Reviewed for accuracy on March 12, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
Military dogs are elite K-9 dogs (currently there are about 2,700 who serve) who are trained to detect danger and protect their people. With their acute sense of smell, they are used largely as sniffing dogs, a skill that has resulted in thousands of saved lives.
The handlers and others who have forged tight bonds with these dogs see them as much more than working military dogs—they’re family members.
This National K-9 Veterans Day, learn how you can pay tribute to the military dogs who serve the nation.
The Life of Today’s Military Dogs
The majority of today’s military K-9 dogs are bomb-sniffing dogs, says Ron Aiello, president of The United States War Dogs Association, based in Burlington, New Jersey. “They’re over in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations, and their job is to detect the explosives before you can step on them. The dog will smell the explosives and stop or sit to alert the handler to some type of danger. The dog team then pulls back and lets the engineers dismantle the explosives,” says Aiello.
Military dogs often spend their entire lives serving and protecting, says Phil Weitlauf, president of the Michigan War Dog Memorial, located in South Lyon, Michigan. “Many start their training as puppies, then go through extensive training for their designated specialty. Then they go on duty for the next six to eight years before retirement.”
Those who know and love these dogs come to share an appreciation for them that goes far beyond just their skills. “The bonding between a working dog and handler is very tight; they rely on each other. The handler considers their dog as part of the family,” Weitlauf says.
It’s these strong human-canine bonds and deep level of service that have inspired groups to build war dog memorials and work for the betterment of these animals.
How You Can Show Appreciation for Military Dogs
There are plenty of ways to honor the military dogs and show gratitude for their service. Here are four easy ways to thank military dogs from afar.
Donate Care Package Items
Since 2003, the US War Dogs Association has been sending care packages to dog teams around the world. The packages have items for both people and military dogs.
“We mail out care packages every day. Some boxes are from items that were donated by individuals or other organizations like pet-walking companies or grooming businesses, and they’ll do a little fundraising, and then we start making boxes. We supplement what is not in the care package,” Aiello explains.
You can donate items for these care packages, too. Some of the items on their wish list for the dogs include K9 Advantix II flea, tick and mosquito prevention treatment, oatmeal dog shampoo, like Buddy Wash original dog shampoo and conditioner, and dog toothpaste and dog toothbrushes, like the Nylabone advanced oral care dog dental kit.
For more information on how you can contribute to the US War Dogs Association’s donation program, check out their official wish list.
Adopt a Military K-9
While military dog handlers are given priority when it comes to adopting retired military dogs, they all still need to find forever homes.
“They deserve a chance on a couch—a chance to be a dog—and that’s what our facility does; we bring them into our care, and we help them,” says Kristen Maurer, cofounder and president of Mission K9 Rescue, an organization based in Texas that works to rescue, rehabilitate, reunite and re-home working military dogs.
“We ‘un-handle’ them because they have had handlers their entire lives, and they were trained to work their entire life. They lived in kennels, isolated from other dogs, and they came out and worked and trained,” she says.
Maurer’s organization rehabilitates military dogs so they can become suitable for adoption into a regular home environment. The adoption process starts with an application, which you can fill out on their site.
The wait for a military dog can be long, but it is definitely worth it. “Adopt one—they’re grateful and they’re loyal all day long,” says Maurer.
Help Fund Essential Health Programs
Military dogs train like athletes their entire lives, says Maurer. “So, they have a lot of health issues with the spine, hips, knees and those kinds of things, so they require a lot of medical care upon retirement.”
The dogs are cut off from government support when they retire, making assistance from nonprofit groups critical.
Aside from distributing care packages, US War Dogs administers a number of medical programs for retired dogs of the military, including a free pet meds program (802 dogs are currently covered), wheel carts for dogs who can no longer walk, and an emergency medical reimbursement of 500 dollars for injured dogs who need to go to the emergency room.
Through their newly introduced program, Project: Thunder Storm, they distribute calming products—with a veterinarian’s approval—including a ThunderShirt sport anxiety and calming aid for dogs, ThunderEssence dog calming mist and calming chews to dogs in need.
“A lot of these dogs have PTSD just like the soldiers do,” says Aiello.
Because military dog nonprofits often don’t have the resources for massive fundraising efforts, they are dependent on donations from the public. You can donate to US War Dogs on their site.
Write to Your Elected Officials
Providing veterinary care for dogs and administering health programs is expensive. “Last year, we did close to 200 thousand dollars in medical expenses,” says Maurer.
Military dog handlers, veterans and rescuers say they would like to see dogs receive health care that extends past retirement. “I feel they should have free care for the rest of their lives, but that’s not happening. Medical care would be nice; some sort of voucher system where the government provides a certain amount each year.”
Government funding would ease the financial burden for organizations and others who care for retired military dogs. “If people write their federal representative that they feel military dogs should get some type of Veterans Administration benefits just like their humans, that would be something new that’s currently lacking,” says Maurer.
If you’re unable to give monetarily, taking a moment to write to your elected officials is a proactive way to honor these dogs.
Sending items that can be included in care packages, donating money for life-saving programs, adopting a military dog and writing letters to federal representatives are acts that can make a real difference for these dogs and their handlers.
Even a simple thank you can go a long way in honoring their service.
By: Paula Fitzsmmons
Feature Image: iStock.com/Natnan Srisuwan