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May 30, 2012

Canine Military Veterans Deserve the Best We Can Provide Them

Between The HSUS and Humane Society International, we are highly engaged with military issues involving animals―whether it’s humane concerns on military bases stateside; adoption and translocation of animals from abroad; occasional instances of cruelty by individuals; weapons testing and trauma training involving animals; the proposed anti-cruelty provision in the Uniform Code of Military Justice; and the training of dogs to be service animals as a form of therapy for veterans who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or sexual assault.

Military working dogs
Photo: U.S. Army

This year, to better ensure the future of the many four-legged heroes who have been invaluable as bomb detectors or otherwise served in Iraq and Afghanistan, champions in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sponsored the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act to improve current laws bearing on the return of military working dogs whose service is complete.

The House version of the bill (H.R. 4103) introduced by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., was incorporated at the request of Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2013 and passed the House on May 18. The Senate Armed Services Committee also included some language on military working dogs in its NDAA at the request of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, lead sponsor of S. 2134 (the Senate version of the bill).

These legislators are great friends of The HSUS and the cause of protecting animals, and we will be working closely with them to pursue the strongest possible provision on military working dogs in the final House-Senate conference bill.

To be sure, today’s military working dogs are not simply abandoned, as occurred in Vietnam decades ago. Nevertheless, they do not necessarily get the benefits they deserve, specifically transportation home, adoption, and appropriate medical care. In part, this is due to deployment classifications that require a designation of “manpower” or “equipment,” and since dogs cannot be called manpower, they are categorized as equipment, something like “public animals” were in the cavalry and draying age.

The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act redefines military working dogs as “canine members of the armed services,” making it easier to provide for their future medical care and help them find loving homes, all funded by charitable donations. The bill also directs the Secretary of Defense to create a decoration or other recognition for dogs killed in action or who perform an exceptionally meritorious or courageous act in service to the United States, making it possible to recognize their service without encroaching on the distinctive honors accorded to human soldiers who have served with gallantry in the defense of our country.

Currently, the DOD, in accordance with "Robby’s Law"―enacted in 2000―enables military working dogs to be transferred or adopted out to former handlers, law enforcement agencies, or families who are willing and able to take on the responsibility. The DOD adopts out about 300 dogs per year to private homes; about 100 dogs go to law enforcement agencies outside the DOD. The Jones/Blumenthal proposal would help clear the hurdles that have made it difficult to get the dogs home, facilitate adoptions, and help adopters to pay for the health care of retired military working dogs―which, due to work-related health problems, can be expensive.

The NDAA is going to be a highly contested package in the months to come, as the House and Senate versions differ greatly. But there should be no disagreement about the need for this provision. In an era of tight defense spending, it’s worth noting that the measures proposed for military working dogs would cost the Department of Defense and taxpayers nothing.

This legislation does proper justice to the animals who have served alongside our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These heroic and valorous animals are not equipment, but partners in our national security efforts, and they deserve the best we can give them.

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