America’s first four-legged service award approved

Jonathan Kaupanger
August 09, 2018 - 1:24 pm

Photo by Senior Airman Donald Hudson, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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A new military award recognizing valor and meritorious achievement has been approved by Congress.  When awarded, most likely it will be given along with a pat on the head or a scratch behind the ears.  That’s because the Guardian of America’s Freedom Medal honors both military working dogs and their handlers. 

Before 2000, military working dogs were either euthanized or abandoned when they became disabled or considered too old for military service.  Robby’s Law changed that and gave military handlers the option to adopt the dogs after they are retired.   

Today dogs are considered high-value assets to the military.  They are assigned identification numbers and even job classifications.  There are about 2,500 war dogs on active duty with about 700 serving overseas at any given time.  They serve multiple tours of duty, some lose limbs and others give their lives to protect their team members.

Best described as a retirement community and adoption agency for working dogs, K9 Hero Haven is an organization that takes in military working dogs after their time in the service ends. 

“We have been following several changes in laws regarding working dogs,” said Anne Gibbs, owner and president of K9 Hero Haven.  “We treat all of ours as heroes. They gave their lives to selflessly serve us and deserve what we call a couch life for what they do for us.”

The new medal is part of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act which authorizes and prioritizes funding for the Defense Department.  After the president signs the bill, the secretaries of each military branch will develop a program to honor working dogs and their handlers.  This can be in the form of medals or other commendations.

Photo by Cpl. Austyn Saylor, II Marine Expeditionary Force

“This is the least we can do for some of the best dogs we have,”  said Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who first introduced the Guardian Act in 2016.  “Great dogs in our lives are more than companions, certainly in the military they’re partners and they become family.  And their capacity to learn and desire to serve their pack have made them indispensable throughout our society.”

The history of dogs fighting alongside man can be traced back to around 600 BC.  In the US we started using military working dogs during the Revolutionary War when they were mostly used as pack animals. 

Here are a few bits of military working dog trivia that you may not know about.

  • Puppy Development Specialist is a real job in the U.S. military. In this ruff, ruff profession, specialists work with carefully selected puppies from the time they’re born until they begin training at about 6 months old. 
  • During WWII the Marines had a plan to use dogs to invade Japan. In 1942, the USMC officially started a dog program.  Marines trained the experimental dog units across the Pacific theater.  They even developed a program to train a battalion of dogs for a possible amphibious assault on Japan.
  • You may have heard of Rin Tin Tin from his time in Hollywood, but did you know he was a German Defector? He started his life as a German war dog but was rescued from a battlefield by an American soldier.
  • They can get Post-traumatic stress (PTS) too. Until last year, Canine PTS wasn’t officially recognized by the military. Symptoms include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away, withdrawal and problems performing trained tasks.
  • Military working Dogs are very valuable. A fully-trained bomb detection dog is worth over $150,000. The big price tag pays for an average of 98 percent accuracy in detecting bombs and drugs.
  • Every military working dog is a noncommissioned officer. Some say the custom started to prevent handlers from mistreating their dogs, so a dog is always one rank higher than its handler.

Photo by Senior Airman Devin Boyer, 86th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs

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