Word on the street was that insurgents were hiding in the building. Leading the patrol in this Iraqi town was a military working dog and his handler. Before U.S. troops could enter and search the building, the handler and dog had to ensure that it wasn’t booby trapped.
Together they checked the entrance. Clear. They proceeded through the doorway into the building and checked the first room. Clear. The door leading to a second room was closed, and as the dog and handler approached it, the dog sat down and wouldn’t go forward. Explosives detection dogs are trained to sit as soon as they discover explosives, so the handler was immediately alerted. Carefully, he inspected the door, seeing nothing to cause concern. Yet when he knelt in front of the door, he spotted a piece of rope beneath the frame. He traced the rope to where it ended… attached to a small blue box packed with explosives. It was a fertilizer bomb, which would have detonated and destroyed the whole building—as well as anyone inside—if the dog hadn’t detected it.
Although this is just one instance, it’s a scenario that plays out time and time again as military working dogs do their part to keep our troops safe.
Ron Aiello and “stormy”. DANANG BASE CAMP, 1966
Ron Aiello’s best friend didn’t make it home from Vietnam. The worst part for Aiello is not knowing what happened to the partner who served with him faithfully on countless missions in the sweltering jungles of southeast Asia.
Aiello was one of the first 30 U.S. Marine Corps scout dog handlers deployed to Vietnam in March 1966. He and “Stormy,” a young female German Shepherd, went through three intense months of training before they arrived in Vietnam on a C-130 transport plane. In the first six months alone, those 30 Marine scout dog handlers were credited with at least 2,200 captured or killed Vietcong.
“It was all because of the dogs. There were thousands of miles of tunnels in Vietnam; the entrances and exits were small, but the dogs could track down the enemies hidden there,” recalls Aiello, co-founder and current president of the New Jersey-based U.S. War Dogs Association Inc.
When Aiello speaks, 45 years melt away as he remembers the physically and emotionally grueling days and nights when he trusted a four-legged partner to help keep him and his men safe. Aiello and Stormy often had to “scout out” buildings, hunting for booby-trapped explosives that could spell death in an instant. Stormy and other military working dogs became experts at finding enemy soldiers and alerting their handlers of impending ambush. Dogs and their handlers in Vietnam are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.
In April 1967, Aiello’s tour of duty was up, and he returned to the States. Stormy stayed behind, and a new handler took over.
“She probably had four or five handlers after I left,” he says. “A number of years ago, I met all but one of her handlers at a reunion. As of July 1970, she was still alive and leading patrols.”
In 1973, Aiello wrote a letter to Marine Corps headquarters. He wanted to know when the military dogs were returning home because he wanted to adopt Stormy if she was still alive.
He never got a response. This troubled Aiello, who knew something was wrong, but he didn’t find out the rest of the story for many years—until 1990, to be exact.
“Roughly 4,700 to 4,900 dogs served in Vietnam and about 232 were killed, which is actually a very small number,” says Aiello. “In 1971, the military turned 1,700 dogs over to the South Vietnamese Army; in 1973, they turned over another 1,000 dogs to them. Supposedly, about 224 dogs were brought out of Vietnam, but there are no real records of where they went. The rest were either euthanized or abandoned.”
Aiello and fellow dog handlers were shocked and disturbed at this discovery.
Dogs have served in the U.S. military since World War II. Vietnam saw the largest number of handlers and dogs of any U.S. combat and remains the only war in which surviving military working dogs were never brought home.
Fortunately, times have changed. Military working dogs, which is their official description, although they’ve also been called “war dogs,” now return to the States after serving. Thanks to lobbying efforts by dedicated dog handler Vietnam veterans, Congress approved a bill, which then-president Clinton signed into law, allowing U.S. military dogs to be retired and adopted after service.
Sgt. Kelly Chambers and “Rex” taking a well-deserved break at a classified location
Most people know canines work in law enforcement, but many have no idea there are currently about 2,700 active military working dogs worldwide.
“A large number of these are working in the deployed areas, but nearly every U.S. military installation around the world has a military working dog kennel,” notes Gerry Proctor, public affairs spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
The Department of Defense Military Working Dog School at Lackland AFB trains about 500 dogs each year; those dogs serve in all branches of the military.
“For the most part, we train all military working dogs,” says Proctor, “but Specials Ops has their own military dog school, and some very specialized mine detecting dogs are trained in other locations.”
In World War II, the military asked the general public to loan their dogs to “the cause.” Gone are the days when the military sought dogs from civilians. Today’s dogs are bred, raised and trained by the military; some are also purchased from special breeders.
Breeds typically used by the U.S military are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers.
“These are the three predominant breeds, but we also have others,” says Proctor, adding that it’s more important for the dog to have good DNA as far as working ability, rather than just be a purebred.
