Combat Canines Take On Tough Missions

Dec 22, 2011
Originally published on December 22, 2011 2:45 pm
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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, Cesaria Evora was from a tiny island off the coast of West Africa, but her voice carried her to international stardom. She passed away last week. NPR's Felix Contreras will join us to reflect on the woman known as the Barefoot Diva.

But first, to the world of soldiers that might surprise you, the dogs of war. Now, dogs can't talk on the radio, but we do know that they can search for bombs, shimmy down helicopter cables and provide vital intelligence back to the command center. Plus, military working dogs are faster than soldiers and they can see better in the dark.

Our guess is Lisa Rogak. She's the author of the new book, "The Dogs of War." Welcome, Lisa.

LISA ROGAK: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KEYES: I understand you wrote this right after the capture of Osama bin Laden. Tell us about this fabulous dog named Cairo and the role he played in that mission.

ROGAK: Well, Cairo was trained in the same ways as his elite human counterparts. Basically there were a few different scenarios that I was able to uncover in the course of the research and one of them was for the dog to serve as a distraction when they went into the compound. Another one would be to go into the compound and actually ID, identify by scent, Osama bin Laden. Another one would have been to maybe distract some of the bodyguards on duty on the first floor and around the grounds of the compound.

They're never going to tell us exactly what the people or the dog did on the raid.

KEYES: What kind of breeds are the military working with these days?

ROGAK: They primarily work with Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds.

KEYES: Cairo's a Belgian Malinois, right?

ROGAK: Yes. Exactly. And some breeders maintain that the Belgian Malinois is actually a little bit smarter than German Shepherds.

KEYES: Talk to us a bit about the psychological - the effect on these dogs. I mean, I covered 9/11 in New York and I remember the dogs that were searching for what they hoped were - for people that were trapped. I wonder whether these dogs must suffer some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder after the military service. Do they?

ROGAK: They do, some. Not the majority, but yes, just like their human counterparts, some dogs definitely do suffer from PTSD, and there's a whole slew of psychologists whose sole aim is to work to first diagnose these dogs. Sometimes they work with them when the dogs are still out in the field, so they will have teleconferencing with the handler and the handler will send video and audio and they'll have - basically it's a lie down on the couch session to determine if the dog will be able to remain out in the field or if it's best for everyone to bring the dog back.

KEYES: You've mentioned that one of the things that upset you in your research was coming across a video of Vietnam vets who were talking about their military dogs, and they weren't allowed to stay with them. They had to leave the dogs there. Is that right?

ROGAK: Right. Back in Vietnam days, after the decision was made to pull out of Vietnam, the government determined that it would be more expensive to bring the dogs back and also they weren't sure what kinds of viruses and illnesses and other ailments that the dogs would have picked up. And...

KEYES: Wait, wait, wait. So they just left them?

ROGAK: They left the dogs behind and the reason why the handlers were so broken up about it, you know, aside from the fact that the dogs were the handlers', the soldiers' partners, and the bond between many of them had grown stronger than many marriages in the time that they served.

So the handlers and the other soldiers that served with them tried to fight the military to bring the dogs back to the States, but the military brass remained firm in their decision to leave the dogs behind, and everybody knew - the handlers knew that leaving the dogs behind was essentially writing a death sentence for the dogs.

KEYES: Okay. But that's not what happens now, right? Are the dogs allowed to retire with their handlers now? I mean, they come back to the States with them, and then what happens?

ROGAK: Well, see, first of all, what you need to understand about the military working dogs is they are still classified as equipment and they belong to the military base where they are initially assigned. And so what happens is that the dogs will stay with the base. The handlers tend to rotate every two years, and so another handler who come in to work with that dog.

KEYES: But wait. I understand that the dogs are always ranked one level higher than their handlers. Why is that?

ROGAK: Because it's grounds for court-martial for them to - for anyone in the military to abuse anyone who's one of rank higher.

KEYES: So it's kind of - it's a protective measure for the dogs.

ROGAK: It is. It is.

KEYES: I wonder, the length of service is pretty short for the military working dogs. They retire at about eight-and-a-half years. Why is that? Or is it just that it's been too stressful for them by that point?

ROGAK: Some - well, some dogs have been known to be able to serve up to the age of 14. You know, if...

KEYES: That's elderly for a dog.

ROGAK: It is. It is. And that's why - that's another reason why they switched to the - from German Shepherds because they found that the Belgian Malinois could serve for longer periods of time.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. We are talking about the role dogs play in the military.

Our guest is Lisa Rogak, author of "Dogs of War."

Your son serves in the Army, and he's in Afghanistan right now. Does that at all affect the way you personally look at the service of the military dogs?

ROGAK: My son is not a handler. He is in a civil affairs unit. But researching the history of military dogs through the years helped me to understand a little bit better about what my son is doing, or what, you know, the sacrifices that he is making.

The one thing that you need to understand about dogs in the military is they may look fierce. They may leap through the air and attack, but to them, it's all a game. They're doing what they're doing because they've been trained to sniff for drugs, identify a particular person. And they know when they finish their job they will get a reward.

Most dogs, it's either a food reward or a toy reward. And...

KEYES: So when they retire, it's not the kind of thing where you could take this dog back to Brooklyn with you and expect him to be able to hang out with the other dogs at the dog park and fit in.


ROGAK: The military puts restrictions on who they allow to adopt a military dog after the dog has retired from service. In most cases, the last handler ends up adopting the dog. You have to keep in mind that these - many of these dogs have never lived in a home. They don't know how to climb stairs. They freak out when they hear the doorbell or a hairdryer. And so it takes a certain type of person, whether military or not, to be able to welcome a retired military dog into their home.

You know, everybody, after the news of the raid hit, so many people said, oh, I want to adopt a retired military dog...

KEYES: A military dog.

ROGAK: ...and I feel so patriotic and, you know, all that. But it's really not for everybody.

KEYES: Lisa Rogak is the author of "The Dogs of War." She joined us from Berkeley, California. And we are glad to hear about Cairo. What's he doing, by the way?

ROGAK: Classified information. Typical for the military.

KEYES: Of course. Thanks so much for your time today.

ROGAK: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.