The dog that started it all has been identified -- or so we think. The canine member of the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 that took down Osama bin Laden -- a Belgian Malinois who answers to the name of Cairo -- reportedly met with President Barack Obama behind closed doors last week. But even as that burning question now appears to have been answered, the excitement over war dogs abounds. Speculation and rumors have been flying, from titanium teeth to canine parachute jumps to just how a dog might've brought down bin Laden. Here's some more war-dog fodder to chew on.
Above, Staff Sgt. Philip Mendoza and his military working dog, Rico, wearing specially made goggles, train aboard a helicopter at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
Thrill seekers: The first U.S. dog to take a "military parachute free fall" was Pal, a 46-pound German shepherd, in 1969. He made that jump with Sergeant First Class Jesse Mendez, a scout dog trainer during the Vietnam War.
But do dogs like leaping out of planes and helicopters?
Apparently, they enjoy it more than you would. One handler recently told the Times of London, "Dogs don't perceive height difference.... They're more likely to be bothered by the roar of the engines, but once we're on the way down, that doesn't matter and they just enjoy the view.... [The dog] has a much cooler head than most recruits."
As former Marine and dog handler Mike Dowling put it in an interview, "As long as the dog is with the handler, he's loving life."
Above U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Chris LaLonde, center, holds his military working dog, Sgt. Maj. Fosco, while jumpmaster Kirby Rodriguez, behind them, deploys his parachute during the military's first tandem airborne jump with a canine from an altitude of 12,500 feet onto Gammon Parade Field on Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., on Sept. 18, 2009.
Ready to lead, ready to follow: Most have assumed that Cairo's part of the mission would've included one of two things: to sniff out any explosives that may have been on the premises or to put that superstrong canine nose to use flushing out bin Laden. But there's a third possibility: What if the dog's job was actually to take out bin Laden? Instead of playing a backup role, in that case, he would've been the first line of defense.
Mike McConnery, owner of a private canine training firm in Canada called K-9 (that has been awarded multiple contracts to train dogs for the U.S. military), told AP this week that if there were a dog on this mission, it was possibly used "as a distraction and as a probe."
McConnery elaborated, explaining the effectiveness of an elite-trained canine attack dog. "If you see my dog coming, you can shoot my dog or you can shoot at me," he said. "If you shoot at my dog I will shoot you. If you shoot me, the dog will get you. This draws the attention of the bad guys and gives you a few seconds to make that entry."
Lance Cpl. Trevor M. Smith, a 20-year-old combat tracker dog handler with the II Marine Expeditionary Force, taunts Grek, a military working dog.
Doggie dentures: One of the more misleading rumors floating around the Internet this week was the claim that the U.S. Navy SEALs outfit their dogs with titanium teeth to make them even more ferocious. Spencer Ackerman over at the Wired's Danger Room was quick to dispel the myth. The only reason that a dog would have any titanium would be medical, he pointed out. Dogs sometimes lose teeth, and their handlers or trainers would have them replaced. But no one should fear these iron teeth, as Ackerman says: "Our proper reaction is pity for the creature."
Above, Rruuk attacks trainer Corby Czajka, who is using a protective soft bite sleeve.
Where do war dogs come from? When dogs were first inducted into the military in 1942, they were usually donated by or purchased from civilians. These days, while the demand for working dogs is so high that the Department of Homeland Security recently put out a call to civilians for viable canine candidates, war dogs are usually bred and trained by the military or private contractors. Most of them come from one place: Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas -- otherwise known as the "dog mecca for all service branches." According to Airman Magazine, the Lackland program is tasked with the goal of producing "at least 100 puppies each fiscal year."
Above, Rrisky, a Belgian Malinois puppy -- just like the one rumored to have gone on the bin Laden mission -- greets visitors at Lackland's kennels. The puppies names all are preceded with the letter "R" to show that they came from the "R" litter and to "indicate that they were bred through the program at Lackland."
Training a super dog: Lackland's puppies start their training early. Very early. Randy Roughton reports that as early as a puppy's third day of life, a specialist "[evaluates] their reflexes and responses with neurological stimulation exercises" -- biosensor exercises that are part of what's known as the "Super Dog Program" designed to ultimately improve the dogs' "cardiovascular performance ... and [cause] a greater resistance to disease and stress." After eight weeks comes the "puppy aptitude test," which evaluates, among other things, whether the pups come when called and how good they are at fetch.
Once it's been determined whether a pup is a good candidate to be a service dog, it goes to live with foster parents for six months of intensive pre-training. Then, back at Lackland, the real training begins.
Above, Rrespect follows a trail of kibble into a darkened box as part of a test of puppy courage and perseverance.
The war dog retirement plan: For some dogs, the days of parachuting out of planes and tours in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan end sooner than others - whether it's from fatigue, a debilitating injury from battle, or a personality that's just not cut out for the rigors of war. But the military works hard to find all these dogs good adoptive homes.
Irano, an 11-year-old retired military dog, is a good example. A former explosives detection dog, Irano has a debilitating disease called degenerative lumbosacral stenosis and has lost most of the function in his hind legs. But the Air Force found a good home for him with Army Sgt. Jeffrey Souder -- who has even built him a custom wheelchair.
Behind every good dog: According to Lackland Air Force Base spokesman, Gerry Proctor, it's pretty clear what makes for a good handler. "[It's] the same thing that leads someone to be a good mechanic. They have a good intuitive sense for this, they have a devotion to it, a love for it.... These people are a cut above the people that you normally run into. They know how to make that connection with the animals."
But former handler Mike Dowling told me that the best teams take two: "If you get a good handler and a really good dog, there's no limit on how far that team can go."
Military working dog trainer Andrew Chumbler pats Rruuk, providing positive reinforcement after Rruuk successfully completed a pursuit training.
The difference a dog makes: No matter how war dogs were involved on that fateful day in Abbottabad, the military's canine forces are doing more than their fair share. And even if the true story of what happened never comes out, we already have plenty of legendary war dogs to celebrate: the three stray mutts living on a base in Afghanistan who wrestled a suicide bomber to the ground, forcing him to detonate before ever reaching the barracks where 50 soldiers lay sleeping; the fatally wounded handler who called for his dog with his last breath; the bomb-sniffing dog who, after his trainer was killed in Afghanistan, succumbed shortly after of a "broken heart."
Like other handlers, Dowling knows this from experience. His dog Rex was "a great moral boost, a symbol of home. You come back to base [to these dogs] that are so freakin' loyal -- a dog who is waiting for you, who will play with you because they love you.... There are so many benefits."
Above Lance Cpl. Daniel Franke, a dog handler attached to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, enjoys a quiet moment in Towrah Ghundey, Afghanistan, on June 11, 2010.
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