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Man's best friend, even on the battlefields of Iraq

About 2,000 military dogs confront danger beside American troops. Injuries are common, but vets are on hand. And so is love.

August 19, 2007|Jeff Donn | Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — When he came to, the Marine's arm hung limp. It had been broken by ball bearings from a suicide bomb hurled so hard that they some were embedded in his gun. Yet Brendan Poelaert's thoughts turned to his patrol dog.

The powerful Belgian Malinois named Flapoor had been his partner and protector for the last four months in Iraq. Now, the dog staggered a few steps along the street in Ramadi, then stared blankly. Blood poured from his chest.

"I didn't care about my injuries, my arm," Poelaert says. "I'm telling the medic, 'I've got to get my dog to the vet!' "

About 2,000 military dogs confront danger beside American soldiers, mostly in the Middle East. With noses that can detect scents up to a third of a mile away, many are used in Iraq to sniff for explosives. Their numbers have been growing by about 20% a year since the terrorist attacks of 2001, says Air Force Capt. Jeffrey McKamey, who helps run the program.

Dozens of these dogs have been wounded on the job -- scorched by the desert, slashed by broken glass, hit by stray bullets, pounded by roadside bombs.

Their services are so valued that wounded dogs are treated much like wounded troops. "They are cared for as well as any soldier," says Senior Airman Ronald A. Harden, a dog handler in Iraq.

For their first aid, there are doggy field kits bearing everything from medicine to syringes. Some are evacuated to military veterinary centers hundreds of miles away and even to Germany and the United States for rehabilitation. Many recover and return to duty.

On that day in Ramadi in January 2006, Poelaert, trained in veterinary first aid, began tending to Flapoor as soon as both were loaded into an SUV. He pressed his finger to the dog's chest to stop him from bleeding to death.

When they reached the base camp, a medic with veterinary training took over, putting Flapoor on an IV. Poelaert departed reluctantly for his own surgery.

Flapoor -- the name means "droopy-eared" in Dutch, the language of his homeland -- would eventually go to Baghdad for further treatment of his punctured lung and belly wounds. He'd later rejoin his handler and fly in a cargo plane to the U.S. for physical rehab.

Healing at Camp Pendleton, Flapoor is back to his usual self in most ways: fast, friendly, eager-to-please. But he still suffers a sort of canine post-traumatic stress. "He's really jumpy around loud noises now," Poelaert says.

Military dogs must be in top condition to perform their assigned duties. And training is rigorous.

Dogs take their basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they learn to tolerate the crack of gunfire and sputter of helicopters. They are trained to sniff for explosives on command, freezing and staring at suspicious objects.

They can intimidate a crowd by merely baring their teeth. Commanded to strike, they can easily flatten a big man with one leap, flying like a 50-pound sandbag tossed from a truck.

Smart and strong Malinois and shepherds predominate, but other breeds are trained too. Even small dogs, like beagles or poodles, are occasionally taught to detect explosives in submarines and other close quarters.

In Iraq, the demand for explosives-finding dogs has escalated. They lead patrols with their handlers in tow, sniffing bags and other suspicious objects along the way.

Larger bombs have been used in recent months, putting dogs and handlers at more risk. To protect handlers, some dogs are trained to wear backpacks with radios and respond to remote voice commands.

"As much as I love these dogs, their job is to take a bullet for me," says trainer Army Sgt. Douglas Timberlake.

The military estimates it spends six months and $25,000 to buy, feed, train and care for the average dog. They are tended by 440 Army veterinarians worldwide.

The dogs get two physical exams each year. They also get blood tests, X-rays, and electrocardiograms.

When dogs crack their teeth with their powerful bites, military vets sometimes do root canals to save the teeth. "Here we treat them, because that's part of that dog's equipment: to use his teeth," says Dr. Lorraine Linn, a dog surgeon at Lackland.

Dogs have been used in wars since ancient times. Thousands were enlisted by the U.S. in World Wars I and II and in Vietnam. Dogs cannot be awarded medals under military protocol, but commanders sometimes honor them unofficially.

Care for wounded military dogs was limited in earlier wars, and euthanasia was typical at the close of their careers -- but that too is changing.

Since 2000, a law allows many dogs to be adopted by police departments, former handlers, and others if the animals are placid enough.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana's German shepherd Rex was plenty friendly but also young and healthy. The military didn't want to let him go.

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