Are Military Dogs “Equipment” or “Members”?

Here’s a political issue I’m happy to discuss on the blog: The classification and treatment of dogs in the American Military. Dog lovers may or may not support the use of dogs in the military, but I can’t imagine anyone not in support of working dogs being treated well after their service is over. We, in this country anyway, have all heard the horror stories of dogs in Viet Nam being abandoned or shot, and that just can’t happen anymore. Ever.

I know that things have improved, but pure and simply, not enough.  A big part of the problem is that dogs are now categorized as “equipment” rather than the living, sentient beings that they are. This makes it difficult not only to transport dogs back home after their service, but almost impossible to release money to fund veterinary care for their medical problems, many of which are a result of their work for the country.

Many of the working dogs are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, which has a new veterinary hospital for the dogs in training. I have been told that there are several dogs there that have returned from war zones with PTSD-like symptoms, but it’s not clear to me how often the clinic treats dogs after they return, rather than vetting them for health problems before they are sent off to work.

Currently there is a bill in congress to re-classify military dogs as “members,” rather than as “equipment.” It’s called, appropriately enough, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act, S. 2134, and was introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut. Yeah for him. Apparently the House of Representatives is “moving forward” on the bill, and it will be discussed by the Senate soon. The ASPCA advocacy center has a great website to help us contact our own Senators and advocate for the bill. I just did it myself, it only takes a minute.

If you are so motivated, here is my unsolicited advice about what to say: Be clear and concise, and be very cautious about adding comments relating to any other issue. “Kitchen sinking” never works. For example, if you are completely opposed to using dogs in the military, save that for another email and another time. That is a reasonable and defensible position, but bringing it up in this communication dilutes the issue. Keep your language compelling but logical, and avoid unprofessional language. The angrier and more emotional one sounds, the less you will be listened to, that’s just the way it is. The more you sound thoughtful and objective, the more impact you will have. If you know me, you know that I wear my emotions on my sleeve (and my face, and my shirt front and back collar), so when I say you are better off in this situation to be logical and professional (and thus “unemotional”  ARGH, I hate that word… she said emotionally), the more the impact. I’m just saying.

Given that Memorial Day is upcoming in the states, a day when we honor the service of our military, this is the time to get this bill passed. I hope you take advantage of the ASPCA’s easy form (just type in your zip code and the program automatically sends it to your Senators) and advocate for this important bill.

I’d love to hear: Who out there knows any working dogs in the military? Worked with any or seen them work while you were in service? Please share your experiences, it would be so valuable. And you might be interested in these books written about working dogs, including Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog, The Dogs of War: The Courage, Love and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs and Soldier Dogs, The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes. I have some on order, anyone read any of them yet?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Picture me saying “Ahhhhhhhh.”  By the time you read this, I will be about to begin three weeks of re-charging my batteries. Yup, I’m taking off from work for an entire three weeks. (I can barely imagine, actually, so it all sounds a bit theoretical at the moment.) Be assured, I’ve not deserted you; I’ve written blogs for the upcoming Fridays that will appear on schedule (and will welcome a guest blog from friend and colleague Dr. Karen London). In addition, true confessions, I’m sure I won’t be able to keep from reading your insightful comments. But, overall, I’m out of the office, off the email grid, letting the answering machine take messages and just generally kicking back. Denise, Katie and Lisa will be in the office putting the finishing touches on our new website. It’ll be great to come back and get it launched.

Lots of people have asked me where I’m going. This is my chance to remind people that positive reinforcement is defined by the receiver. That’s why my answer to where am I going is: Nowhere. Or, more accurately: Home. Cuz that’s where I long to be, and that’s what I never get enough of. I have been such a lucky woman to travel around the world meeting dog lovers and professionals in so many countries. I have loved it. And now I just need a little time to let my batteries recharge and hang out with the dogs and the sheep.

Here’s where I plan to spend some serious time for the next three weeks. For years I’ve maintained it, weeded around it, and planted flowers to create a fetching background. Now it’s time to sit down and use it.



  1. says

    3 weeks off! Lucky.

    I very much support the Canine Members of the Armed Forces act. I believe the House passed the bill on May 18, and now it’s up to the Senate (and then Mr. President, obviously).

