Close X

Play Santa Claus to Canine Heroes this Memorial Day (and Beyond)

Four-legged US military heroes have been saving lives even before they were even an official part of the military in World War II. They've been...

Maria Goodavage  |  May 30th 2011


Four-legged US military heroes have been saving lives even before they were even an official part of the military in World War II. They’ve been used for protection and sentry duty alerting soldiers to dangers well before they could sense it themselves. Theyve been trackers, messengers, sled ambulance pullers, and first-aid deliverers. As scouts, theyve excelled at sniffing the air and alerting their handlers to snipers and other hidden enemies.

These days sniffing out explosives is a key military dog job. Trained dogs can detect up to 19,000 combinations of deadly chemicals. No mechanical sensor can even come close. General David Petraeus, the top American military commander behind the Iraq troop surge and head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for the past year, has praised their service: The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine.

What makes these soldier dogs strive to be all that they can be? In many ways, theyre motivated by what motivates dogs everywhere: a desire to please, a pat on the head, and being told good boy! To Cairo, the dog who helped apprehend Osama bin Laden earlier this month — and in fact to every military working dog (MWD) — that approval is pure gold.

Military working dogs live for love and praise from their handlers, Ron Aiello, President of the US War Dogs Association and a former Marine Scout dog handler during the Vietnam War, told Dogster. The work is all a big game, and then they get that pet, that praise. They would do anything for their handlers. And their handlers would do anything for them.”

There is no official medal honoring canine war heroes. The Pentagon says medals are only for humans, although those lobbying for dogs to be medal recipients would be very happy with a special medal just for canines. The US War Dogs Association has stepped up to the plate and made unofficial medals honoring deserving war dogs, but Aiello says it’s important for the government to officially recognize these dogs. (Dogs have been given medals, but they have usually been rescinded because of the no-medals-for-dogs policy.) You can find out more info about lobbying for an official canine medal on the War Dogs website.

Of course, such a medal would be more for the handlers’ morale and for the good of MWDs in general. MWDs, as with most dogs, would much prefer chewing on a satisfying toy.

Which brings me to the reason for this article. If you have a few spare dollars and want to put the wag in an MWD’s tail and make his or her handler happy, consider making a donation to the US War Dogs Association. You’ll be helping to provide cherished care packages the organization sends out to deployed handlers.

These care packages mean the world to handlers overseas. Often it’s not so much what’s in them: “The boxes could be almost empty,” Aiello told Dogster. “It’s the fact that a stranger cares enough and recognizes them and wants to send them something.”

Aiello knows this first hand. When he was in Vietnam, there were 42 people in his unit. Thirty of them were dog handlers. “We never saw a care package from a stranger,” he says. “I decided Im not going to let that happen to these dog teams now.” Thus the canine care package was born.

Aiello’s group fields requests for anything from cooling vests for dogs working in the heat (USDWA recently ordered 48 to the tune of $130 each), to doggy ear muffs that protect sensitive ears in aircraft, to dog boots that keep paws from being singed on the scorching ground. Handlers sometimes request basic gear, like dog harnesses, because it can take the US War Dogs Association much less time to get items to soldiers than it takes the military, says Aiello.

Even if a handler doesn’t make a request, the association will do its best to send a basic care package that includes toothpaste and toothbrush for both handler and dog, eye and ear wash for the dog, deodorant and shaving cream for the handler, beef jerky for the handler, treats and toys for dogs, checkers and other games for handlers, dog boots, a cooling vest, or cooling scarf for handler.

Aiello estimates his nonprofit group spends about $80,000 per year on care package items and shipping to deployed soldiers and their four-legged partners. To keep up this level of assistance, donations of any size are welcome. If you have a few extra dollars and want to help make life a little better for a deployed soldier and dog, you can make a donation on the US War Dogs Association website.

Hooah!