April 24, 2010:
The growing use of protective vests for military dogs has led to more features on these devices. Some of the vests just provide protection from the elements and way to identify the dog. These are inexpensive (under $100). But the armored vests, depending on the degree of protection, cost from $500-$1,000. Some handlers prefer unarmored vests, because they are lighter (about a pound/.5kg) than the armored vests (up to 3.5kg/7 pounds), and less constrictive. Vests allow identifying badges to be added, and more of them have various grips for the handlers to pick up an injured dog. One vest even has straps so that a handler can carry the dog on his back like a pack. The vests hinder the dogs mobility a bit, especially when they are jumping. But the dogs have quickly adjusted to the vests.
There are hundreds of American trained military dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the occasion demands it, the dogs wear body armor. Normally used for sniffing out explosives, crowd control and other police type work, the dogs are also trained to work while wearing custom made Kevlar body armor (worn like the winter coverings you see some dogs sporting in the cold weather). These vests will protect the dogs from stab wounds, shell fragments and some bullets. While the heaviest Protective Vests weigh about seven pounds, for a 90 pound German Shepard, is about the same burden as the 17 pound vest worn by soldiers and marines.
The vests come with a variety of special features. Some vests have compartments on the inside for the insertion of cold packs (soft, flat plastic bags containing a chemical that, when activated, becomes very cool). Since dogs do not deal with heat as effectively as humans (dogs dont sweat), and Iraq and Afghanistan can be very warm in Summer, the cold packs can prevent heat stroke. There are also attachments on the vest to enable the dog to be dropped by parachute, or hauled up via a rope.
The expense of the vests is justified because of the value of the dogs, and the hostility that Arabs have towards dogs (it's a cultural and religious thing.) The dogs take over a year, and some $60,000, to train. So spending some money on life saving equipment for the dogs is a good investment.
There are currently some 1,400 dogs in service for the U.S. military. During World War II, some 10,000 dogs were taken into military service, and in the Vietnam war, some 4,000 dogs were trained and sent overseas, where 281 were killed in combat. The marines used 327 dogs in the Pacific during World War II, and 29 died in battle. The marines found the dogs particularly useful for detecting Japanese troops, who were expert at camouflage, and setting up ambushes.
Until 2000, when the law was changed, military dogs were used until they were about ten years old, then killed. It was thought that the retired military dogs could not adapt to family life. But decades of police, and some military experience, with dogs living safely with their handlers and family members finally caused the policy to be changed. Dog handlers had long urged that retired dogs be allowed to stay with their handlers, or be put up for adoption.