ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- National Dog Day, August 26, celebrates all dogs and acknowledges the roles they play in our lives, whether it’s simply to provide love and comfort, or to keep us safe. Many dogs work selflessly each day to save the lives of humans who may be unaware of the rigorous training they must undergo or the extent of our four-footed guardians’ loyal dedication.
U.S. military working dogs, or MWDs, are an example of these often unsung heroes.
“While it is a myth that our MWDs have official ranks like active-duty service members, they are still recognized as exceptionally valuable members of our military forces.” says Lt. Col. Emilee Venn, a doctor of veterinary medicine and former chief of the APHC Animal Health Division. “Their importance is recognized by ensuring they receive the highest quality veterinary medical care.”
Worldwide responsibility for veterinary care of all U.S. MWDs is provided by the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and follows the guidance set by the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, or DODMWDVS, located at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The APHC Animal Health Division provides technical support to the Army Veterinary Service personnel providing that medical care to MWDs.
“To qualify as an operational MWD, aside from basic obedience skills, the dogs must undergo extensive training for about 120 days,” explains Dr. Andrea Henderson, chief, Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation at the DODMWDVS. “Most MWDs are dual trained for detection, which may include either bomb-sniffing or drug searching, and police patrol duties to keep service members and their families safe from harm.”
Henderson explains that most MWDs are either German Shepherd Dogs or Belgian Malinois because these breeds tend to have the drive and disposition needed for military tasks. Similar breeds can also be found in the program if they have the right drive, focus, engagement, and other behavioral traits.
The DOD MWD Program requires MWDs to be trained for a combination of the above tasks and assigned to a specific unit once they complete their initial training. Because the dogs generally stay with the same unit for the rest of their working life, they are assigned to different human handlers as service members rotate through the unit.
“Unlike family dogs, there is no single permanent person directly responsible for a MWD’s health throughout its entire life.” says Venn. “So all the more reason it is important that we ensure effective use of a permanent health record to track each MWD’s medical history.”
Venn describes the Remote Online Veterinary Record (ROVR), which is a secure electronic veterinary health record system that captures information about MWD veterinary care across their lifecycle. While ROVR continues to be improved and enhanced, Venn and her APHC injury prevention colleagues recognized the system as a possible source of data to more broadly monitor the health of all MWDs, identify trending problems, and prioritize potential health solutions.
“The Army uses data from Soldiers’ medical records to routinely monitor and report types of injuries and risk factors to prioritize injury prevention efforts,” says Dr. Anna Renner, an APHC injury epidemiologist. “Though MWD data is not as standardized as Soldier medical records, we applied similar risk factor analyses using data from ROVR and other MWD databases to demonstrate the benefits of a centralized MWD database.”
The study "Factors Associated with Medical Problems Among Young Non-Deployed U.S. Military Working Dogs," was recently published in the journal of Preventive Veterinary Medicine. This was one of the first public health explorations of ROVR medical data, and uniquely addressed non-combat injuries or medical problems of MWDs. Prior studies have focused primarily on trauma conditions associated with wartime operations.
“We analyzed leading categories of medical problems among 774 non-deployed MWDs and described associated risk factors such as breed, sex, and occupational duty certification,” said Tyson Grier, an APHC health scientist. “Identifying at-risk groups of MWDs should be further evaluated to improve the understanding of these common medical problems along with prevention efforts.”
Venn notes a large number of musculoskeletal injuries occur during training. While many of these are muscle strains and joint damage, one extreme example was Jozo, a MWD stationed here, who broke his leg while out on patrol working in November 2019. He had to have surgery at the Fort Belvoir Veterinary Center to repair his leg and fortunately made a full recovery.
“In general, MWDs are extremely motivated to work,” says Venn. “They are chosen for their high drive and dedication to their trained task. But as with Soldiers, high motivation can be a risk factor for injury.”
As another example, Venn describes her treatment of a Special Forces MWD patient that had accidently jumped off a third story building during training while in pursuit of his target near the roof’s edge. He was in mild shock afterward, but miraculously suffered no serious damage and was back to work in a couple days.
Henderson adds that some medical conditions, such as the musculoskeletal and dermatologic conditions observed in the recent study, are related to the kennel environment, which can be very stressful.
“We’re asking very high-drive dogs to sit still for most of their days in a confined space, and they often develop repetitive behaviors that can be tough on joints and muscle tissue” she says. “Furthermore, if kennel floors are not sanitized, rinsed or dried thoroughly, skin conditions such as contact dermatitis may occur, and dogs can slip and fall on inadequately dried floors.”
Henderson and DODMWDVS colleagues also investigate sudden trends in problematic conditions. As a very recent example, she pointed out that heat-related conditions like heat exhaustion and heat stroke have increased among MWDs this past year. Potential causes included inadequate acclimation to new environments, sudden return to training after periods of deconditioning, and lack of standardized conditioning programs. The DODMWDVS urges leaders to train all personnel thoroughly with respect to warning signs and to emphasize need for adequate ventilation and gradual acclimation of activity.
Henderson and colleagues are also evaluating MWD response to conditioning and the feasibility of incorporating fitness programs into MWD daily training routines. The goal is to reduce their risk of injuries while also improving their performance.
Findings from studies like the recent APHC publication can help promote efforts like these to reduce preventable medical conditions among MWDs. Check out this study on page 15 in the 2020 Army Health of the Force Report .
For more information about the military’s MWD program go to https://www.37trw.af.mil/Units/37th-Training-Group/341st-Training-Squadron/.
The Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.