Did you know that Veterans Day is in March? Oh, not for all of the brave people who have served our country in times of war and peace. I’m talking about those four-legged heroes who marched right alongside them.
The original meaning of “service dog”
Dogs have long served humans in wartime. Their use goes back nearly 4,000 years, to the beginning of the Assyrian Empire, followed by the Babylonian and Persian Empires. The Persians were defeated by the Greeks, and the Greeks were famous for using the Molossus breed as sentries and guard dogs.
The one thing all three breeds have in common is that they are large, powerful, and intimidating. Also note: The designation “war dog” is somewhat of a misnomer. The Greeks and Romans did not armor up these dogs and take them onto the battlefield. Rather, their jobs — then as now — were to protect the camp and the soldiers and materiel in it from foreign troops and spies.
By the time we got to The War to End All Wars (which WW I did not do), dogs were also working as couriers, and some became company mascots, with Sergeant Stubby being the first and most famous example.
Here’s a fun military K9 fact: Generally, the dog outranks its human handler, by design, or at least accident of circumstance. Most military dog handlers are enlisted, so they start out as E-3s, commonly known as Privates First Class, and progress to E-5s, or Sergeants.
Meanwhile, Military Working Dogs (MWDs) enter as Non-commissioned officers (NCOs), so they start with the rank of E-5. Effectively, though, this means that the human in the pair will always know who their superior officer is, and MWDs are treated with enormous respect.
Some famous military dogs
He was an instrumental part of the team that hunted down Osama bin Laden in 2011, and his job was to secure the perimeter of the compound by sniffing for explosives, and watching for and attacking, if necessary, enemy combatants.
When President Obama went to Kentucky for a well-publicized but very private meeting with the team, Cairo was the only one of 81 members of the DevGru team to be identified by name.
Bigger isn’t always better
Now, Mastiffs, cane corsos, and German Shepherds are on the large side, while Belgian malinois are on the high side of medium, but that doesn’t mean that small dogs weren’t useful in times of war, and one of the most famous of these is Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier who served in World War II.
She weighed in at a whopping four pounds and was only seven inches tall. She was found by an American soldier in a foxhole in New Guinea, Eventually, she was sold to Corporal William Wynne from Ohio for two dollars.
She was never an official military dog, but was still credited with racking up 12 combat missions with the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. She was also instrumental in helping to construct an airbase at Luzon by pulling a telegraph wire through a 70-foot-long pipe that was only 8 inches in diameter.
Some Chips are never down
As in Chips, arguably the most decorated military dog in World War II, although the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart he had been awarded were later revoked due to an army policy against official commendation of animals.
He had been volunteered for duty by his pet parent, Edward Wren, and his notable feats included jumping into a pillbox full of Italian gunners and attacking them, driving them out and leading to their surrender. Despite sustaining a scalp-wound and powder burns in that incident, later the same day he was instrumental in capturing ten more Italian soldiers.
Sadly, this remarkable dog only lived for six years, dying in 1946, the year after he had been discharged.
Continuing to be of service
Of course, to most people, their first thought upon hearing “service dog” is not a dog in the military, which is correct, since as noted these are properly termed MWDs. This kind of service dog works with both civilians and veterans with certain disabilities or needs.
There’s a lot of confusion over what a service animal is under the law, especially with the terms emotional support and therapy animal having come into use. Because of this, it’s best to quote from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website directly:
“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Keeping it real
Service dogs are trained from the time they are puppies in very specific tasks. One of the official tasks not mentioned above relies on sense of smell — Diabetes assistance dogs can detect highs and lows in blood sugar and alert their humans to proceed accordingly.
As mentioned previously, emotional support and therapy dogs are not considered service animals under the ADA, but that doesn’t stop scammers from selling vests and certificates that are completely worthless.
Unfortunately, far too many people have tried to take advantage of the confusion so that they can take their own dogs everywhere, which can put people with actual disabilities at risk. To combat this, more and more states are making it against the law.
In California, falsely claiming that you are the handler or trainer of a service animal is subject to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In New Jersey. The fines range from $100 to $500 if you put your dog in a harness to falsely pass it off as a guide dog. In Texas, outfitting a non-service animal as one is a misdemeanor subject to a $300 fine.
How do veterans get a service dog?
Regarding veterans and service dogs, there are a list of qualifying circumstances, including being an honorably discharged member of any branch of the armed services, or a first responder with a work-related disability.
The person applying also has to go through a two-week in-person training session. Several charitable organizations provide veterans with service dogs, training, and more.
One of these organizations, K9s for Warriors, is a remarkable non-profit that rescues and trains shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs for veterans with PTSD.They are celebrating ten years of giving back to service members this month.
The key is to find the right match of human and dog, and teach them how to communicate with each other. When it works, it can be an amazing thing, as success stories will attest.
In some cases, service dogs have been literal life-savers, having alerted their humans to house-fires or stopping them from committing suicide.
Four-legged heroes in civilian life, too
For example, in Ohio, Tony Damato, a Vietnam veteran, was feeling ill and took a nap while his family wasn’t home. Suddenly, his service dog Bella jumped on top of him to make sure he woke up.
Seeing smoke, he got up and made it to the front door, but Bella had disappeared. He informed the entering firefighters, who were able to get Bella out. After brief stays in human and animal hospitals, both were released the same day, healthy and alive.
Ron Flaville had been in service for nearly 17 years, and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012. As he puts it, he chose to “self-medicate” the condition, meaning “I drank way too much. Way more than I ever should have… Drinking is legal so that’s the route I took.”
He was also on 11 different prescription medications at the time, many of them prescribed strictly to treat the side-effects of others. As a consequence, he was foggy all the time. When the fog cleared, he would become bitter, hateful, and short-tempered.
He never became physically violent, but he was quick to scream and swear at everyone around him.
What saved his life was a service dog named Sophia. Ron started training with Sophia, but had only been in the program for a short time when he was actively contemplating suicide. Sophia picked up on his energy, brought him a tennis ball and insisted that he pay attention to her.
It brought him out of it and he realized that he’d been considering “a permanent ‘solution’ to a temporary problem.”
Nowadays, Ron is the Chief Operating Officer for the service organization that trained him and Sophia, and he only take two prescriptions, both for arthritis.
Dogs are natural givers
The dog and human bond is strong, having been forged through tens of thousands of years of companionship and evolution. As a result, our canine family looks up to us and only wants us to be safe, secure, and happy.
This is especially true of working dogs, whether they’re serving our veterans at home or supporting our soldiers abroad. Like their loyalty to us, their courage and ingenuity on the battlefield knows no bounds, which is why now is the perfect time to celebrate and thank all of the K9 Veterans who have done so much for us all.
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