May 8, 2011:
It came as a surprise to many when it was revealed that the U.S. NAVY SEALs that recently attacked an al Qaeda hideout in Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, took a military dog along with them. It's generally unknown that over 600 military dogs are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has used specially trained dogs in all its wars in the last century. Military dogs proved to be particularly useful with Arabs, who consider dogs somewhat "unclean" and scary. American military dogs are kept pretty clean, but they are scary, and one military dog can control a lot of otherwise hostile Moslems, although the main use of the dogs is not crowd control, but detecting hidden explosives or people. That's what the dog sent on the bin Laden raid was apparently there for (to find explosive traps, or people trying to hide.)
The SEALs, who evolved from the combat scuba divers of World War II, seem an unusual match for military dogs. While SEALs undergo intensive amphibious training, they are highly adaptive, and have been serving in landlocked Afghanistan for a decade. In doing so, they have come to appreciate military dogs. In fact, the SEALs have even developed special equipment for their military dogs. Last year, they introduces a a special camera system that is incorporated into a vests often worn by their combat dogs. The camouflaged vest weighs 571 grams/20 ounces and the camera 314 grams/11 ounces. The dog handler has a handheld viewer/recorder with a 76mm/3 inch screen. The camera has night vision and the batteries on the camera and viewer last 30 minutes. The range of the camera/viewer data link is 1,000 meters in the open, or 200 meters if there are a lot of walls to go through. This enables the SEALs to send their dog into a building or cave and see what the dog sees. The vests also include a small loudspeaker that enables the handlers to give their dog commands. The SEAL dog vests cost about $22,000 each.
SOCOM (Special Operations Command, which the SEALs work for) is one of many military users of highly trained dogs. In the last decade, the United States military has used several thousand military dogs in combat zones. There has been a lot of new gear developed for the military dogs. Some of the new gear is just updates of existing stuff. For example, war dogs have long been equipped with non-armored vests. These vests are inexpensive (under $100) and just provided protection from the elements and a way to identify the dog. More recent vest designs come with many 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. Vests now allow identifying badges to easily be added, and more of them have various grips for the handlers to pick up an injured dog. One vest design 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. 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.
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. These vests will protect the dogs from stab wounds, shell fragments and some bullets. While the heaviest Protective Vests weigh about 3.5 kg, for a 41 kg (90 pound) German Shepard, this is about the same burden as the 7.7 kg/17 pound vest worn by soldiers and marines. The expense of the vests is justified because of the value of the dogs. 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.
While there are about 600 American military dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are currently over a thousand of these dogs in U.S. military service. 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.