
families can adopt dogs somewhat quickly, said Air Force
Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, the Pentagon-based executive
agent of the military working dog program.
"Families can normally complete the adoption process in
less than 30 days if they and the dogs meet the
eligibility requirements," Hertog said. "The Robby Law
changed the way the [Defense Department] does business,
and we go to extraordinary lengths to make sure dogs are
Air Force Maj. Kathy Jordan, 341st Training Squadron
commander at Lackland, described the two-page adoption
application as a simple tool to garner information about
"It's an application, not an essay, she said. We're
seeking basic information about other pets or children
in the household to ensure that we have the right fit
and that you're able to properly take care of your dog."
A follow-up interview queries prospective families about
their expectations of a military dog.
"Are the adopters looking for a dog to guard their house
or go walking with them?" Jordan said. "Are they seeking
a high-activity or low-activity dog? We collect these
details because we want the adoption to be successful."
High demand for adoption -- not the adoption process --
can put prospective adopters on the waiting list for two
to three months, Hertog said. On most days, about 250
dogs are training at Lackland, and a small percentage of
dogs unfit to work in the field will become eligible for
adoption. All military dogs are trained at Lackland and
then are sent to operational units throughout the
Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherds, German shepherds and
Labrador retrievers ranging from 2 to 12 years old are
declared "excess" when they are no longer in the
military program. Dogs adopted from field kennels
typically are 8 to 12 years old, while dogs adopted from
the schoolhouse range from 2 to 4 years old. Eligibility
requirements include suitability testing, a veterinary
screening, eligible home location and required paperwork
completion, Hertog said.
The stateside and overseas demand for military working
dogs, especially explosive-detector dogs, has spiked
since Sept. 11, 2001, and the average retirement age has
dropped from 10 and a half to 8 and a half due to the
rigors of the their jobs, Jordan said. The military has
added combat-tracker and off-leash specialized search
dog capabilities to the program.
Most field dogs have deployed at least once, often
multiple times, while dogs adopted from the schoolhouse
rarely have deployed, Jordan said. She added that any
given dog's experiences warrant a thorough assessment of
their temperament and acclimation back into a home.
"These dogs, for the most part, have been aggression
trained, so rigorous screening is critical," she said.
"The bite muzzle process involves muzzled and unmuzzled
scenarios for the dog, putting him in the training
environment and seeing how likely he or she is to attack
the decoy." Depending on the score rating at the end of
the test, the dog is deemed "suitable," "guarded" or
"not suitable." Adoption officials consider such factors
as children, other dogs in the home, and prior handler
experience when determining placement for a dog, Jordan
Families of handlers who have been killed in action also
have first opportunity to adopt the handler's dog. Dogs
wanted by neither their handlers nor law enforcement
agencies are posted on the adoption Web site, she said.
"Even though our handlers get first call at adopting
their dogs, they do not short-circuit the process in
place," Hertog said. "Handlers who may have been with a
dog for a couple of years still have to wait for the
adoption process to run its course in order to call the
dog their own."
The adoption process is not the only thing to improve
over time, Hertog said. She described the schoolhouse as
a "state-of-the-art" training and veterinary facility
that has evolved since directives to Air Force major
commands in 1965 had them assemble 40 handlers and 40
dogs at Lackland for 120 days of temporary duty in
Vietnam. The trial run success encouraged officials to
augment the military working dog program, she added.
"We lucked out - we're honored to be the executive agent
for this program," Hertog said. "Our training program
and dog school has existed at Lackland for decades, and
it continues to get better."
The general added that she answers swiftly when people
ask her and schoolhouse staff members if they feel
guilty about sustaining such a sophisticated facility
"No -- because these dogs work for us as our best
especially our explosive detector dogs,"
she said. "There is nothing -- no piece of equipment or
technology available today -- that can beat the scent of
that dog's nose. So we're going to do everything we can
to take care of those dogs."
The adoption program also has placed some terminally ill
dogs with adoptive families, giving them an opportunity
to live out their lives in loving homes, Jordan said.
"That dog is not just a piece of equipment -- it's what
enables us to save lives; so we exhaust all avenues to
ensure the dogs remain as healthy as possible," she
Contrary to popular belief, Hertog said, retired dogs,
unless deemed by a veterinarian as seriously ill and
suffering, or unsuitable due to aggression, are not
typically euthanized following military service. Since
November 2000, only a few dogs have been euthanized for
lack of a good home, while thousands have been placed in
private homes, she added.
Although the program will expedite processing for dogs
out of the state and country, the general clarified why
adopters must bear the brunt of transport for adopted
dogs returning from overseas.
"Once that dog is adopted, it becomes a pet, and
therefore loses its [military working dog] status," she
explained, so it would be inappropriate for the Defense
Department to transport that pet.
Despite regulations barring department-sponsored
transport of adopted dogs, Hertog said, the department
provides a number of services to adopting families.
Adoption coordinators provide follow-up e-mails and
calls to check on the dogs and families, and the
coordinators also furnish information about low-cost Air
Force Services Agency dog training for families who
adopt in the San Antonio area, where most adoptions take
"The extra assistance is not required, and we're not
staffed to do it, Jordan said. We just have people who
are passionate about the dogs and want to ensure smooth
The program also offers a breeder and foster program for
families who live in the San Antonio area and are
interested in offering short-term care to dogs. More
than 100 puppies at Lackland can be fostered for the
first two to six months of their lives. Foster families
must bring the dogs to Lackland for monthly check-ups
and must work diligently to socialize the puppy.
"We want the puppies to spend time with the families to
socialize them to their new environment," Jordan said.
"Foster families are screened just as rigorously, if not
more so, than adopting families."
The cradle-to-grave philosophy of caring for dogs is the
hallmark of the department's military working dog
adoption program and schoolhouse, Hertog said. "There is
no shortage of suitable homes ready and willing to
provide a comfortable retirement for our four-legged
heroes," she added.
In an effort to further clarify the adoption process,
the schoolhouse recently launched an adoption Web site
for families who want to take in dogs for fostering or