Highly Trained Military Dogs Meet Civilian Life

Military dogs, trained to sniff bombs and tackle militants, now play fetch.

Oct. 21, 2008— -- Laika, a Belgian Malinois, is one of a small group of specially trained dogs who sniff for bombs and tackle militants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They probably have the character of a Navy Seal -- very courageous, very confident, hard, and they'll do what's asked of them," said Chris Jakubin, kennel master at United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Known in the military as a "war dog," Laika used to chase gunmen in the streets of Baghdad. Now she romps around with Chiara Gavin and her 4-year-old son, Ethan, at their home outside Colorado Springs.

After six years of military service, including two tours in Iraq, she has finally settled into her new life in rural America, where she chases sticks that Ethan throws for her and chews on bones.

"She's fantastic, most of the time she's a couch potato," said Chiara Gavin, Ethan's mother.

The Gavin family recently adopted Laika under a new program that allows the military to give retiring working dogs to civilian families. In the past, many of these dogs were euthanized when they finished their military duty.

Retiring dogs are carefully tested, since not all are suited to civilian life. Taint, an 11-year-old "war dog," just doesn't like strangers. When someone approaches him whom he doesn't know, he lunges and snaps aggressively, without provocation.

Chiara Gavin has no doubt that if someone posed a legitimate threat, Laika would switch over to attack mode. When a stranger plays with Chiara's children, Laika hovers close by, just making sure they pose no threat.

What makes a good military working dog is not pure aggression, but the ability to escalate and de-escalate aggressive behavior according to the situation. They typically choose to train either Belgian Malinois, like Laika, or German shepherds, because of their ability to switch between these modes: one minute pouncing on an intruder and the next returning to a calm, but alert state.

"War dogs" are highly valued in the military, relied upon to clear houses first with suspected militants inside. If someone were to turn on the dog with a gun, it would react by jumping at the threat. Many soldiers like to bring these highly trained dogs along to patrol dangerous areas in Iraq; they have saved countless human lives.

"They serve our country the same way we do," said Chiara Gavin. "I think certainly she should be entitled to every benefit we give them."

But jumping in and out of insurgent houses in the 120 degree heat of an Iraqi summer takes its toll. After eight or nine years, most of the dogs are ready to retire. Laika retired early, after injuring ligaments in one of her back legs that was unable to fully heal despite intensive therapy.

They don't give medals to dogs like Laika, but her retirement promises a much easier life, filled with bones and all the time in the world to gnaw and play.