Articles- Military Working Dogs

As U.S. Forces Leave Afghanistan, Special Forces Operators Reflect on Their K9 Partners

Jason Piccolo
Posted: Aug 14, 2021 12:01 AM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
As U.S. Forces Leave Afghanistan, Special Forces Operators Reflect on Their K9 Partners

Source: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

The immense noise pulsing from the helicopter's rotors and engine washed out all sounds.  The Special Operations Forces (SOF) operators stood ready to launch out of the Blackhawk's doors as soon as they touched down. On that helicopter, nestled next to one of the operators, stood a calm, ready-to-launch, four-legged fur warrior. A force multiplier our enemies in the Global War on Terror sometimes feared more than the operators.  For decades, specially trained K9s have teamed with our nation's top-tier operators to wage war on terror abroad. 

The four-legged fur missile can be seen on our couches at night as our best friends, but in the war, the SOF K9 was an absolute force to be reckoned with.  As selective for human operators to enter the SOF counter-terror unit, it is said that only 10 percent of the dogs make the cut in selection.  

The combat K9s stand out from their police counterparts based on situational locations; combat versus policing. I spoke with Kelly Roby, a former U.S. Army Ranger and SOF operator with over 300 direct-action combat missions.  Roby participated in the U.S. Army's pilot program to partner K9s with operators. Roby learned the difference between police and combat K9s. "To be respectful of the police world, it is mostly environmental, from tracking to suspect apprehension.  Most [police K9s] are close in and in a permissive environment.  The military side is non-permissive; they travel long distances by helicopter or on foot to a target. So they have environmental exposure that most police K9s don't have, from the level of noise from a helicopter to jumping from planes to breaching doors with explosives to flashbangs," Roby said.

When seconds count between life and death, the war dog is there, even paying the ultimate sacrifice to save their human partners.  Roby knew the life-saving value of his partner when seconds counted, "They are a live fighting distraction. Their noses are their mechanism for finding the bad guys. Giving us alerts from a distance to their [enemy] presence.  They force the enemy to think about something other than the people coming through their door, giving us that extra second of tactical advantage."

A K9 uses roughly 35 percent of its brain for smelling. The K9's ability to use their built-in detection device, i.e., their nose, makes them an absolute force multiplier.   

The K9's ability to sniff out and detect explosives far outweighs what is available in a machine-operated detector.  The government currently deploys handheld explosives detectors that require the user to be inches away from a suspected explosive device.  Inches in a controlled environment such as an airport are much different than in combat.  Inches on a battlefield can equal death, and the K9 does not need to be tethered to its handler to search out explosives as a handheld device does. 

The SOF K9s don't stop at explosive detection; in fact, the ability to seek out and find a hidden fighter is where the K9 dominates. For example, during a special forces raid to track down a top ISIS leader, an SOF K9 cornered the suicide-vest wearing terrorist resulting in an explosive detonation.  The SOF K9 almost certainly saved lives that day. 

During the past decades, SOF operators recognized what they had available to them in their K9s; not just a force multiplier but one that can think independently.  Operators attached specially designed combat video cameras to their K9s.  The operator released the tether on their K9s and watched the screen as the K9 searched outwardly hidden locations, providing critical intelligence.    

Post-mission, the K9 became the support the hardened operators needed.  Roby witnessed his teammates bond with their K9, "The emotional side, I didn't realize this until later, is like deploying with your pet, your connection to home.  I found a lot of guys hanging out later with the dog around.  There is an emotional aspect of having a dog overseas.  They are a de-stressor and part of the team."

Rick Hogg, who spent 29 years in SOF, including being a K9 handler, built a special bond with his K9, Duco, "He [Duco] was an extension of me. That's the part that is sometimes hard for people to understand. His ability to shift gears was absolutely incredible.  A [helicopter] rotor pitch changed, and he was ready to go.  It was game time." Hogg elaborated on his special connection with Duco, "My first dog tried to test the waters, Duco never tested me.  Originally I got Duco after I lost my first dog. I didn't want him at first, but we quickly built a bond." He continued, "Duco was the gold standard when it came to SOF K9s. If I could clone him, I would, he was that good."

Matt Vespa

The SOF K9s bore the battle alongside the operators.  Hogg said a silent prayer every time he released Duco to work, "When I cut him off my body, he was tethered to me, I always said 'God, please bring him back to me." When unleashed alongside the operators, Hogg said, "They don't understand fear, they are out there running with their pack, and I will protect them at any cost."

