Year of the War Dog
It was just one year ago that the world first heard of Cairo, the dog who joined the mission that took down the world's most hunted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The news sparked something of a sensation, and while Cairo might be the world's best-known war dog, he's far from a lone fighting force. The world of combat canines is vast, with a long and rich history, and these dogs have footholds on war fronts where you'd least expect to find them. From patrolling Moscow's train stations to thwarting insurgent ambushes in Afghanistan to guarding the borders of the West Bank to serving on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's private security detail, war dogs are essential to many of the world's most elite units, detecting bombs, detaining enemies, and saving lives.
In spring 2010, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, which has officially employed canines since 1942, established the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, a new unit that consists of "284 soldiers and officers and about 200 military working dogs." These teams have supported operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, according to the British military.
In 2011, there were 70 military dogs at Camp Bastion, Britain's largest military base in Afghanistan. Britain's arms and explosives dogs are mostly labradors and spaniels, but the Telegraph reports that "some of the best Army dogs are crossbreeds" and "nearly one third come from private homes." When they're not on patrol, these dogs are housed in air-conditioned kennels that come fully equipped with an independent power source. The dogs even have the only pool on base -- all to themselves -- and soccer star David Beckham has stopped by for a visit.
Perhaps one of the most moving war-dog stories to come out of Afghanistan is that of Cpl. Liam Tasker and his working dog, Theo. When Tasker was killed by a Taliban sniper in 2011, Theo, who survived the ambush without injury, died only hours later. The cause of death was never determined, but some surmised that the bond between the two had been so strong that the dog died of a broken heart.
In this photo, arms- and explosive-detection dog Leanna watches over her handler Lance Cpl. Marianne Hay, a soldier in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, as she rests on Aug. 3, 2008, at the Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.
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ISRAEL The dogs that make up Israel's elite canine fighting force, Oketz (the Hebrew word for "sting"), are especially hardcore. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) use three breeds -- Belgian, German, and Holland Shepherd -- and all have a reputation for being highly trained, relentless, and fierce attackers. The canine program, though finally made public in 1980 after years of operation in the shadows, is still extremely secretive about the details of its operations. As one Oketz commander told Haaretz: "Our dogs know how to spare civilians and home in on terrorists. How do they? That's our secret."
When choosing its handlers, the IDF is highly selective. The tryout session alone lasts three days. As one handler who made the cut said, "220 soldiers show up to the tryouts and only 30 pass." During a training period that lasts for upwards of 17 months and includes both basic and advanced infantry instruction, the handlers and their canines are taught to work with every "unit in the army," learning everything from parachuting to urban warfare to counterterrorism.
The Oketz dogs have sparked controversy in the past. In March, a patrol dog bit a Palestinian protester during a demonstration in the West Bank. The man was only "lightly hurt," according to Haaretz.
Above, Israeli infantry soldiers enter Gaza on January 4, 2009, on the border between Gaza and Israel.
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IRAN In 2010, Iran banned the ownership of canines outright. "Friendship with dogs is a blind imitation of the West," said Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi. And while he acknowledged that the Quran doesn't prohibit keeping such pets outright, he went on to say, "We have lots of narrations in Islam that say dogs are unclean."
But pragmatism might be winning out over the desire to stamp out Western influences in Iran. In 1999, after France donated a team of five of canines for border-control tasks, Iranian clerics issued a fatwa permitting the use of drug-sniffing dogs. As opium production in neighboring Afghanistan has ramped up, Iran's canine forces have since grown to approximately 100 dogs. From March 2010 to March 2011, 33 tons of drugs were sniffed out by canines and seized.
Even President Ahmadinejad has high-priced, bomb-sniffing dogs on his security team, a measure of protection that has ruffled more than a few feathers. The dogs, which came from Germany and reportedly cost $150,000, brought domestic criticism. One hard-line website said their presence "contradicted the president's image as a ‘simple-life, justice-seeking, anti-luxury' leader."
Above, Iranian policeman sit with their sniffer dogs during a ceremony marking International Anti-Drugs Day in Tehran on June 26, 2009.
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RUSSIA In his book Dogs at War, published in 1945, Lowell Thomas writes that "nowhere have war dogs been employed more spectacularly than in Russia." The Red Army "trained as many as 50,000 dogs" toward the outset of World War II, most of which were used for border patrol.
