August 17, 2011: The last decade has seen a revolution in military equipment. New body armor, protective goggles, personal radios, knee and elbow protectors, GPS, night vision and so on. This trend has spread to military dogs, making them much more useful, in demand and well equipped. It's generally unknown that over 600 military dogs are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has used specially trained dogs in all its wars over the last century.
Military dogs proved to be particularly useful with Arabs, who consider dogs somewhat "unclean" and scary. American military dogs are kept pretty clean, but they are scary, and one military dog can control a lot of otherwise hostile Moslems, although the main use of the dogs is not crowd control, but detecting hidden explosives or people.
The special equipment for military dogs was often first developed for police dogs. This includes doggles (goggles designed to fit a dog). At first, doggles were for the civilian market, to provide protection from bright sunlight. Sometimes police dogs needed that. But the military found that doggles were mainly useful for keeping out the ever-present dust and fine sand found blowing around in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much of the new dog gear is decidedly high tech. For example, there is a special camera system that is incorporated into a vest often worn by combat dogs. The camouflaged vest weighs 571 grams (20 ounces) and the camera 314 grams (11 ounces). The dog handler has a handheld viewer/recorder with a 76mm (3 inch) screen. The camera has night vision and the batteries on the camera and viewer last 30 minutes. The range of the camera/viewer data link is 1,000 meters in the open, or 200 meters if there are a lot of walls to go through. This enables troops to send their dog into a building or cave and see what the dog sees. The vests also include a small loudspeaker that enables the handlers to give their dog commands. These vests cost about $22,000 each.
Some of the new gear is just updates of existing stuff. For example, war dogs have long been equipped with non-armored vests. These vests are inexpensive (under $100) and just provided protection from the elements and a way to identify the dog. More recent vest designs come with many special features besides cameras. Some vests have compartments on the inside for the insertion of cold packs (soft, flat plastic bags containing a chemical that, when activated, becomes very cool). Since dogs do not deal with heat as effectively as humans (dogs don’t sweat), and Iraq and Afghanistan can be very warm in Summer, the cold packs can prevent heat stroke. There are also attachments on the vest to enable the dog to be dropped by parachute, or hauled up via a rope. Vests now allow identifying badges to easily be added, and more of them have various grips for the handlers to pick up an injured dog. One vest design even has straps so that a handler can carry the dog on his back like a pack. While vests hinder dogs' mobility a bit, especially when they are jumping, the dogs have quickly adjusted.
Normally used for sniffing out explosives, crowd control and other police type work, the dogs are also trained to work while wearing custom made Kevlar body armor. The armored vests, depending on the degree of protection, cost from $500-$1,000. Some handlers prefer unarmored vests, because they are lighter (at 500 grams or about a pound) and less constrictive. But Kevlar vests will protect the dogs from stab wounds, shell fragments and some bullets. While the heaviest Protective Vests weigh about 3.5 kg, for a 41 kg (90 pound) German Shepherd, this is about the same burden as the 7.7 kg (17 pound) vest worn by soldiers and marines. The expense of the vests is justified because of the value of the dogs. The dogs take over a year, and some $60,000, to train. So spending some money on life saving equipment for the dogs is a good investment.
There are currently over a thousand of these dogs in U.S. military service. During World War II, some 10,000 dogs were taken into military service, and in the Vietnam War, some 4,000 dogs were trained and sent overseas, where 281 were killed in combat. The marines used 327 dogs in the Pacific during World War II, and 29 died in battle. The marines found the dogs particularly useful for detecting Japanese troops, who were expert at camouflage, and setting up ambushes.
Until 2000, when the law was changed, military dogs were used until they were about ten years old, and then killed. It was thought that the retired military dogs could not adapt to family life. But decades of police, and some military experience, with dogs living safely with their handlers and family members, finally caused the policy to be changed. Dog handlers had long urged that retired dogs be allowed to stay with their handlers, or be put up for adoption.