Since the end of conscription in 1973, the United States has prided itself on maintaining an “all-volunteer force,” yet over the last four decades, Uncle Sam has continued to quietly draft a legion of soldiers to defend our country. More than 1,600 military dogs are enlisted in the U.S. armed forces — an elite group of conscript canines whose service and sacrifice are too often overlooked. But as the adage goes, every dog has its day.

On Tuesday, we celebrated K-9 Veterans Day, an important — albeit unofficial — designation honoring the heroism of past, present and future American military dogs.

Man’s best friend has been used for warlike purposes since the dawn of our nation. In colonial America, the Native Americans and European settlers alike used canines, both as attack dogs and as guard dogs to warn them of approaching intruders. In later conflicts — including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and more — dogs acted as scouts, guards, messengers and regimental “mascots” that lifted the morale of soldiers.

However, dogs didn’t serve in an official capacity until March 13, 1942, when the Army launched the nation’s first War Dog Program, nicknamed the “K-9 Corps.” The monumental move ushered in a new era of increasingly sophisticated military dogs that went on to save thousands of American lives in World War II, the Vietnam War and now, the war on terror.

In the last decade, military working dogs, or MWDs, as they’re known in the armed forces, became one of America’s most precious weapons in the post-9/11 era. Today, an MWD — and his extraordinary nose — is the single-most effective countermeasure against improvised explosive devices, the leading cause of fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The average human has about 5 million scent receptors; the average canine snout has 220 million, making it powerful enough to sniff out bombs buried upward of 5 feet underground. Using man and machine, our military locates about half of the IEDs planted in the region. That rate rises to 80 percent when patrols use IED-detection dogs. Indeed, Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates, former director of a special Pentagon office created to counter the threat of IEDs, once said that even after spending $19 billion on state-of-the-art counter-IED technology — think drones, X-ray machines and small robots — “dogs are [still] the best detectors.” Accordingly, the Taliban places obscene bounties on the heads of American MWDs, at times instructing their militants to “open fire on the dogs first and deal with the soldier later.”

Dogs offer other valuable skills. Consider the canine members of the Navy SEALs who, like their human counterparts, are trained to leap out of high-altitude aircraft, parachute into combat zones and rappel down walls. Most Special Forces dogs are Belgian Malinois; of the remarkable breed, only 1 percent make it into the elite SEALs. The most famous example is Cairo, the brave Belgian Malinois that took part in the top-secret raid that took down Osama bin Laden. During the mission, Cairo was responsible for sniffing out bombs, securing the perimeter of the compound and, if needed, attacking enemies. If bin Laden proved difficult to find, the dog — fully outfitted with a custom bulletproof vest and infrared night-vision eye gear, called “doggles” — would be sent into the house to search for hidden doors and false walls.

Away from the frontlines, MWDs are beloved comrades that bring comfort and companionship to battle-worn soldiers. Handlers and their canine companions form profound bonds in training and combat. I’ve been an advocate for American MWDs for close to a decade. In the course of countless conversations, I’ve heard handlers describe their canine counterparts as fellow soldiers, best friends, brothers-in-arms and guardian angels. In fact, in combat, MWDs are always one rank higher than their handlers.

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Yet the U.S. fails to support these four-legged heroes when they retire. The government doesn’t offer any health care services or benefits to our canine veterans, who often return with serious combat-related health issues. According to a March 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), 92 percent of MWDs retire with skin conditions or ear infections, 50 percent with dental disease or injury, and 37 percent with arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Estimates also suggest that at least 10 percent of the MWDs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan develop post-traumatic stress.

In the absence of federal support, the financial burden of caring for retired MWDs — which can cost thousands each year — falls squarely on their owners, about 90 percent of whom are military handlers who eagerly adopted their former canine partners. The same GAO report notes that “some assistance with these costs is available through nonprofit organizations,” like American Humane. But with more than 1,600 MWDs serving our nation — and about 270 new canines produced every year — private groups like ours can’t do it all on our own.

Our country must take two steps to support our four-legged veterans. First, the U.S. government must provide specialized veterinary services or benefits to help give all MWDs the quality care and comfortable retirements they deserve. Second, President Trump should proclaim March 13 as national K-9 Veterans Day, which to date is recognized in only 13 states, including South Carolina.

After centuries of dedicated service under the flag, these simple measures to help and honor America’s four-legged veterans are long overdue.

Robin Ganzert, Ph.D, is president and CEO of American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization.

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