Groups Work to Reunite Military Dogs With Handlers

Monday, 04 Aug 2014 03:56 PM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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The meeting at San Diego's Lindbergh Field between Marine Sgt. Sam Wettstein and Belle was like other reunions, except that Belle ran into his arms on four legs.

While many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have had to part ways, more non-profit organizations are working to reunite returning service members with their canine comrades, reports San Diego's NBC affiliate.

"The solution is simple: military war dogs should be brought home before being retired. We believe this should be the case for all war dogs: contract working and military working dogs. And, their former handlers, who have the strongest bond with these animals, should be given the first chance to adopt," Dr. Robin Ganzert, president of the American Humane Association, said at a July 23 congressional briefing.

He noted that the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013 does authorize the transfer of a retiring military working dog but because the dogs are frequently retired overseas, the transportation costs back to the U.S. often are not covered.

In 2000, the Defense Department created a standard process to secure homes for all excess military working dogs. The program was established in accordance with "Robby Law," which allows military working dogs to be transferred or adopted out to former handlers, law enforcement agencies or families, according to the Pentagon.

"The major barrier is funding, since current policy requires a military war dog flying outside the contiguous United States be escorted by a qualified handler," Douglas Miller, Defense Department canine program manager at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, told USA Today.

Military working dogs first entered the service in March 1942 to serve in the Army's K-9 Corps.

Mission K9 is a non-profit organization that provides monetary, transportation, adoption, and professional assistance for the retired dogs. They were responsible for reuniting Sgt. Wettstein with Belle.

While the Pentagon is working to reunite the dogs with their handlers, the Veterans' Administration is currently involved in a research study to determine how dogs can assist veterans with post-traumatic stress, but does not currently provide service dogs for physical or mental health conditions, including PTSD, according to the VA.

Much of the work, however, is being conducted by non-profits, like Warrior Canine Connection, which was created in 2008 and aims to provide therapy to help veterans reconnect with their families, communities, and each other. The dogs are trained from birth through adulthood for the purpose of aiding returning service members.

The program expanded a year later with the establishment of the Warrior dog-training program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Warrior Transition Brigade. A year later, the program was asked to participate in PTSD and TBI research, treatment, and education at the new National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

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