Keeping Our Four-Legged Forces Healthy


“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog.
You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”. —Unknown

Fort Lewis’ highly trained Stryker Brigades are the public face of the giant local military base when it comes to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
However, some of the most unheralded members of the United States’ troops are its four-legged forces, a steady flow of which are treated and cared for at Joint Base Lewis/McChord by a 12-member Veterinary Treatment Facility team.

The dogs, primarily German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois and their handlers, are deployed worldwide but these days the Middle East is in the cross-hairs of many assignments.

“These breeds,” says Lt. Col. Kelvin Buchanan, commander Pacific Northwest District Veterinary Command, “have all the attributes you’d want in your partner, aggressive, smart, intuitive and athletic.

“They move quickly and allow us to accomplish our mission with more speed and safety than a human alone.”

The number on base varies considerably with deployments, adds Cpt. Melissa Hehr, officer in charge of the McChord Veterinary Treatment Facility. Recently there were 50-plus, under Special Forces, Rangers and Transportation Security Administration (air marshals or officers assigned to a commercial airport) command.

The Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Program, based at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, lists a working-dog force of approximately 2,300, according to Army Col. David Rolfe, program director, including “a couple hundred” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With an acute sense of smell and keen sound awareness, most of the animals are trained for explosives detection, a constant problem in both war zones, and sentry duty. In other words, detect and detour.

The Military Working Dog Training Program teaches basic obedience plus advanced skills, namely attack techniques and sniffing for specific substances from explosives to drugs in a 120-day program.

“But the initial training program is just as much about working with the handler as the dog,” Rolfe emphasized in an American Forces Press Service story.  “Each must operate with a high trust of the other.”

When the dogs and their handlers arrive at Lewis/McChord, it’s the Army Veterinary Corps’ duty to make certain the animals are healthy and deployable, says Buchanan.  Lameness and minor injuries are among the common ailments seen in the hospital.

Before heading to Lewis/McChord from an overseas base, they undergo thorough physical exams, explained Hehr, “and upon reaching their home station, the dogs are examined for signs of infectious disease or illness, their medical records are reviewed to follow up with any problems that may have occurred overseas, and as a prophylactic measure, they are treated with a broad spectrum de-wormer.”

If a dog is injured in a foreign country, it is treated there by Army Veterinary Corps personnel, with follow-up major care provided at a United States base, if needed.

The Veterinary Corps lists four categories of canine readiness:

  • Good to go. No limiting medical issues.
  • Limited deployability. Limited to six months deployment with the Air Force and one year with the Army.
  • Temporarily non-deployable. Still undergoing treatment for a previous injury and not physically capable of serving or the medical prognosis is undetermined.
  • Non deployable. Medical condition prohibits the animal serving in the near future. These are usually cases where the dog has a medical condition that limits its abilities during deployment, or it requires medications or treatments that it would not be able to receive while deployed.

While the dogs and handlers are based at Lewis/McChord, most serve Military Police patrol duties and drug searches of the barracks. They also are used for special ceremonial events in the area, like a visit last fall by Vice President Joe Biden and the large memorial service at the Tacoma Dome in early December for the four slain Lakewood Police Department officers. Others are specialists in explosives, cadaver and missing-people detection. Depending on the assignment and the training, some work on-lead, others off.

Because of dramatic weather changes between this area and the Middle East, handler/dog teams are sent to Arizona and California bases for two weeks to acclimatize to the conditions they will be facing abroad. “It’s easier on the animals returning to the cooler weather here, than going in the other direction,” Hehr said.

Asked if she felt more intensity caring for a highly trained military dog than a family pet, Hehr replied, “The welfare of all animals is very important to their owners or handlers. But when you know some of these dogs are saving others’ lives you place a very high priority on caring for them.

“And when you hear a story first-hand about how the dog on your exam table saved others’ lives by finding explosives planted on a vehicle or beneath it, it really validates its importance in the war effort.”

The Army Veterinary Corps lists 700 veterinarians from all of the colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States, including more than 200 board-certified specialists.  It provides services to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps in more than 90 countries, and is delegated to perform food safety and security inspections for all of the armed services.

All attend a 12-week Officers Basic Leaders Course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, in preparation for their first assignment. It is not a regular Army basic-training course, although participants are taught to fire a weapon, treat battle injuries and an assortment of other challenges.

Most first assignments are in the United States for 18 to 24 months. Second deployments are either overseas or to a veterinary field unit that can be deployed abroad.

As Iraqi Security Forces assume added duties and prepare for eventual U.S. withdrawal. Army Veterinary Corps members, including some from Lewis/McChord, are offering them basic medical training for Military Working Dogs, including nutrition, proper weight and grooming techniques.

Instruction also includes how to trim the dogs’ nails, clean their teeth and ears, hair trimming and the importance of clean drinking water.  Additional emphasis is given to proper paperwork and microchipping each animal.