Young dogs are raised with foster families until they enter training, which takes an average of four to six months, depending on the type of training. Explosives detection, patrol and tracking are the basic tasks for which dogs are used. Proctor adds that some dogs go through additional specialty training, and some can be “dual certified” for both patrol and explosives or narcotics detection. When trained to attack, dogs are so highly responsive that they can be called off by a command from their handler, even as they’re running to attack someone.
“For certain types of dogs, such as specialized dogs that search for explosives in the road, the handler goes through training with the dog,” says Proctor. “The handler will go through with two dogs and then pick the dog that is the best match for him. But in most cases, the dog is trained here and then sent into the field and gets a handler assigned there.”
Each dog is paired with one handler following training, and the two remain a team for at least a year or longer, although not usually for their entire careers.
As dangerous as the work can be, to a military working dog, it’s a game. For the most part, the reward for a job well done is praise from the handler, but dogs can also be rewarded with a favorite toy.
In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, enemy combatants are constantly coming up with different “ingredients” for making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Dogs already in the field continue to train in order to detect these devices. Trained dogs can detect miniscule amounts of these substances, even in sealed containers.
“Millions of land mines were left in Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out, so land mine detection dogs are big there,” says Aiello. “The dog walks straight out in front of the handler in a 30-inch wide 25-foot long path. If the dog detects any explosives, it is trained to sit down. The handler then tags any mines they find. It’s a very slow process because they are working inch by inch.”
Aiello adds that the military dog is sometimes at risk of attack from roaming packs of stray local dogs. An armed team member often walks behind the handler ready to shoot any marauding dogs if they try to attack the military dog.
When our Navy Seals successfully executed Operation Neptune Spear, the risky night raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound earlier this year, a military working dog was part of the team. “Cairo,” a Belgian Malinois, rappelled out of the helicopter with the Seals.
In these situations, the dog wears a special harness and is lowered from the ‘copter by cable. (Dogs wear special goggles to protect their eyes when near helicopters and from sandstorms in desert country.) His handler immediately follows and unsnaps the dog’s harness, so the canine can get to work. Aiello explains that the dog likely was wearing a ballistic vest and may also have been equipped with ear buds.
It makes sense that the handler can’t speak out loud to give commands to the dog in such a dangerous situation. It’s common to use ear buds so the handler can speak softly into a microphone on his or her own vest and tell the dog what to do. Sometimes a dog is equipped with a night vision camera mounted on his back. This comes in handy when the dog is sent ahead of the team as the handler carries a monitor and can see everything the dog is seeing.
When a dog can no longer perform full duty in the field, it returns to Lackland AFB to work as a training or demonstration dog. Most dogs work for an average of 10 years total.
According to Lackland AFB, about 300 dogs are retired each year. There’s no fee to adopt a retired dog, but qualified adopters must travel to pick up the dog in person and most are adopted out of the Lackland facility.
Military working dogs are currently classified as “equipment” by the U.S. military. One of the goals of the U.S. War Dogs Association is to see that retired dogs are classified as “veterans.”
Look through photos of military canines currently deployed overseas and the dedication and focused energy of these four-legged service members is obvious. Although they may not communicate in words, they share a powerful bond with their handlers and their devotion is complete. “Man’s best friend” may actually be our country’s best friend, thanks to their faithful service..
Adopting a Hero
If you’re interested in providing a final forever home to one of these four-legged service members, you can review the requirements and download an adoption application at
Recognition for Military Working Dogs
In 2000, Ron Aiello and four other military dog handler veterans launched U.S. War Dogs Association Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about military working dogs and helping with adoptions for retired dogs.
“Awareness of war dogs is the biggest priority in our chapter,” says Barbara Snow of Bronson, who heads up the Florida Chapter of U.S. War Dogs. “Because of the privacy of the military, these dogs aren’t as well known as law enforcement dogs. One fights the war on crime; the other fights the war for freedom. They keep us safe, secure and free.”
Snow is currently working on a bill that will give veterinary benefits to retired military and law enforcement dogs in Florida.
“Many of these dogs come down with cancers, likely because of the substances they’ve come in contact with, and treatment can cost thousands of dollars,” says Aiello. “We’re trying to get veterinary care for the retired dogs, just like retired human veterans receive.”
“We have a sponsor for this in the Florida Senate but not yet in the House,” says Snow. “Once we get a sponsor in the House, I can go out and get the support from veterans’ groups and the general public.”
Snow says people can help by volunteering at events, putting up displays about war dogs at local libraries and schools, and by signing petitions to get a War Dogs stamp created for the United States Postal Service.
To donate or learn more:
U.S. War Dogs Association, Inc.
(609) 747-9340 / uswardogs.org
(352) 213-8958 / email: email@example.com