Reservist wants retired military K-9s to live a dog's life

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Reservist wants retired military K-9s to live a dog's life

By CHRISTOPHER BAXTER, The Virginian-Pilot
June 22, 2007
[At the end of the Vietnam "Conflict" most if not all the dogs were left behind, only to be slaughtered by the VC and NVA military because they hated the dogs so much. The dogs did a great job at saving our lives... they deserved more from the USA Government! RN].

They can sniff bombs, trace drugs and run down the enemy. But when their time in the service is up or if they are injured, many military working dogs are killed.

Navy reservist Ron Bishop says there's another way: adoption.

"These dogs work, work, work and then get euthanized, " said Bishop, who adopted a military dog in March. "I don't care how old or disabled they are, as long as they're not suffering, I won't turn away a working dog."

According to the Department of Defense Military Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, 281 retired dogs were adopted last year by former handlers and families.

But 116 dogs got the needle, the center said, for having severe or debilitating medical conditions, or being too aggressive for the public.

"These are the same things anyone would euthanize their household pets for," said Timothy Ori, operations director at the dog center. "It's purely to keep the dog from suffering or for public safety."

Bishop disagrees. He's been working with police dogs for 11 years as a full-time K-9 officer in Jonesville, S.C., and contends the military's assessment of dogs is flawed.

"I have a three-legged dog. He's disabled and he's fine," he said. "And if these dogs had handlers, which they all did, they're not too aggressive for trained people like me."

The petty officer first class is stationed in Portsmouth and is part of a Navy security squadron. He's recovering from muscle injuries received while serving in the Middle East and soon hopes to return to his home in South Carolina.

Bishop was visited this week by his dog Ronnie, a military pooch he adopted. Ronnie served several years in the Middle East as well.

"There aren't many people that can say they spent eight years in 130-degree-plus heat," Bishop said. "So no one can say this dog didn't deserve a nice retirement."

The military dog program began in May 1942, when the first nine dogs were trained for service in World War II.

About 2,000 dogs are currently active in the military, according to the center, all trained at Lackland Air Force Base. Each branch of the military is responsible for a part of the dog program.

German shepherds and similar-looking Belgian Malinois are the most common breeds used for service. They have the best combination of smell, speed, strength, intelligence and adaptability to extreme climates.

About 300 dogs are trained annually at Lackland, according to the center. It takes about four months and an average of $13,500 to prepare each of them for work with the military or the Transportation Security Administration, in charge of airport security.

Bottomless drinks, naps in the sun and the occasional dip in the pool.

That's retirement for Bishop's dogs.

Ronnie is the first military working dog Bishop has adopted. He has other pooches as well, including former police and search-and-rescue dogs.

They can swim in the gold fish pond, go for rides in the pick up or play fetch in the back yard.

Bishop lives on 18 acres - or about 14 football fields - in Pauline, S.C. with his wife, Antoinette, and son, Danny.

Antoinette works as a receptionist at the Reidville Road Animal Hospital in nearby Spartanburg. Danny volunteers in the dog kennels.

The family shares its home with three horses, three pigs, three rabbits, three cats and 18 dogs. "We're animal people," Bishop said. "We just feel like every animal deserves a home."

Two years ago, the Bishops founded the National K-9 Enforcement Rescue Organization, or NERO, named after Bishop's seven-year partner dog, Nero.

The group, originally focused on adopting retired police, military and search-and-rescue dogs, now focuses strictly on military dogs, Bishop said. "There are rescues for all kinds of animals out there," he said. "But there aren't many with trained K-9 handlers who can adopt the most aggressive dogs."

He left for the Middle East in August with Embarked Security Detachment 223 out of Atlanta, part of Portsmouth-based Mobile Security Squadron Two. His team protects important people, ships and cargo.

When he wasn't working, Bishop volunteered at the naval base kennel.

"I'm not officially trained by the military to handle the dogs," he said, even though he has civilian K-9 training as a police officer. "But I knew right when I landed that I wanted to volunteer."

During his nearly 200 hours cleaning pens, feeding the dogs and keeping them in shape, Bishop met Ronnie.

An act signed into law in 2000 by President Clinton allows for the adoption of military working dogs.

Ronnie, a Belgian Malinois, patrolled the desert as an explosives and patrol dog with the Fifth Fleet K-9 unit stationed in Bahrain.

When Bishop heard that Ronnie was being retired, he started the adoption process to bring him home. An act signed into law in 2000 by President Clinton allows for the adoption of military working dogs.

The K-9s serve an average of 12 years before being retired and are either reassigned, adopted or euthanized, according to the dog center.

Though most of the dogs euthanized have cancer or suffer from severe pain, Bishop said, the military can prevent putting these dogs down by capping their service.

"I wish they would retire dogs before they were totally disabled and unable to work," he said. "They don't work people until they drop dead, so don't work the dogs until they drop dead."

Once a dog is medically cleared for adoption, it's tested for aggressiveness. Food and toys are given then removed to simulate what might happen in a household with small children, said Ori, of the dog center.

"We put a muzzle on the dog and we'll have the dog come up around people and find out if it's prone to attack or bite someone," Ori said. "If we have a dog doing that, it will fail, and we won't give that dog to the public."

Failure usually means euthanization, he said, though sometimes the dogs are sent to other law enforcement agencies for less stressful work.

But Bishop believes the aggressiveness tests trick the dogs.

"If you put a muzzle on them and break out the bite sleeve, they think it's time to do what they do," he said. "I'm not saying these dogs are for everyone. But there are trained people who can properly care for them."

Bishop's military dog was extremely aggressive at first but learned to adapt to civilian life.

"We have a four-pound Chihuahua that comes and eats out of Ronnie's food bowl while he's standing there," Bishop said. "And this was supposedly one of the baddest dogs around the kennel."

Bishop wants to build a new obstacle course for Ronnie and the other dogs when he returns to South Carolina.

Between paperwork, phone calls and everyday care, the Bishops spend about $1,000 per dog each year. They rely on donated food and equipment, such as dog bowls and carrying crates, to sustain the rescue. The dogs receive free, basic veterinary care from the Reidville animal hospital.

Gifts come by word-of-mouth, he said, or through his Web site, Bishop would like to retire from the police force and work for his organization full time, he said. His goal, one day, is to set up a program to adopt every working dog deemed by the military unsuitable or too aggressive for anyone else.

Until then, he'll keep barking up the chain of command to adopt as many dogs as possible. He's already got his eyes on his next best friend, Dix, an 11-year-old German shepherd who also served in Bahrain.

Reach Christopher Baxter at [email protected]

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