Memorial Day Tribute: Dogs Serving America

In 1793, the U.S. government paid the princely sum of $3 for a dog named Nero. His job was to guard the new U.S. Treasury building, and he was encouraged to attack any unauthorized persons attempting to enter the building at night – which meant everyone but the night watchman.

The sad fact was, there wasn't much to guard in the Treasury because the infant United States was almost bankrupt. Nevertheless, Nero's job was so important that only the night watchman was permitted to feed him. Treasury officials didn't want the dog to be friendly with anyone else.

Officially or unofficially, dogs have served America since the beginning, but the canine's role has changed over the years. Today, they are trained to perform many roles in the military, the federal government and all levels of law enforcement. They perform search and rescue missions; help military and civilian police on patrol; detect bombs and drugs; hunt down criminals; and help investigate cases of arson.

But no matter what job they are assigned or trained for, all dogs in government service – military and civilian – must have the same basic characteristics. Once those are met, individual dogs must meet specific criteria for the jobs they do, whether on patrol, sniffing for explosives, drug detection, or helping with investigations.

These dogs come from many sources, both in the United States and from Europe. Military dogs come exclusively from Europe, and are procured by the 341st Squadron, based at Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas. The squadron is responsible for procuring all dogs for the Department of Defense, as well as the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies.

The military mainly uses three breeds: the German shepherd, the Belgian malinois and the Dutch shepherd. These breeds have proven to be the best because of their keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to different climates.

Law enforcement agencies operate under a different set of conditions. German shepherds are often chosen for patrol work, but they also use Labrador retrievers (for sniffer roles) because they tend to be friendlier. This is why they are often used as guide dogs for the blind. Many of the dogs, in fact, come from guide dog schools. For one reason or another, they were not suited to work with the blind, but their qualities make them excellent in other ways.

Duties of a Military Dog

The basic military working dog no longer serves as a scout with a platoon, as he did in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In those wars, dog scouts entered combat zones to help sniff out the enemy.

Their roles are more in line with their civilian K9 counterparts, patrolling military bases and installations.


All canines are evaluated as potential patrol dogs. They must pass a prey test, which evaluates the dog's natural tendency to chase, bite and carry a moving object. They are taught to ride quietly in patrol vehicles; to find a suspect in a building or open area; to attack, without command, anyone who attacks his handler; to stop an attack on command.

The dog must not show any fear and must not retreat. If startled, the dog must quickly recover his composure without showing aggression (unless so ordered). These duties are so important that any drop in proficiency in any one of these tasks may result in the complete retraining of the dog.

Dogs have a repertoire of responses to choose from: a defensive posture (growling, baring teeth while standing his ground); non-threat bite (the dog bites the sleeve and holds on, without injuring the person); and the threatening bite (the dog's desire to protect himself and his handler).

In addition, dogs must remain confident, still, curious or show little reaction to gunfire, unless so directed by the handler.

Drug and Contraband Detection

The war in Vietnam had the unhealthy side effect of encouraging drug use among the troops. In 1971, the military began training dogs to detect marijuana and other drugs. A good "sniffer" dog must have an excellent retrieve and hunt drive to be accepted into the program. Some can detect a single odor, while others maintain a "library" of smells that they will react to.

Dogs are also employed by U.S. Customs (which has its own facilities to train dogs and their handlers) to find illegal agricultural products coming into the United States. Smuggling illegal foods or grain is a serious crime because the products are not regulated by the government and could be dangerous to use. They also may bring in hazardous diseases that can pose a threat to the environment and livestock (such as foot-and-mouth disease).

Bomb Detection

The British were the first to train dogs to detect bombs. The Irish Republican Army had begun planting bombs in Northern Ireland, and the dogs proved exceptionally capable in finding them.

Impressed, the U.S. Air Force decided to launch its own program in 1971. Officers discovered that the dogs put electronic detection equipment to shame – in a trial run, dogs discovered bombs five out of five times. Technology averaged about three out of five times.

Some dogs are so proficient they can detect the odor concentrations as small as 1 to 2 parts per billion. In several tests, the dogs detected concentrations too small to measure with current equipment.

Dogs were also trained to detect mines, but since the end of the Vietnam War, the military has not trained its own dogs. Private companies currently train mine dogs for the U.S. State Department, which uses them for humanitarian mine-clearing missions around the world.

Duties of a Civilian Police Dog

Civilian police and military duties are very much the same, except there is more emphasis on search and rescue – even people who would rather not be "rescued," such as escaped convicts.

However, not all breeds have the same search capabilities. Labradors and German shepherds were used to search the ruins of the World Trade Center because they are excellent off-leash dogs. They are also good at tracking people in buildings and other urban settings because they can scramble over obstacles more nimbly than other breeds, such as bloodhounds.

But over a wide area, their skills diminish, especially as the trail grows older. For these types of searches, bloodhounds are far superior. While not as agile as other breeds, they can follow a trail for miles, and still pick up the scent of a particular person after days have gone by.

Fire departments have turned to the canine for help in arson investigations. Professionally, these four-legged investigators are called "ignitable liquid detecting dogs." They do exactly what their names imply and are a vital tool in detecting deliberately set fires. Here again, Labradors are usually used because of their friendliness and work ethic.

Their sense of smell helps human investigators pinpoint the location of accelerants at fire scenes, thus reducing the number of samples that need to be collected and tested. Each dog is trained to locate and detect eight different substances used to start fires: gasoline, kerosene, odorless lamp oil, lacquer thinner and lighter fluid. The dogs will pick up on any of these liquids, even if less than a drop has been spilled.