May 5, 2011 – UPDATE: German Shepherd? Belgian Malinois? Navy SEAL Hero Dog Is Top Secret
Arthur Jeon, Global Animal
According to The New York Times, the team that killed Osama bin Laden was comprised of 79 commandos and one dog. No news yet on what breed he or she was, or what role the dog played in the mission. However, Navy Seals, the force that conducted the mission, have long worked with the Newfoundland breed. The Newfoundland dogs are best known as working dogs with “water rescue and pulling skills,” so it’s unclear whether this breed would have been deployed on the land-locked mission in Pakistan.
The Newfoundland dogs – or Newfies – can jump from helicopters to rescue people in water. In addition to Navy Seals, Newfoundland dogs work with the Coast Guard as well as serving as canine lifeguards on beaches in Europe (see story of the 300 rescue dogs in Italy’s Coast Guard). In fact, it was a Newfoundland on the sinking Titanic who managed to swim in the icy waters for three hours and alert a rescue ship by barking. Weighing up to 150 pounds and standing 2 feet at the shoulders, Newfoundlands are described as having “great strength, an instinct to save and a heart of gold.” The breed’s rescue instincts are said to come naturally and they’ve been known to jump off boats to save people who are drowning. Newfies are also physically equipped to be in the water: they have webbed feet and water-repellent coats, which make them buoyant and, hence, good swimmers.
More likely, the dog on the bin Laden operation would have been a smaller German Shepherd with a highly specific mission. Some dogs are trained to silently locate booby traps and concealed enemies such as snipers. The dog’s keen senses of smell and hearing would make him or her far more effective at detecting these dangers than humans. The best scout dogs are described as having a disposition between docile tracking dogs and aggressive attack dogs.
Contemporary dogs in military roles are also often referred to as police dogs, or, in the United States, as a Military Working Dog (MWD) or K-9. Their roles are varied, though they are rarely used in front-line missions.
Traditionally, the most common breed for these military-type operations has been the German Shepherd. In recent years, there’s been a shift to smaller dogs of more resilient breeds such as the Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd. These dogs are said to have keener senses of smell for detection work and patrolling. Today, all MWDs are paired with a single individual after their training. This person is called a handler. While a handler usually won’t stay with one dog for the length of either’s career, usually a handler will stay partnered with a dog for at least a year, and sometimes much longer.
Change has also come in legislature for the benefit of the canines. Prior to 2000, older war dogs were required to be euthanized. Thanks to a new law, retired military dogs may now be adopted, the first of which was a dog named Lex, whose handler was killed in Iraq.
In the 1970s, the US Air Force included over 1,600 dogs worldwide. Today, personnel cutbacks have reduced USAF dog teams to approximately 530 dogs who are stationed throughout the world. Most dogs who operate in these roles are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the only United States facility that currently trains dogs for military use.
Global Animal is working to get additional details surrounding the dog in the bin Laden mission and will report as soon as we learn more.