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Officials outline adoption process for military working dogs

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Military working dogs have come a long way since the days of ancient Persia and Assyria, where they donned armor, spiked collars and warned of impending attack or charged on the enemy's cavalry. 

Modern battlefield and customs conditions bring forth complex and ever-changing challenges, and as such, Department of Defense officials have created a clear standard operating procedure used by all kennels to ensure excess military working dogs have a chance to go to deserving adoptive homes. 

The DOD, in accordance with the November 2000 "Robby Law," enables military working dogs to be transferred or adopted out to former handlers, law enforcement agencies or families who are willing and able to take on the responsibility of former MWDs. Currently the DOD adopts out about 300 dogs per year to private homes; of that 300, about 100 dogs go to law enforcement agencies outside of the DOD. 

Dogs are also available for adoption throughout the United States and some overseas locations. Most available dogs have failed to meet MWD standards while others become available for adoption once they have completed their military service. 

Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, DOD MWD executive agent, at the Pentagon, said although the Lackland Air Force Base, Texas,-based Military Working Dog schoolhouse's adoption process is rigorous, contingent on demand and eligibility, families can expediently obtain former MWDs. 

"Families can normally complete the adoption process in less than 30 days if they and the dogs meet the eligibility requirements," General Hertog said. "The Robby Law changed the way the DOD does business and we go to extraordinary lengths to make sure dogs are adopted out." 

Maj. Kathy Jordan, 341st Training Squadron commander at Lackland AFB, described the two-page adoption application as a simple tool to garner information about the prospective family. 

"It's an application, not an essay -- we're seeking basic information about other pets or children in the household to ensure that we have the right fit and that you're able to properly take care of your dog," the major said. 

A follow-up interview queries prospective families about their expectations of a DOD dog. 

"Are the adopters looking for a dog to guard their house or go walking with them?" the major asked. "Are they seeking a high activity or low activity dog? We collect these details because we want the adoption to be successful." 

General Hertog said that high demand for adoption, not the adoption process can put prospective adopters on the waiting list for 2-3 months. On most days there are about 250 dogs training at Lackland AFB and a small percentage of dogs unfit to work in the field will become eligible for adoption. All MWDs are trained at Lackland AFB then sent to operational units throughout the DOD. 

Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherd, German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever dogs, ranging in age from 2-12 years, are declared "excess" when they are no longer in the DOD program. Dogs adopted from field kennels are typically 8-12 years old, while dogs adopted from the schoolhouse range in age from 2-4 years old. Eligibility requirements include suitability testing, a veterinary screening, eligible home location and required paperwork completion, General Hertog said. 

Major Jordan said the stateside and overseas demand for MWDs, especially explosive detector dogs, has spiked since 9/11 and the average retirement age has dropped from 10-and-a-half to 8-and-a-half due to the rigors of the MWDs' jobs. The DOD has also added combat tracker and off-leash specialized search dog capabilities to the MWD program. 

Most field dogs have deployed at least once, often multiple times, while dogs adopted from the schoolhouse have almost never deployed, Major Jordan said. She added that the various experiences a DOD dog may have warrants a thorough assessment of their temperament and acclimation back into a home. 

"These dogs, for the most part, have been aggression trained, so rigorous screening is critical," Major Jordan said. "The bite muzzle process involves muzzled and unmuzzled scenarios for the dog, putting him in the training environment and seeing how likely he or she is to attack the decoy." 

Depending on the score rating at the end of the test, the dog is deemed "suitable," "guarded" or "not suitable." MWD adoption officials consider such factors as children, other dogs in the home, and prior handler experience when determining placement for a given dog, the major said. 

Dogs wanted by neither their handlers nor law enforcement agencies are posted on the adoption Web site, and families of handlers who have been killed in action also have first opportunity to adopt the handler's dog. 

"Even though our handlers get first call at adopting their dogs, they do not short circuit the process in place," General Hertog said. "Handlers who may have been with a dog for a couple of years still have to wait for the adoption process to run its course in order to call the dog their own." 

The adoption process is not the only thing to improve over time, General Hertog said. She described the DOD MWD schoolhouse as a "state-of-the-art" training and veterinary facility that has evolved since directives to the major commands in July of 1965 had them assemble 40 handlers and 40 dogs at Lackland AFB for 120 days temporary duty in Vietnam. The trial run success encouraged DOD officials to augment the MWD program, she added. 

"We lucked out - we're honored to be the executive agent for this program," General Hertog said. "Our training program and dog school has existed at Lackland (AFB) for decades and it continues to get better." 

The general added that she answers swiftly when people ask her and schoolhouse staff members if they feel guilty about sustaining such a sophisticated facility for dogs. 

"No -- because these dogs work for us as our best detectors ... especially our explosive detector dogs," she said. "There is nothing - no piece of equipment or technology available today that can beat the scent of that dog's nose. So we're going to do everything we can to take care of those dogs." 

The DOD MWD adoption program has even placed some terminally ill dogs with adoptive families, giving them an opportunity to live out their lives in loving homes, Major Jordan said. 

"That dog is not just a piece of equipment -- it's what enables us to save lives so we exhaust all avenues to ensure the dogs remain as healthy as possible," she asserted. 

General Hertog explained that contrary to popular belief, retired MWDs, unless deemed by a veterinarian as seriously ill and suffering, or unsuitable due to aggression are not typically euthanized following military service. Since November 2000, only a few MWDs have been euthanized for lack of a good home, while thousands have been placed in private homes, she added. 

Although the DOD MWD program will implement an Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st century-approach to expedite processing for dogs out of the state and country, the general clarified why adopters must bear the brunt of transport for adopted dogs returning from overseas. 

"Once that dog is adopted, it becomes a pet, and therefore loses its MWD status," she explained. "So it would be fraud, waste and abuse for the DOD to transport that pet." 

Despite regulations barring DOD-sponsored transport of adopted dogs, the general said there are a number of services the DOD does provide to adopting families. Adoption coordinators provide follow-up e-mails and calls to check on the dogs and families, and the coordinators also furnish information about low-cost Air Force Services Agency dog training for families who adopt in the San Antonio area, where most of the DOD adoptions take place. 

"The extra assistance is not required and we're not staffed to do it; we just have people who are passionate about the dogs and want to ensure smooth adoptions," Major Jordan said. 

The DOD MWD program also offers a breeder and foster program for families who live in the San Antonio area and are interested in offering short-term care to dogs. Currently, there are more than 100 puppies at Lackland AFB that can be fostered for the first 2-6 months of their lives. Foster families must not only bring the dogs to Lackland AFB for monthly check-ups, but they must diligently work to socialize the puppy. 

"We want the puppies to spend time with the families to socialize them to their new environment," Major Jordan said. "Foster families are screened just as rigorously, if not more so, than adopting families." 

The cradle-to-grave philosophy of caring for dogs is the hallmark of the DOD MWD adoption program and schoolhouse, General Hertog said. "There is no shortage of suitable homes ready and willing to provide a comfortable retirement for our four-legged heroes." 

In an effort to further clarify the adoption process, the DOD MWD schoolhouse recently launched an adoption Web site for families who want to take in MWDs for fostering or former MWDs for adoption. 

For more information, visit http://www.lackland.af.mil/units/341stmwd/index.asp. To learn more about the history of MWDs, visit http://www.lackland.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-061212-027.pdf