The Washington Post

Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd breeds under spotlight as possible war hero dogs

Metro Transit K-9 officer Greg Novotny patrolling the train platform with Gypsy, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Military dogs have a long and storied history of fighting alongside soldiers (check out this gallery of war dogs at Foreign Policy), but the reliance on man’s best friend has increased as the enemy has increased its reliance on improvised explosive devices. Dogs have a far better track record of quickly finding bombs, the New York Times reports.

The military has kept mum on the breed of the dog, but the military usually has relied on Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds and Labradors in previous missions. The Belgian Malinois is a breed not as well known as the German Shepherd or the Labrador, but it is also trained to herd sheep. All three breeds possess the speed, agility and sense of smell needed in war zones.

In 2010, David Zucchino wrote for the L.A. Times: “The military considers them just pieces of equipment; they even have service numbers tattooed inside their ears.”

The Daily reports: “Their razor-sharp teeth are made from titanium, their body armor can withstand clouds of hot shrapnel, and they’ve been trained to wear oxygen masks for high-altitude skydives into enemy territory.”

Gardiner Harris at the New York Times writes: “Suzanne Belger, president of the American Belgian Malinois Club, said she was hoping the dog was one of her breed ‘and that it did its job and came home safe.’” But Laura Gilbert, corresponding secretary for the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, said she was sure the dog was her breed “because we’re the best!”

Charles County Sheriff's officers from the K-9 unit give a demonstration of with a Belgian Malinois. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Gerry Proctor, an officer at Lackland Air Force base in the dog training division, where the dog was trained, took questions at 1 p.m. on the Washington Post Conversations site about the training process for these dogs, what they can do and why having a military dog was valuable to the Navy SEALs while taking down Osama bin Laden.

Update: Which breed wins as coolest breed of the day may still be up for debate, but in terms of smarts, this story has the odds heavily stacked in the Belgian Malinois’s favor. Mia, a puppy, survived a house fire last week by opening four doors on her own and hiding in a basement bathtub that had filled with the water from firefighters’s hoses. Pretty impressive.

Update II: Here’s some of Proctor’s questions and answers:

Question: What exactly does a dog do on a mission like this?

Answer:  It depends.  It could be a patrol dog that can go into a room and find people in that room.  It could track down people fleeing, or it could be as simple as protecting its handlers or the people on that mission. 

 Question: Navy SEALS' dog: Sniffing Osama bin Laden? How?

 Answer: Dogs' sense of smell is about like peoples sense of vision in that we can detect a broad spectrum in a single color, they can do that through scent.  We see those subtle differences in tone, shade, and intensity.  It could pick up an artifact that we may have had from bin Laden and that scent, and then track that scent.

Question: How close do the trainers get to the dogs emotionally? How do the trainers deal with the injuries or deaths of their canine partners?

Answer: Actually, it is just like everything else.  It depends on the individual.  But I have never known a handler that said they didn't have a close significant bond with their dog.  These people aren't put into this program, they ask to be part of it.  So injury and death of a dog is, obviously, a traumatic emotional experience for the handler as well.

Question: Do the dogs recognize when they are in combat vs. training? Or is it usually just a game for them? Can they sense tension or stress from the soldiers?

Answer: Dogs don't have the same perspective that a human would, and for a dog, it's doing what it likes to do - which is obey the handler and get rewarded. 

 Question: How good are dogs at sniffing bombs, and are dogs "ahead of the technology", meaning, are they still able to sniff out bombs after new hiding techniques are developed?

Answer: There is no technology that can replace a dog for its sense of smell.  Mechanical means are only about 50 percent effective, and the dogs have to certify at 95 percent effective.  I'm not sure what hiding techniques you're talking about, but like I said, their smelling is like how we see color; it's very, very specific.

Question: Do dogs go on just about every mission or is it mission specific? Basically, how often do the dogs participate in these types of missions?

Answer: The answer to that is no because there are only so many dogs so they have to deploy them like any other weapons system would be used - not randomly, but for a specific task. 

Question: What happens to military dogs when they become injured or too old for "active duty." They technically belong to the military, correct? So it's not like handlers could just take them home and keep them there. 

Answer: We try and adopt our dogs out.  Here is the link for more info on adopting our dogs.

Question: Are Malinois' suitable for family life?

 Answer: Absolutely! They are very friendly, trainable dogs.  They happen to have capabilities the military need as well, like they are very trainable.  They are very eager to please their handler, so they know what their boundaries are and react well to training.  They are brave dogs as well.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified David Zucchino as a Post writer. He works for the L.A. Times. I apologize for the mistake!


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