Military Working Dogs Now Guaranteed a Trip Home With Their Handlers



It may come as a surprise, but until President Obama signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in November, military working dogs who were retired while overseas were sometimes left in the country in which they were deployed, separated from their handlers instead of returning back to the U.S. Sometimes the dogs would be left on the base until they were adopted locally.


A flight medic is hoisted into a medical helicopter with Luca, a Military Working Dog, during a training exercise in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael Needham)

Some handlers were able to return with their dogs, but the handler would have to pay for it out-of-pocket. If the handler couldn’t afford it, that was tough luck. The 2016 NDAA how the armed forces retires its working dogs. Those dogs will now be guaranteed a ride home thanks to a bipartisan amendment, which also allows their handlers to adopt them after their service ends.


US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo

The American Humane Society lobbied for the amendment for a year. Before the bill passed through Congress and was signed by the President, the Society spent thousands of dollars to repatriate retired dogs and reunite them with their handlers. They handled 21 cases in 2015 alone.


Staff Sgt. Philip Mendoza pets his military working dog, Rico, wearing “doggles,” during air assault training aboard a helicopter at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Elizabeth Rissmiller)

The Humane Society estimates there are upwards of 2,500 dogs at work with the U.S. military overseas. They believe the bond between a dog and its handler is a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It’s not just those 2,500 precious canines it’s also their handlers at the other end of the leash,” Dr. Robin Ganzert, CEO of the American Humane Society told the Washington Free Beacon. “When they come back suffering from those invisible wounds of war, we’re hoping that their four legged battle buddy will help them heal from PTS. We know it works. We’ve seen it work.”


Staff Sgt. Erick Martinez, a military dog handler at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, uses an over-the-shoulder carry with his dog, Argo II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Allen Stokes)

The Humane Society’s next push is for ongoing veterinary care for returning canine veterans.

“We also did a call to action to the private sector and said, okay guys, time to step up and provide for veterinary care,” Ganzert said. “We achieved free specialty veterinary care but I’m still calling for free primary care. These handlers that are former-military, a lot of them, to have a battle buddy in their home is a grand expense.”

blake stilwell  Blake Stilwell is a traveler, writer, and adventurer with degrees in design, television & film, and international relations. He is a veteran US Air Force Combat Photojournalist who has worked for ABC News, NBC, and HBO. Blake is based in Hollywood, but often found elsewhere.


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  • ken

    It’s about time you bastards.

  • Fred

    How can they have been left behind? The dogs served honorably, often with valor and are our shipmates.

  • walkerny

    I don’t know who said it, but you can judge a person and a society by how it treats it’s animals.

  • Sgt. Rock

    This is absolutely wonderful and should have been implemented a long time ago.

  • Kenneth George

    This action took 80 years too long to happen, these dogs have been through everything their handlers have been through and deserve the same treatment after their service. How many lives are saved by their keen senses.

  • MSgt B Stengle (Ret)

    I was a sentry dog handler for a small part of my Air Force career 3 decades past AND I never saw combat but still feel we owe these animals better. Although I disagree with Obama on most everything on this he certainly did the right thing. These canines are deserving of the same loyalty they gave / give us (their handlers).

  • Vivian

    Although I think that it is BEYOND awesome that these dogs are coming back, the truth is that they HAVE been coming back, and their handlers have been told that they have first dibs on adopting their dogs, it does not always work that way. I hope that someone, maybe Blake himself, checks this out & writes it up. These dogs, and their handlers, have been to (and through) hell and back, suffer from injuries (physical, mental, and emotional), and from PTSD, and often, no one understands either one as well as the handler his dog and vice versa. One company that is under contract to bring the dogs back, K2 in North Carolina, has done some really wrong things, based on this article:
    I hope that this story goes viral and that people who adopted these dogs are shamed into giving them back to their handlers…or that a law is passed allowing the handlers to file for, and receive, the right to their dogs.