It is driven to hunt and capture prey. It looks like a leaner, more agile German Shepherd. It has a 270-degree field of vision and the force of its bite equals 1,400 pounds per square inch. It can run 30 miles per hour. It can withstand the heat of the desert and an August day in Washington, D.C. It can smell drugs, bombs and unmarked graves. It’s deadly enough to help take out Osama bin Laden, but gentle enough to push a toddler in a toy car.
Videos courtesy of K9passion.be
Meet the Belgian Malinois, the weapon the White House didn’t use last Friday when Omar J. Gonzales scaled the fence and ran 70 yards to reach the mansion’s unlocked door, where he was finally taken down by an officer inside.
The man appeared to be unarmed — though a search later turned up a knife in his pocket and ammunition in his car — which may explain why he wasn’t taken out by sharpshooters on the roof, who are trained not to shoot unarmed intruders.
By why didn’t White House guards release a specially-trained Malinois? The Secret Service exclusively uses the elite breed on its canine force. After an intruder jumps the fence and triggers the alarm, canine teams are trained to be released within four seconds “to act as a missile, launching in the air to knock the subject down, and then biting an arm or leg if need be to subdue the person until the handler arrives,” The Washington Post reported.
Chasing people down is one thing these dogs, which are also used by the U.S. military, do best. “The best way the dogs are used is that they can chase down anyone,” a military dog handler said of a dog deployed with the Marines in Iraq in 2005. “A Marine might not be able to catch someone, but the dogs will.”
A Belgian Malinois was on hand when a Pokemon fan jumped the White House fence earlier this month.
In June, dogs, including the Malinois and other breeds, started patrolling outside the White House gates — the first time canine agents were deployed by the Secret Service among the general public.
The Secret Service has had a canine team since 1976, when it was created to stop suicide bombers. The dogs train for 20 weeks before they start working and then do eight hours a week of retraining for the rest of their professional lives.
These dogs are no strangers to the front lines.
The U.S. Navy SEALs used a Belgian Malinois named Cairo in Operation Neptune Spear to capture and kill bin Laden. The dog helped secure the perimeter of bin Laden’s compound, sniffing for bombs. Like the rest of the elite force, Cairo was outfitted with a Kevlar vest with harnesses for rappelling and parachuting, a drainage system for waterborne assaults and night-vision goggles.
The mission was a far cry from the early days of military dogs. During World War II, the military asked patriotic citizens to offer up their pets for the “Dogs for Defense” program, an effort Susan Orlean documented in her book “Rin Tin Tin, the Life and the Legend.” A detachment of 125,000 dogs, ranging from Dobermans to poodles, was sent overseas. Some were used as suicide bombers. Some were left behind, others euthanized. Some survived, but were forever changed by the experience.
These days, military working dogs are elite warriors. This training video shows the Belgian Malinois in action, taking down simulated enemy combatants:
Former Navy SEAL Mike Ritland, who now trains dogs for U.S. Special Forces, wrote about training Malinois in his book “Trident K9 Warriors.” The 200-step training program the military uses costs $50,000 per dog. But the investment arguably pays off. According to Ritland, the dogs have an 80 percent success rate detecting explosives, much better than humans or machines. They can also be trained to find narcotics.
Not all Malinois make the cut. According to Ritland, only 1 percent make it into the U.S. Special Forces. “The dogs we deploy have to be unflappable in all circumstances,” he wrote. “They have to perform their activities willingly and with a single-minded purposefulness that few, if any, humans possess.”
The training begins three days after birth. It starts with “biosensor stressing”: stimulating the puppy’s toes with Q-tips, breathing in its face, exposing it to a variety of people and stressful sounds: gunfire, thunder, sirens, motorcycles.
The puppies are taken from their mothers as early as possible, so that the dog will form its primary bond with a human.
If the dogs can tolerate the stressful sounds at increased volume after four weeks, they move on to phase two: learning how to swim. The dogs are taken out in water to where they can no longer see land. This is where some start to panic. “Many of us ended up getting parts of our bodies raked by the thumbs and dewclaws of a panicked swimming dog,” Ritland wrote.
Similar tactics are used to get the dog accustomed to helicopters. “I had to take Castor and grab the handle of his vest, lift him up, and then dangle him out over the lip of the helicopter. He thought I was throwing him out of the bird,” a handler named Aaron said in Ritland’s book. “He freaked out — paws thrashing, his torso twisting. Once I let go of him, and of course he’s tethered to me, he dropped a couple of inches more and then just hung there. He was immediately totally calm, and I imagined he was thinking, ‘Oh, OK, cool. This is fine. Dad’s got me.’ ”
The dogs grow to be loyal and obedient. In service of country and president, they face dangers much like soldiers on the front lines.
In January 2013, a Malinois in the Secret Service died during a security sweep after it fell to its death from the roof of a six-story parking deck near a New Orleans hotel where Vice President Joe Biden was staying. And last year, a Malinois belonging to the U.S.-led International Assistance Security Forces went missing after a December 2013 operation in Afghanistan. The Pentagon confirmed its disappearance after a video of heavily armed Taliban fighters holding the dog on a chain surfaced in February.
“I don’t remember seeing a dog used as a hostage,” Rita Katz — founder of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks insurgent propaganda — told The Washington Post. She said dogs had been featured in propaganda in Iraq when insurgents floated the idea of using them as unsuspecting suicide bombers.
The Malinois may be the first canine soldier taken hostage, but it’s not the first dog to fall into enemy hands. A British ship’s mascot, a purebred English pointer named Judy, became the only dog officially recognized as a prisoner of war in World War II after she was captured by the Japanese when her boat was torpedoed. For three years, she shared maggoty boiled rice with British soldiers in Japanese prison camps, some of whom later credited her with saving their lives.
Judy is one of many dogs lauded by their human partners as war heroes. And like war heroes, dogs can return from combat with mental scars. Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at the Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, told NPR in 2013 that about 50 military working dogs have returned from combat with symptoms of PTSD — and the number is growing.
Though dogs fight like soldiers and suffer like soldiers, they are not always cared for like soldiers. “Congress passed a law last year saying the military may bring back its working dogs to the U.S. to be reunited with their handlers, but it does not say they must be brought back,” NPR reported.