Canine Commando

Why did the military send a dog to help kill Bin Laden?

Elsewhere in Slate, if dogs of war aren’t your thing, maybe you’d appreciate a brief history of the “cats of war.” John Dickerson looks at Obama’s poll numbers  and Dahlia Lithwick says torture is still stupid and wrong. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the  Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage is   here. At Foreign Policy, the man who caught al-Zarqawi explains why water-boarding is not the way to catch bad guys, and Leah Farrall digs deep into how al-Qaida will pick its new chief. Read FP’s complete coverage here.

Two helicopters ferried 79 commandos and one dog into Osama Bin Laden’s compound for Sunday’s successful kill operation. Why did the Pentagon send in a canine with the special forces?

A Navy dog in training

For its sniffer, of course. The special operations forces do have their own canine training program, but it’s very hush-hush. Furthermore, neither the Pentagon nor the White House is talking about the role the dog played in Sunday’s operation, and they haven’t even confirmed that a dog was involved at all. (It seems the information first came from the British tabloid the Sun, but has been reported in more reputable papers. Slate’s Jack Shafer advises readers to maintain a healthy skepticism about such reports.) If Navy SEAL T eam Six did indeed bring along a dog, then we might guess at its role based on the Pentagon’s non-confidential Military Working Dog Program. It’s possible that the commandos brought a specialized search dog, which would have been sent in ahead of the humans to find explosives or people hidden inside the building. Or they might have used a “combat tracker” dog instead—one of a newer class of military animals developed by the Marines just a year ago. These are taught to pick up the scent of a particular individual, usually from a footprint or a few drops of blood, and then follow the trail. If Bin Laden had heard the choppers coming and fled the scene, a combat tracker dog could have been used to track him down as he high-tailed it through the streets of Abbottabad.

The Pentagon currently employs 2,700 dogs, up from the pre-9/11 litter of 1,800. Most of them were purchased in Europe, where a long tradition of using dogs for police and military purposes has created great breeding lines. Before buying a dog, the Pentagon tests the animal for aggression, fear of gunshots, and inclination to search. The Pentagon also gives each dog a thorough physical examination, including X-rays, to confirm that it’s in top condition. For about a decade, the Department of Defense has been trying to establish its own breeding program, out of concern that our supply of top-quality dogs could be choked off in wartime.

When it’s time to send a military working dog on assignment, a handler shows up at the main kennel at Lackland Air Force Base and completes a training course with two separate animals. The one that works better with that particular handler is sent off with him to a new home, while the runner-up goes back into the singles pool. Then the newly minted duo does some more training together before taking the field. There are entirely separate courses of study for general service patrol dogs, specialized search dogs, and combat trackers. Military dogs must take continuing education classes throughout their careers, as their skills tend to erode after about 30 days without practice.

The U.S. military has deployed canines for centuries, but never sent them into combat until about fifty years ago. Military dogs used to be trained for super-aggression. They were used as sentries and guard dogs, and were taught to distrust all humans but the handler. As a result, they couldn’t function as part of a combat team, because they had a habit of biting other members of the unit. Modern war dogs are far more comfortable working with strangers, even those wearing intimidating commando outfits.

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Explainer thanks Gerry Proctor and Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins of the Department of Defense.