In war-dog history, Russia is notorious for having employed army-tank dogs --basically canine suicide bombers. These dogs were kept hungry and then trained to find food under tanks. They were strapped with explosives or grenades and sent underneath enemy tanks -- with no expectation of survival. "As soon as the Germans heard the barking ... they frantically ... headed back to their own lines," Thomas writes.
Russia has been more humane and technologically advanced with its modern military canines. After Moscow's Domodedovo airport was bombed in January 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev made a push to outfit the army with more remote-controlled sniffer dogs to help stave off terrorist attacks.
In this photo, a Russian soldier stands with a dog at the Pianche border post on Dec. 28, 1992, in Tajikistan.
Photo by Malcolm Linton/Liaison
CHINA China is a country with a long and somewhat complicated history with dogs --evolving from pets of ancient aristocrats to more functional roles in the Communist era as sentry dogs and, though it's far less accepted today, as a long-standing part of Chinese cuisine. Recent years have shown an enormous rise in the number of domesticated dogs in China, a trend that seems to match the incredibly high number in China's military canine forces.
Last December, reports came out that China has 10,000 military working dogs for peacekeeping, search and rescue operations, and border patrol. China officially began its "MWD" program in 1950, though it was then discontinued sometime in the 1960s, only to finally resume in 1991. It now hosts a canine training center and breeding program in Beijing. One of the representatives of that program told Xinhua reporters, "In the past five years, our military working dogs have helped solve hundreds of cases. They have been playing a key role in the army that could not be replaced by modern technology or human efforts."
In this photo, a police dog jumps through a barrier during a training session at a military base on April 14, 2005, in Qinghai Province.
China Photos/Getty Images
INDIA After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the demand for bomb-sniffing dogs in India rose so fast the country could not keep up with requests. The Washington Post reported that prior to the attacks, the Indian army had used canines primarily in restive Kashmir and Punjab. "But as insurgents and terrorists expand their targets across the country," the paper wrote, "dogs are also being deployed to malls, metro stations, luxury hotels and other public places in India's booming new cities."
Two years after the Mumbai attacks, the need had yet to be filled. In 2010, "New Delhi's police department has 32 sniffer dogs and [had] ordered 50 more ... Major airports [had] increased the number of sniffer dogs by at least 50 percent since 2008," according to the Post.
Few as they may be, these canines are highly regarded in India. As sub-Inspector Digvijay Singh told the Post, "These dogs are patriotic Indians. They are better than our men, because they don't take bribes."
Here, Indian soldiers show off their trained canines at Polo Grounds in Secunderabad on Jan. 8, 2010.
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FRANCE In France, they're known as chiens du guerre, and these military working dogs make up the 132e Bataillon Cynophile de L'Armee de Terre, a regiment that services three branches: Army, Air Force, and Marines. The program is based out of Suippes, France, with the basic mission to "train an inseparable man-dog duo to provide specialized support to all infantry units," according to the French military. Each year, the battalion adds roughly 250 new dogs to its ranks.
The most recent war-dog news to come out of France's canine command is the unfortunate death of Fitas, a Belgian Malinois who became famous after for his heroics in Afghanistan. On April 12, 2011, he interrupted an ambush and held the intruders at bay while alerting French troops to the danger. Unfortunately, he was captured and then held captive by the Taliban for months before finally returning to his unit in August 2011. According to the French Army's Facebook page, Fitas succumbed to illness on April 17.
Above, French soldiers prepare their sniffer dog to search an underground tunnel for explosives caches during an exercise on Oct. 5, 2010, in Angers, France.
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AUSTRALIA Australia's been using war dogs since 1943, when they were trained as "savage guard dogs" to protect aircraft, according to the Australian Air Force. Now, Australian dogs go on missions at home and abroad, mostly of two breeds-German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. The Air Force has its own breeding program, but often procures dogs from private dealers and even takes donated canines. But Australia's military may have found a new way to surge its four-legged troops-cloning. According to the Herald Sun, the Ozzies could have their first cloned canine unit as early as 2013.
Australia's most famous military dog might be Sarbi, the camera-friendly Labrador-Newfoundland mix who, in 2008, went missing after her handler was wounded during a firefight in Afghanistan. She was declared MIA, but 14 months later a U.S. soldier spotted her and she was eventually reunited with her unit.
In this photo, Australian Army bomb-detecting dogs Sam and Jasmine-both retiring from service-are comforted at a ceremony for soldiers returning from Afghanistan at the Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney on Nov. 26, 2006.
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