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The Plight of Working Military Dogs

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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Robby, an 11-year-old Belgian malinois, has clearly earned his stripes serving with distinction as a working dog of the U.S. Army and winning three Pentagon championships. Yet he faced a cruel and unjust end. Unless federal law was changed, Robby would eventually be caged and euthanized. Thankfully, President Clinton stepped in to save Robby and other dogs like him.

Clinton signed the congressional bill advocated by animal groups to ensure dogs like Robby can get a secure retirement after serving their country. Previously, hundreds of other military dogs had been barred from being adopted by their handlers when they retired from active duty.

Military Working Dogs Classified As Equipment

The culprit was an arcane section of the 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Services Act that classified military working dogs as ``equipment'' to be discarded when worn out. The law was amended in 1997 to permit federal dog handlers to adopt their dog retirees.

But the law left out dogs like Robby, who was plagued with missing teeth and arthritic joints, which would be used to train new handler recruits and then caged until euthanized. Some military dogs have been caged for as long as a year before they were put down, animal rights organizations have said.

An article about Robby in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, quoted an Army official as saying the military didn't want the dogs adopted because it might be legally liable if the dogs – loose from Army control – attacked anyone.

That rationale struck Rep. Rosco Bartlett (R-Maryland) as ludicrous. ``Why? Are these worthy canines any less deserving of peacefully living out the remainder of their days than other federal working dogs? Clearly not,'' said Bartlett, in a speech to the House about Robby's plight.

Move to Rewrite the Rules

Bartlett, a farmer who owns four dogs, introduced the House version of the bill that would rewrite the rules to let military animals retire with dignity. The measure passed the House on Oct. 11th and the Senate on Oct. 24th.

The military trains its dogs to scout, search buildings, detect explosives and attack when ordered. About 1,800 dogs are in service, mostly German shepherds and Belgian malinoises, which have a life span of about 10 years, said Wright. About 200 have been euthanized each year, she said. The bill stipulates that only former military dog handlers or other law enforcement agency dog handlers can adopt the retiring animals.

Robby's trainer, Shawn Mathey, has said he wants to adopt the unwitting crusader. He could not be reached for further comment.

The U.S. Humane Society, the ASPCA, the Doris Day Animal League and the American Veterinary Medical Association have also backed the legislation.

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