    I really think that Military Working Dogs should get support and have streamlined adoptions once they’re retired; they’ve earned it! I don’t know any MWD, but I have a lot of admiration for the training that goes into making them who they are, and the work that they do with their handlers for our military. Frankly, I’m surprised that dogs aren’t used more often in utilitarian venues like that (TSA, anybody?)

  2. Kat says

    Your comments about taking time off just to be home made me chuckle sympathetically. My mantra this week has been that if I can just make it to Sunday (when the website I’m overseeing goes live) I can spend the next two days as a vegetable. No projects, no deadlines, no emergencies. Three weeks sounds like unimaginable bliss.

    I don’t know any MWD but I do know several K-9 officers who search for bombs or drugs and a couple who track and take down criminals. I’m very impressed by how attached their human partners are and the true partnerships between the dogs and their handlers. Almost always these dogs retire to live with their handler as a pet. One of the explosives detection dogs I met awhile back works the local ferries and consequently, working at tailpipe height, breaths in more than a little pollutants. His working life won’t be more than five years and more likely three. When he retires he’ll join the other two explosives detection dogs that his handler has already adopted upon their retirement.

  3. Siphos says

    I just finished the audiobook version of Soldier Dogs, and it’s wonderful. It addresses aspects of training, care, adoption, the “equipment” status, and even PTSD. It’s a great resource and quite well written.

  4. says

    I have already written my letter. I really hope that this bill passes at all levels. These dogs have served alongside their handlers and have experienced every aspect of military life. They deserve to be considered “members” and they have earned a dignified, safe and peaceful retirement from active duty.

  5. Beth with the Corgis says

    I know too little about military dogs to have an informed opinion, but I did want to say enjoy your three weeks of relaxation! That sounds like heaven to me.

  6. Annie R says

    Ah, heaven, a “stay-cation”! I am taking a long-needed 5 days off next week to just catch up around the house and enjoy some local neighborhood events as well. Three weeks would be great, but I would really pay the price for that when I got back to work! I know my canine kids will love 5 days with mom around the house also.
    Good for you for advocating for the military dogs — I was somewhat aware of this issue, but not that there’s a current action we can contribute to, so thank you for providing that info! Trisha, you are one of the greatest resources in my life, in so many ways! Enjoy your time to relax and enjoy!

  7. em says

    Yippee for time off! And hip hip hooray bringing this bill to everyone’s attention! Enjoy your well-earned vacation. :-)

  8. Doug says

    First of all, Dr. McConnell, I would like to say that you are my idol when it comes to dog training. I do have intimate knowledge of the MWD program and would like to share. I became an MWD handler in 2002 and returned to Lackland AFB in 2004 to train “green” dogs and stayed there as both a military member and then as a civilian Air Force employee when I got out of the military in 2007. I continued training dogs at Lackland until I could no longer stand the TX heat and moved back east to be close to my family just a couple years ago. I read your blog religiously but have never felt compelled to comment until today.

    I would like to thank you for bringing attention to this bill as it is a topic close to my heart. I certainly hope it can get passed in this “lame duck” Congress we have now. I would, however, like to caution your readers to not buy into any hype that would make them think that the military is currently mis-treating any of its dogs. These dogs are given the BEST veterinary care in the world at one of the most stat-of-the-art facilities in the world at the LTC Daniel E. Holland MWD Hospital on Lackland AFB. Treatments range from occupational therapy in the water treadmills to psychiatric care for the MWDs diagnosed with PTSD to any surgery a dog could ever need.

    While MWD’s may be officially classified as “equipment” I assure you that that is only on paper; they are NEVER treated as such. Every MWD handler and trainer is taught to respect what these magnificent animals are doing for us and for our country and to treat them accordingly. Think of the bond that we normally form with our canine companions and solidify it by living through combat together and you might have an inkling of an understanding as to how the individual handlers feel about their assigned MWD.

    We learned from the atrocities that happened at the end of Vietnam. I have met and talked to some of the vets that had to leave their partners behind and not one of these war-hardened men was able to tell me the story with dry eyes. That has not been repeated since.

    In 2000 President Clinton signed H.B. 5314 which allows Military Dogs to be adopted. Usually these dogs are adopted by their handler. Retired MWDs are only euthanized for health reasons when their lack of quality of life would warrant it – the same mercy we would give our pet dogs.