The decades-long GWOT saw numerous K9s leaving duty overseas for stateside adoption by their operator handlers.  Both Roby and Hogg agree the K9s should be spoiled and integrated into their new pack, a loving family that will take care of them.  Hogg told me, "When Duco came home, he now had a place on the couch, a place on the bed, we spoiled him.  He had more toys and stuff than you can imagine; he earned them.  I am here today because of him.  There are a lot of human beings here today because of those dogs."  Hogg went on to say, "At the end of the day, you cannot beat a K9s nose with technology." Technology simply cannot outweigh the benefit of these four-legged heroes. The SOF K9 will not be replaced anytime soon with what is available in the tech world.  A K9 remains an absolute force multiplier for SOF teams. 

Dr. Jason Piccolo worked in federal law enforcement for over 21 years and is a former U.S. Army Infantry Captain (Operation Iraqi Freedom).  He hosts the podcast, The Protectors.



Public Education Educator Resources War Dogs

On Oct. 27, 2019, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois military working dog named Conan took part in the Barisha raid, which resulted in the death of the leader of ISIS. Conan joined a long list of heroic military working dogs.

Call ‘em what you want — war dogs or military working dogs — they have been around for centuries worldwide. The states had an unofficial canine war force in World War I, but military dogs did not become officially recognized until March 13, 1942, when a private organization, Dogs for Defense was established to recruit the public’s dogs for the U.S. military’s War Dog Program, known as the K-9 Corps.

Another key supplier of war dogs was the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, which quickly became linked with the U.S. Marines. The Dobes became a face with the Marines and were given a rank, beginning as privates.

These Doberman Pinschers served as sentries, scouts, and messengers in WWII in the Pacific theater.

Prominent breeders and trainers were instrumental in appealing to the American public to donate its pet dogs in the war effort. The profile included specific breeds, either sex, between 1-5 years old, physically fit and with “watchdog traits.”

But some of those mandates were relaxed as it quickly became apparent there would not be enough dogs to meet the demand. Breeds and crosses were trimmed to about 30 breeds, led by Airedale Terriers, Boxers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, and Saint Bernards.

Donors were given a certificate by the government as a means of thanks for their “patriotic duty.” Dogs were immediately sent into training, where some excelled and others didn’t. Wash-outs were returned to their owners; those who passed were eventually sent into battle from foxholes to beach fronts, where they were utilized for messenger, mine-detection, sentry and scout duties.

Eventually, the military began training its own dogs, but by the war’s end, Dogs for Defense procured approximately 18,000 of the 20,000 dogs.

One of the WWII famed fur warriors was Chips, a German Shepherd/Alaskan Husky/Collie mix that was a donated New York family dog who is credited with saving the lives of many U.S. soldiers and earning a Purple Heart and Silver Star.

This German Shepherd mix, one of the most famous combat canines of World War II, once conducted a daring raid on a sniper nest in Sicily, breaking away from his handler and capturing four enemy soldiers.

Korean War Dogs

Five years after WWII, the Korean Conflict triggered the need for military working dogs again. They were chiefly deployed on combat night patrols and were detested by the North Koreans and Chinese because of their ability to ambush snipers, penetrate enemy lines and scent out enemy positions. It reached a point where reports noted the foes were using loudspeakers saying, “Yankee, take your dog and go home!”

Despite the success of the canines on night patrols, the shuttling around of training duties on the home front resulted in only one Army scout-dog platoon seeing service in Korea. The Air Force, too, utilized dogs there, chiefly for patrolling air-base perimeters and guarding bomb dumps and supply areas.

Vietnam War Dogs

Fast forward to Vietnam – a totally new environment and job description for these “fur missiles,” as some military dog handlers described them. Welcome to thick vegetation, continued rain, subsequent mud and plenty of challenging heat and humidity.

In a terrific chronology, “Cold Nose, Brave Heart: Legendary American War Dogs,” by Linda McMaken in The Elks Magazine, May 2009, U.S. Marine LCPL Charles Yates of the 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 1st Marine Division, says, “Charlie hated our dogs. When the mortars hit, they went first for the ammo tent and second for the dog kennel. These dogs walked sentry and alerted us to many Viet Cong ambushes.” An estimated 4,000 dogs and 9,000 military-dog handlers served in Vietnam.

Their duties were widespread – scout, sentry, patrol, mine and booby-trap detection, water and combat. Like their predecessors in Korea, these four-legged soldiers were so hated by the Viet Cong, that they attracted a $20,000 bounty for their capture.

Nemo, a German Shepherd, saved his handler, Robert Throneburg, during an enemy attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam in 1966.

“Surplus Equipment”

When we exited Vietnam – in a hurry – the military working dogs that served our forces so admirably and saved untold lives were left behind, as they were classified as “surplus equipment.” Despite pleas from many handlers who were willing to pay their dog’s flight home, the military would not permit it. Consequently, some were transferred to the South Vietnamese military and police units who were not trained to handle them and others were euthanized. It is estimated that of 4,000 that served, fewer than 200 made it back to the U.S.

