Medical Care for Military Dogs

Ken Tudor, DVM
April 21, 2015
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I very recently attended a veterinary continuing education seminar conducted by our local specialty referral center, California Veterinary Specialists. The keynote speaker was Lieutenant Colonel Dr. James Giles, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. Dr. Giles is board certified in veterinary surgery and is responsible for the care of Military Working Dogs in a war zone. In his case, it has been repeated deployment to Afghanistan.

Dr. Giles’s presentation was an enlightening breakdown of the various duties of military dogs and the stages of care when they become ill or are injured during combat duty. Fascinating was the description of behavior characteristics that are unique to these dogs and how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect them as it does their handlers. Although this post cannot do justice to Dr. Giles's slide presentation, I think it is interesting enough to share it with you.

Roles of Dogs in a Combat Zone

The main role of all dogs working in combat is to protect human life.

Direct engagement dogs — These are the dogs that are constantly in direct control of only one handler and are trained like police dogs to chase and take down the enemy. Often these dogs parachute into enemy occupied areas with their handlers. Dr. Giles reminded us that it not only takes a special person to jump out of an airplane, but also a special dog that won’t struggle, urinate, or defecate during the descent. Often these dogs, with cameras mounted on their backs, are the first soldiers into potential enemy strongholds

These dogs are never off leash in combat and truly respond to only one handler. Dr. Giles recounted multiple incidents where the dogs of injured handlers attacked medical personnel administering CPR or other procedures to the handler. The military has built in procedures for administering aid to these handlers to minimize risks from dog bites. The dog is merely doing its job and all involved are respectful of its duty.

Detection dogs — Called ‘bomb sniffers” or “dope sniffers,” these off-leash detection dogs identify dangers to military personnel and drug trafficking that finances insurgence, as well as identify (in this case) “less friendly” Afghan nationals. These typically are the labs and other friendly breeds that have a great sense of smell. These dogs can have multiple handlers, often regular enlisted military personnel or non-military contract workers.

Detection dogs alert soldiers to hidden explosive traps and work far ahead of the military team. These dogs are so effective that enemy snipers are trained to kill these dogs to protect the hidden traps. Dr. Giles shared slides of one of his patients that survived a sniper attack and another sentry dog that was injured along with his handler by a suicide car bomber. Without these brave K-9 soldiers so dedicated to their jobs, the loss of human life and our personnel would be much greater in these war zones.

Something I did not know is that there are categories or ranks of military working dogs. Some dogs are classified as military personnel. But there are also non-military contract dogs that provide the same services as the military dogs. If injured in combat, contract dogs are afforded the same medical care courtesy of the U.S. government. If they are injured severely enough to be sent home, further medical care is the responsibility of their owners or adopters. Military dogs shipped home continue to receive government medical care until they are retired and discharged from service.

What are the levels and services of medical care provided to military working dogs? Remember the TV series M.A.S.H.? My next post details the stages of care for injured military dogs treated “in country,” the stages of care when returned home, and Dr. Giles observation of canine PTSD.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock