Greetings, Varsity Team! Things are pleasantly busy here as we continue building-out the Varsity Pets online store and developing products that will help busy folks like you efficiently contribute to the health and happiness of your pets. Updates on all that coming very soon. For now, let’s heap some well-deserved attention on this month’s Haunches and Hackles Above the Rest honorees–the often-anonymous dogs that are trained to assist American military servicemen and women in combat operations around the globe. They are known in Army parlance as “Military Working Dogs” or just “MWDs.”
By now you’re certainly familiar with some of the publicly-available information about “the most critical counterterrorism operation in American history,” the daring Navy SEAL raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. For more background on the operation, the report by the BBC is free and enlightening.
You’ve also probably heard something about a dog being involved in the operation, as a media frenzy briefly swirled around that story, despite the fact that the U.S. Military has attempted to keep the identities of the participants in the raid–both human and canine–confidential. (Naturally, over the past few months the media interest around this interesting topic has waned.)
But there (or somewhere near it) is probably where your knowledge of MWDs ends. If so, you’ll want to keep up with the Varsity Report over the next few months, as we will be striving to present articles that enlighten the work performed by these under-appreciated mutts and their handlers. We will cover military-specific training methods and techniques, specialized field equipment, war stories, interviews with handlers and trainers, and profiles of the exceptional dogs and humans that carry out canine operations, among other topics. We think that there’s much to be learned here that can help us all meaningfully contribute to the health and happiness of our canine companions.
Today’s article–the first in this informal series–is intended to be an introduction to the work performed by MWDs and a modest attempt to draw some attention to the benefits they provide to all of us.
To begin with, something to remain aware of when considering the value of the work performed by MWDs is anthropomorphism. In short, anthropomorphism is the process by which humans mistakenly ascribe uniquely human traits to non-humans. To understand its significance when it comes to developing a proper appreciation for the contributions made by MWDs, consider the case of the yet-anonymous dog who assisted with the Osama bin Laden raid. Without taking anything away from the dog, it’s not at all fair to heap additional praise on him or her simply because the operation had a socially and politically significant outcome. Although the operation was successful and although the dog may have performed its role in the operation successfully, the dog’s successful performance certainly was not motivated by an understanding of the social and political ramifications of the successful mission (as it surely was with the human soldiers who carried out the raid).
While that example was deliberately clear-cut, the degree to which we anthropomorphise (or, alternatively, accurately consider) the mental states, motivations, emotions, and rational thoughts of our canine companions is a product of our understanding of the inner workings of the canine mind, and that understanding is constantly changing. So the topic of anthropomorphism does not lend itself well to bright-line conclusions. That being said, one of the leading experts on the topic is Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, who we introduced you to here. While an in-depth examination of anthropomorphism exceeds the scope of this article, you can read some of Dr. Horowitz’s thoughts and findings on the matter here and here. It suffices to say for our purposes that you should appreciate and remember that the nature of the work performed by MWDs (given the grave consequences often involved) lends itself to the anthropomorphism of their motivations and mental states. In an effort to more genuinely appreciate the work performed by these animals, we recommend that you try to limit your attribution to them of virtues such as bravery, moral integrity, etc.
Subject to that protracted disclaimer, we at Varsity Pets believe that the work performed by MWDs is both wondrous and highly valuable.
Although dogs were historically used in military operations for tasks as diverse as fighting, carting supplies, sentrying, and tracking, the task for which they are most commonly used in combat settings today is explosives detection. Dogs possess a cluster of biological adaptations that make them uniquely well-suited for this job. They are intelligent enough to learn and repeat relatively complicated behavior/reward couplets at the direction of handlers. They are quadrupedal, allowing them to move agilely and quickly over rough terrain. They are relatively small, allowing them to maneuver their bodies into tight spaces. And, most notably, they have an acutely powerful sense of smell (according to materials published by Alabama A&M University and Auburn University, while humans have only 5 million olfactory receptors in their noses, dogs have over 220 million).
The best explosives detection dogs shine in all of these categories, as reflected in the popularity among MWDs of the German Shepherd, the Belgian Malinois, the Dutch Shepherd, and the Labrador Retriever. As a general matter, healthy representatives of these breeds respond well to reward training, are highly mobile, and have elongated snouts packed with smell-sensing receptors. Much as a great white shark is close to perfect when it comes to killing living creatures in the ocean, these animals are close to perfect when it comes to finding and alerting to explosive devices hidden in the field. Or, as former four-star general and current CIA Director David Petraeus puts it:
The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our industry.
That’s pretty high praise from a pretty credible source.
After completing their training, dogs will generally be paired with a single handler, with whom they form a close bond and with whom they will work for at least a year and oftentimes longer. Modern technological developments allow units to insert dogs into the field through a variety of cool methods, including parachuting and rappelling (in both cases the dog is attached to the handler by a harness) as well as swimming. In fact, according to Rebecca Frankle of Foreign Policy, who published a terrific series of photo essays about military dogs, a Navy SEAL and his dog recently broke the world record for “highest man/dog parachute deployment” by jumping from 30,100 feet! The use of technology obviously extends to the battlefield as well, where dogs are outfitted, when appropriate, with body armor, night vision cameras, speakers to allow remote communication with handlers, as well as goggles and gas masks.
The end result when natural abilities and first-class training are combined with cutting-edge equipment is an animal that literally does its job better than any technology can. According to a report recently published on the Homeland Security Newswire:
After six years and nearly $19 billion in spending, a Pentagon task force assigned to create better ways to detect bombs has reached this conclusion: The best bomb detector is a dog.
That’s all for now. Much more on this topic to come over the next few months.