But that should never happen again. Following a public outcry, led by many irate former U.S. military-dog handlers, in 2000, Congress passed “Robby’s Law” allowing for the adoption of these dogs by law-enforcement agencies, former handlers and others capable of caring for them.

In a New York Times Opinion piece Oct. 3, 2017, Richard Cunningham, a sentry-dog handler in Vietnam and later a New York Police Department employee and fraud investigator concludes, “I’ve heard it said that without our military dogs, there would be 10,000 additional names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. I, for one, think that’s an understatement.”

Middle-Eastern War Dogs

In stark contrast to Vietnam, the hot, dusty environments of Iraq and Afghanistan serve up a new set of challenges for military working dogs trained for explosive and drug detection, sentry, therapy and service work.
In an Oct. 7, 2018 feature by Jon Michael Connor, Army Public Affairs on the U.S. Army website, William Cronin, director for the American K9 for Afghanistan and Mali, West Africa, says, “There’s no substitute for the detection of a dog. There’s no machine built yet that can reciprocate what a dog can do.

Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, was a member of Seal Team Six that killed Osama bin Laden. A new breed of elite canine soldier, a Special Forces dog’s training covers such skills as bomb-sniffing and parachuting from helicopters.

“When you go into your grandmother’s kitchen, you smell stew. The dog goes in your grandmother’s kitchen, he smells carrots, pepper, tomatoes, and lettuce. I mean he smells all the ingredients.”

Dogs’ sense of smell is roughly 50 times better than ours, meaning they can sniff out IEDs before they detonate and injure or kill U.S. servicemen in the prolonged Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Ground patrols are able to uncover only 50 percent of these, but with dogs, the detection rate increases to 80 percent, claims the Defense Department.

Conan, the Belgian Malinois who took part in the Syria raid that killed ISIS leader Baghdadi.

Military Dogs Today

Supply and demand for military working dogs is off the charts today.

According to retired Air Force K9 handler, Louis Robinson, a fully trained bomb detection canine is likely worth over $150,000, and considering the lives it may save, you could characterize it as priceless.

To augment the Defense Department’s breeding program at Lackland, the AKC was asked several years ago to assist and then implement a plan for a detection-dog breeding program within the U.S., since government agencies have for decades relied heavily on European stock to meet their growing needs.

Consequently, an AKC Detection Dog Task Force was established to raise the awareness and alert U.S. breeders, citizens and research organizations about the organization’s involvement. Well-attended conferences were held the past two years and another is planned in August in Durham, North Carolina, bringing experts together to determine how to better get U.S. breeders involved in producing sound dogs for explosive-detection and patrol-detection assignments.

A Perspectives report from the 2017 AKC Working Dog Conference notes “today over 80 percent of working/detector dogs in the U.S. are imported from Eastern Europe even though there an estimated 73 million dogs in the United States, of which about 10 million are purebred.

“. . . The primary difference between the domestic supply of dogs and those procured in Europe is that the European bred and trained working lines have a proven history of pedigrees from dogs selected for working traits. These traits are defined by the influence of competitive dog sports and the training requirements needed to participate at regional and national events.”

Federal and local government agencies and private vendors, according to a January 2019 AKC Detection Task Force Q&A draft, seek puppies 10-12 months of age. The Department of Defense conducts evaluations at its Lackland training center and requires the seller to bring the dog there, where it will be left for up to 10 days for assessment.

The task force is working in four ways to help fill the federal government’s need for quality canines.

Scott Thomas, task force consultant, cites those directions:

  • It hosts the aforementioned conferences to create a neutral environment for the vendor, breeders and those purchasing dogs (private companies and federal government) to network and discuss issues.
  • The AKC is actively meeting with government agencies to discuss the needs and the long-term solutions both in Washington, D.C. and at Lackland Air Force Base.
  • The AKC has established a  Patriotic Puppy Program to assist breeders in understanding how to raise detection dogs for sale to the government and private vendors. This system supports breeders and trainers with a website packed with current information, social-media updates and will soon be one of the largest databases for researching the genotype and phenotype of effective detection dogs.
  • The task force has a government relations element that has proven highly successful in establishing legislation to ease the pathway for domestic breeders to supply dogs to local, state and federal agencies in need of dogs.

Thomas added, “Domestic breeders are very excited. For our pilot, we initially sought out the two breeds most often in demand for single-purpose detection work – the Labrador Retriever and the German Shorthair Pointer.

“We had significant interest from breeders outside those two and just completed receiving applications from those. It looks like the initial pilot effort will have just over 100 dogs, a number we hope to expand significantly in the near future. I can see this effort being coordinated into a national breeding effort to meet our national security need.”

View more historical photos of war dogs here.