Sending dogs to war is a practice almost as old as war itself. From ancient Egyptians to Spanish Conquistadors, dogs have fought alongside their human companions literally for centuries. Even today, thousands of dogs are sent overseas every year to protect our country as the furriest members of our armed forces. With their superior sensory abilities, unparalleled vigilance and fierce loyalty (not to mention fuzzy adorableness) these four-legged heroes have played a critical role in aiding our soldiers both on and off the battlefield.
They say all is fair in love and war, but if you’re a dog lover, as I am, what I’m about to tell you may seem anything but. Under current law, military service dogs are classified as equipment. Callousness aside (not to mention the personal offense I take on behalf of my own pup) the classification makes it a financial and bureaucratic nightmare to bring retired war dogs back home. Not for lack of trying on the part of veteran war dog handlers, many dogs are abandoned in the countries in which they served, and with an estimated 200,000 military working dogs serving, it’s no wonder veteran’s groups and animal welfare organizations are teaming up to bring our war dogs home.
Earlier this week, the San Antonio-based Petco Foundation announced a $250,000 grant to the United States War Dogs Association that would help veteran war dog handlers pay to transport their dogs home and give the soldiers an opportunity to adopt the dogs as their own. Petco, which has contributed over $125 million to lifesaving animal welfare programs since its inception, said the funds would also go toward rehabilitating retiring military dogs and providing medical care for dogs still serving overseas.
Great news for veteran war dogs, no doubt—this effort goes far beyond simple animal welfare, with significant implications for the well-being of our veteran men and women.
According to the Pentagon, more than 155,000 troops experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And while the therapeutic benefits of owning a dog are widely accepted, there is mounting evidence—both anecdotal and scientific—that interacting with dogs can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and provide critical emotional support for sufferers of PTSD.
Man’s best friend, indeed. For all the tactical military support war dogs provide, their capacity for comfort endures even after the fighting has stopped.
Commenting on the Petco grant, Ron Aiello, president of U.S. War Dogs said, “there’s a bond that forms from the moment you meet your dog. You can almost read each other’s minds. It’s a special bond that doesn’t end with your tour of duty and we’re so happy to be able to bring these dogs home.”
It’s worth mentioning that while current military protocol regarding war dogs is disappointing at best, there are strong movements within the armed forces to change the way we care for our retired service dogs. Advocates—ranging from military personnel to politicians to animal welfare nonprofits—are coming together to push for new legislation that would ensure all military service dogs are guaranteed the opportunity to be reunited with their handlers.
But until then, the Petco Foundation is stepping up to bring a little bit of peace to America's war veterans—two and four-legged alike.