    Some dogs have even been released from their service early to be adopted by the families of fallen handlers. One particularly touching story of this happening is the story of MWD Lex. Lex was injured by the same RPG that left his handler Cpl. Dustin Lee KIA. Cpl. Lee’s family adopted Lex and certified him as a therapy dog so he could visit other injured and retired vets all over the country. Lex was awarded a commemorative Purple Heart and the Law Enforcement AKC Award for Canine Excellence. Sadly, Lex passed away on March 25, 2012 as the result of cancer.

    From my understanding of the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act, the main change that would occur is that healthcare for the retired MWD would no longer be the responsibility of the person adopting the dog, but would be provided by the government. Probably through the closest military base’s veterinary office. This would be wonderful for families such as the Lee’s, who I’m sure spent thousands and thousands of dollars to help Lex through his struggles with the approximately 50 pieces of shrapnel that remained in his body and the cancer that he finally succumbed to.

    For anyone that is interested in adopting a retired MWD or a dog that did not pass the rigorous certification process to become an MWD. Go to Or if you live in the San Antonio, TX area you can even foster a puppy from the DoD Breeding program!

  9. Sue says

    Tee hee, Trisha–you might get that swing dusted off once. Hurray for you for having three weeks at home; and as a country woman, I know your days won’t be empty. There is *always* something around the farm calling for one’s attention. Enjoy!

    Glad to advocate for military canines.

  10. Trisha says

    To Doug: Thank you so much for writing, and for your service to our country. My hat is off to you. (Given what my hair looks like right now, that might be punishment to anyone looking. Aren’t we all lucky that we can ‘talk’ without having to fix ourselves up?) But you get the point, Doug, you’re the one who should be an idol to us all.

    And thank you so much for clarifying the bill’s importance for us. I knew that many dogs returned home, but am happy to hear that ALL dogs return home. Getting health care for dogs who have served our country seems to me to be a no-brainer, so I hope everyone does what they can to get this bill passed. And I have absolutely no doubt that there’s not a handler in the service of thinks of their dogs as “equipment.” I know a few folks with working police dogs and the bond is incredibly strong. I know from just having Willie, and all my other Border Collies, as colleagues and partners at the farm that having a dog accomplish a task with you, some easy, some incredibly hard, creates a bond that is difficult to describe if you’ve never experienced it.

  11. Doug says

    Thank you. Please know that your writing has had such a profound effect on me that there are a few hundred MWD’s out there that wouldn’t have gotten the same type of training if it wasn’t for you. I have added a link to the teaser for Animal Planet’s upcoming series “Glory Hounds” that features MWD’s in combat.

  12. Christie says

    I spent 14 months over in Kuwait taking care of the Military Working Dogs for the Army. I can tell you that the dogs I took care of we’re thought of as Military members. They returned to their home bases when they finished their deployment. I do hope Congress pass’s this bill because what happened in Veitnam should never happen again. Rotating the dogs out during the winter months because of the heat is critical. I s able to assist in rescuing 10 dogs that were befriended by personnel while I was over there. Two we used as surrogate therapy dogs to entertain the soldiers with. There are 10 happy family’s and 10 very lucky dogs that found forever homes. At a cost of between 1500-1800, which was paid by civilians, I think the government can afford to bring home the Military Working Dogs after they gave so much to their country.

  13. Elissa says

    I am a trainer of IED Explosive Detection dogs (Labrador retrievers) for the Marines. I assure you, all of us consider these dogs more than equipment. They are given a rank higher than their handlers to insure the handler is aware of the responsibility they incur. They are treated as important members of the military by their trainers and their handlers. The few that have been lost in Afghanistan have been mourned as much as any house pet. Virtually every Marine I have spoken with wants to adopt his dog when the dog’s enlistment is over. This bill would help ensure the financial aspects for these Marines and their brave dogs.

  14. Laura says

    Again, what an awesome post. I’ve always wanted to pick up and read any of the books you reccomended and I will. I’m glad the bill is on it’s way to congress and I’m so glad, doug, that you told us all the dogs go home. I’ve had guide dogs for 10 years now. 10 years ago this week, in fact, a calm, confident lab named Marlin walked into my life and changed it forever. All of my dogs have saved my life at one time or another and so I know how strong the bond between dog and handler is. Yes, I’ve had to retire my dogs, and in my last retirement I couldn’t keep Torpedo, but I did what was fair and I realize how lucky we as service dog handlers are to be able to readily keep our dogs when they retire. Thank you all who have served, dog and human alike.

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