Military Dogs – Should handlers be allowed to adopt?

Service man with dog

One of the many strategies chosen by most militaries around the world is the usage of dogs in combat roles. Obviously, poodles are not what we’re talking about. German Shepherds are amongst some of the more trained dogs, but also used are Labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinois dogs. All dogs used in the U.S. military are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. These dogs hold important roles including sniffing out drugs and bombs, finding victims of natural disasters, and lifting the morale of injured troops. The military recognizes that these dogs are forced to perform duties that most people themselves wouldn’t choose to perform, or simply don’t have the ability to perform like sniffing out certain things like these dogs do. These dogs have invested themselves once they have completed the training and entered their units. They do the grueling work not by choice, but because of their loyalty and bond with their handlers.German Shepherd

Generally speaking only about half of them make it through training and into a unit. They must have the ability to attack on command, and the right combination of excitability and aggression. The dogs are saving lives of course so they come from that certain attack and trainable pedigree. The ones that pass through into combat are the most efficient. Many who have watched their dogs at work will say that they’re happy to serve their handlers. With all that said and done, what happens after they’ve served their time in the military? Are these attack dogs really suitable for civilian life as house pets? Before we can understand what to do with them after retirement from combat, we have to understand a couple of main characteristics of what to expect with a dog.

Firstly, just like human beings, these dogs are susceptible to the horrors of PTSD. I would have never thought that they would have such an emotional intellect as humans do, but war dogs experience severe emotional trauma during deployment, and for some it becomes too much. We see what PTSD does to human beings after wartime and dogs are no different. They often become skittish and unpredictable so that makes it harder to place them into homes afterwards. Not only that, but also because the dogs are older and tend to be larger breeds, they might come with health issues such as arthritis.Military dog in training


A second element to consider when discussing the retirement of a war dog, is that like humans, they have the ability to mourn the loss of their handlers and vice versa. There have been books written that explore the remarkable bond between a service dog and its handler. Obviously, it takes a little time to develop, but these dogs are highly trained, and superiorly loyal. The only people who truly know what effort and sacrifice that these dogs give are their handlers and the soldiers who work with them.


So then, what are the ramifications for anyone that is not the handler, trying to take on a dog like this post-career? Potentially, the dog may refuse to take commands from its new handler. It will clearly show that it is still grieving and agitated by the loss of his partner. Such a story is all too common among canine and handler teams. Just as a little side point, if the opposite occurs where a dog of war is lost in combat the dog is honored by the entire squad.


Now that we understand a little better of what some of the results could be for a dog that is coming out of training, what happens to the dog? Until November 2000, military dogs were euthanized or abandoned after retirement. Before this time service dogs were considered “military surplus equipment” and deemed unfit to adjust to civilian life. After discussing some of the trials and tribulations that these dogs go through after service, it’s an unfortunate, but understandable response. Instead of moving into retirement, the dogs were put down instead of honored.


However, this all changed when President Clinton passed “Robby’s Law” in 2000 which allows handlers and their families first dibs at adopting military animals at the end of their useful service. All of a sudden, a new pathway to retirement opened up for the pups. If their handlers don’t want them, the dogs are next offered to law enforcement, and then onto adoptive families. Organizations also formed such as, which in turn place these veterans with suitable families and ensure they are given an honorable discharge. There are currently long waiting lists of civilians who want to give these veterans a loving home in which to retire.

As previously mentioned, at the dog training grounds at Lackland, Texas, there they breed puppies for service, but only half of the dogs pass the aptitude tests. The dogs that fail to make the cut, and the dogs who have served, are all put up for adoption. Another nice caveat to adopting these dogs is that adopters pay no fee for their new pets, and are also given a month’s worth of any necessary medications to get them started. That’s especially important with integrating them with their new health needs.Service man with dog

From a young age, these dogs are taken from what little existence that they know, and are thrown into the training grounds to be taught how to hunt and kill and protect. Just like human beings, war takes a toll on the body both physically and mentally. The after effects can be devastating for a human or dog veteran. When either the handler or the person who eventually adopts their new pet gets to bring them into retirement, it is important that we treat the veterans well and with respect. In a sense because of their servitude, we owe them at least to offer them a retirement with a happy loving home so that they get to be a dog. This of course is easier said than done, as up to this point they haven’t been playing the role of a domesticated happy dog much up to this point in their lives.

Thank you with dog tags

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