Eric Gay/AP
Dog handler James Stegmeyer works with Kamilka at the new Military Working Dog Center at
Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Military Opens Canine Medical Center for War Dogs

October 24, 2008 08:54 AM
by Emily Coakley
A new state-of-the-art veterinary hospital dedicated to military working dogs has opened. Canines are a relatively new addition to the U.S. armed forces.

Vets for Canine Vets

In San Antonio this week, a new veterinary hospital that treats dogs wounded in military operations opened.

“We act as the Walter Reed of the veterinary world,” Army Col. Bob Vogelsang, the hospital’s director, told the Associated Press. “If they can make it back here, they can usually go back to the fight.”

Besides treating dogs, the new center also helps rehabilitate them. The San Antonio Express-News described one dog seen on a tour of the hospital. “[V]isitors saw a German shepherd named Kamilka, in an underwater treadmill, putting in a leisurely half-mile at a relaxed pace in 90-degree water, while recovering from surgery to her back leg.”

The military and Transportation Security Administration use German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, Belgian Malinois, beagles and terriers, the Express reported.

Vogelsang told the Associated Press that dogs usually start their military training between the ages of one and three years, and can work until they are 10 years old. After that, they are assigned to what retired Col. Larry Carpenter called “Fort Living Room”—put up for adoption.

Background: The military history of dogs

Armies used dogs as early as the Roman times, wrote Tracy English, a staff sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base, in a 2000 report. In 55 B.C., Caesar’s army fought Mastiffs when invading England. Dogs often served as guards and carried messages.

“The advantages of using the four-legged messengers were too plentiful to ignore. The animals were less likely to get captured than a human messenger, and less likely to get shot,” English wrote in “The Quiet Americans: A History of Military Working Dogs.”

In World War I, dogs served American forces, according to an undated clipping from a Washington newspaper. 

“It is said that there were about 10,000 dogs employed at the battle front at the time of the signing of the armistice,” the article said. “They ranged from Alaskan malamute to St. Bernard and from Scotch collie to fox terrier. Many of them are placed on the regimental rosters like soldiers.”

The United States didn’t formally start training dogs until World War II, according to the Military Working Dog Foundation. In the U.S. military, dogs were trained to act as sentries, patrol, carry messages and detect mines. More than 10,000 dogs were trained.

The U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps was responsible for training the dogs. In a 1944 issue of “The Quartermaster Review,” Alene Erlanger talked about some of their successes.

For example, a dog named Jack, who was stationed on Bouganiville Island in the Pacific, kept alerting his handler to a particular tree one night. In the morning, they found a sniper hiding there. “This sniper was in a position to do real damage in the company C.P., but, due to Jack, the sniper was eliminated,” the report said. 

After World War II ended, the remaining dogs were retrained before being returned to civilian life. “Dogs were trained that every human was friendly and tested for such things as reaction to people riding around them on bicycles or placed in an area with a great amount of noise,” the Foundation said.

According to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, “Dogs continued to serve the armed forces with distinction in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq and many recent contingency operations.”

It’s not clear how many dogs have died while serving in the military, though 281 of the 4,000 dogs in Vietnam were killed in the line of duty, reports the Military Working Dog Foundation.

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