MEGAN LEAVEY showcases the extraordinary bond between the title character (Kate Mara) and her military dog, Rex. Having trained together at Camp Pendleton, the US Marine corporal and her German Shepherd served on two deployments in Iraq together, working on the most dangerous of missions, often searching out possible explosives in advance of the troops. They both served their nation proudly. But they also found a way to be there for each other when one needed the other most. Their inspiring story is all the more remarkable in being just the latest chapter in long, honorable tale of dogs in the military.
“THEY AREN’T PETS,
Soldier with Red Cross dog during World War I
Soldier and dog during the Civil War
MODERN DOG SOLIDERS
DOGS IN THE MILITARY
THE DOGS OF WWI
There are around 2,500 dogs now in the service with over 700 of them serving overseas. While dogs have gone to war with their masters since ancient times, it wasn’t until World War II that the Defense Department officially created an official K-9 unit. Up until a few years ago, nearly 85% of dogs used for military purposes came from Germany or the Netherlands. Most military dogs, like Rex in Megan Leavey, are German Shepherds. US Navy SEALs make Belgian Malinois their pick of the litter. Cairo, the only named soldier in the 81-member team that captured Osama bin Laden, was, for example, a Malinois.
Since World War II, the army's K-9 units have changed drastically to meet various military threats. In 1968, the Defense Department established the Military Working Dog Program at Lackland AFB, which would become the center for training military dogs for many decades. Their curriculum changed as animal science was tailored to address new national security challenges. In the early 70s, instructors developed techniques to teach dogs how to sniff out both narcotics and explosives. After 9/11, the need for dogs doubled as security forces went from training 200 to over 500 canines, often focused in the field of bomb detection. "Dogs are the single most effective and cost-effective countermeasure helping us to detect and locate explosives of all kinds," explains Dr. Stewart Hilliard, who heads up the breeding program at Lackland.
During World War I, nearly every national army used dogs in some capacity. Messenger dogs ran communiqués from the frontlines to headquarters, especially when radios were down. Some were used as Red Cross or mercy dogs, either finding wounded soldiers or bringing in medical supplies to combat areas medics couldn’t reach. In the muddy, garbage-strewn trenches, dogs helped clear out rats. The YMCA even sponsored cigarette dogs who disturbed smokes to the men on the front lines. Two German Shepherds––Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart––became so renown they went straight from the battlefield to Hollywood, where they became matinee idols.
AFTER THEIR SERVICE IS DONE
THE TRAINING OF A CANINE RECRUIT
At Lackland, dogs go through a 120-day training program that teaches them basic skills. In addition to learning to attack, guard, and sniff out explosives or narcotics, they are trained to trust and connect with their handlers. When they graduate, they are given the rank of a non-commissioned officer (NCO), usually a rank above their handlers. “Of course, it's not recognized by the Army, but it's always something nice to be able to say this is something my dog did," explains Sergeant Regina Johnson of the Military Working Dog School. After graduation, most dogs are designated dual-purpose dogs, working either as a sentry, scout, or sniffer. Some are given more specialized roles. A Specialized Search Dog (SSD) is trained to search for explosives off leash at long distances. A Combat Tracker Dog (CTD)––used solely by the Marines––is a more advanced explosive detector who trained to find the person who handled the explosives in the first place. Others, carrying video cameras, work from radio commands to monitor dangerous or hard-to-reach areas. Some dogs, like those trained by Navy SEALs, are taught how to tandem parachute as well as rappel from helicopters.
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, dog owners rushed to help with the war effort. A group entitled Dogs for Defense was formed to help procure a wide range of breeds for the armed forces. A core member, Arlene Erlanger, explained to the New York Sun, "The dog must play a game in this thing... Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munitions plants, and other such places." On March 13, 1942, those dogs officially became soldiers when the Secretary of War authorized the Quartermaster Corps of the Army to train and deploy the canine inductees. The army, however, left the procurement to the civilian Dogs for Defense group, who persuaded more than 10,000 Americans to lend their pets to the war effort. The program got a big propaganda push with the publication of Private Pepper of Dogs for Defense, a children’s book that told how a family’s collie became a war hero. Some dogs were shipped abroad, while others stayed home to guard the borders for the Coast Guard. When the war ended, the remaining dog troops were returned to their owners with the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.
Traditionally most dogs in the service have been procured by the military from independent breeders. But the Defense Department's Military Working Dog Breeding Program at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has started raising their own troops. It’s a program that often takes a village, as local citizens sign up to sponsor the pups until they are of age. At one-year-old, these pups and other dogs go through a battery of physical and psychological tests to see if they have the right stuff. Comprehensive medical tests evaluate their health, their sense of smell, and their energy levels. Final examinations weed out any recruits who suffer from gun shyness or extreme aggressiveness.
For years, dogs who had served in the military had no clear retirement plan. In some cases, they were simple abandoned. After the Vietnam War, thousands of army dogs were left behind, partially due to logistics, partially out of the fear they might bring foreign diseases stateside. In 2000, President Clinton signed Robby’s Law, which required that all suitable military working dogs be available for adoption after they were retired from service. For these dogs, many burdened with physical and emotional wounds from years in combat, a loving home was the greatest honor they could receive.
A new recruit at Lackland AFB
Airman Brandon Denton adopts his retired partner, Conny.
Photo: Staff Sgt. Linzi Joseph
A LONG LEGACY OF SERVICE
BASIC AND ADVANCED TRAINING
For nearly as long as man has gone to war, his dog has been by his side. In ancient Greece, dogs were commonly used as sentries. In Roman times, imperial forces unleashed dogs to hunt down insurgent forces hiding in caves or dense woods. During the American Revolution, dogs were brought along as pack animals, carrying supplies for troops traveling long distances. During the Civil War, in addition to serving as sentries, dogs were made mascots, providing much needed moral support for beleaguered soldiers.