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What it takes to become a U.S. Special Forces dog

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of a military dog that played a role in the capture of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Belgian Malinois, reportedly a female named Conan, chased down al-Baghdadi alongside others in a tunnel in Syria and was wounded when Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest (killing himself and his three young children).

"Our K-9, as they call — I call it a dog, a beautiful dog, a talented dog — was injured and brought back," Trump said during a press conference on Sunday.

The heroic tale is the latest addition to U.S. military lore involving canines serving critical roles to overseas missions. These dogs are frequently involved in high-level special operation missions, especially involving explosive detection, as well as attacking enemies. That kind of work requires relevant resources and training.

Brian, a puppy with the Master Sgt. Steve Kaun, Air Force Military Working Dog Program Manager. (Source: 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs)

‘Around $50K to procure, train and ship to the field’

All military working dogs that work for the Department of Defense, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government agencies are trained by the 341st Training Squadron in Texas, which is dubbed the “Gateway to K-9.”

“On average a military working dog coming out of the 341st Training Squadron costs around $50K to procure, train, and ship to the field,” Major Matthew Kowalski, the commander of the 341st Training Squadron, told Yahoo Finance. “Our units budget for the procurement of quality dogs and their [training] was $4M last year. In addition to the training of the dogs, we also operate the training of all canine handlers, trainers and kennel masters. In fiscal year 2019 we graduated 322 full qualified dogs and over 600 canine personnel.”

One breed in particular stands out: The Belgian Malinois.

The breed, which was used in the al-Baghdadi mission, is one which has a “high activity level, strong working drive,… [is] loyal, devoted and courageous, [and] they bond strongly with their owners or handlers which make them excellent watchdogs,” the American Kennel Club told Yahoo Finance. “They excel as military working dogs and have exceptional strength and stamina.”

A Malinois called Cairo was also part of the raid in 2011 when U.S. forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Chips, the mongrel dog who received a Silver Star for heroism in the invasion of Sicily, gets a friendly pat from William Wilson, Railway Express Co. employee, as he arrived in New York City this morning on his way home to Pleasantville, N.Y.

Dogs are ‘champion’ bomb detectors

Dogs like Conan and Cairo have been part of the military since as early as during World War II.

One of the earliest military working dogs who became a hero was Chips, a German shepherd-husky-collie mix. In 1943, during the Allied invasion of Sicily, Chips had quickly reacted to machine gun fire and attacked an Italian soldier “chomping at his throat and arms.” He was only lightly wounded in the incident. Later in that day, he also detected 10 enemy soldiers, who were captured.

Dogs serve as “champions among bomb detectors,” former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in his book, “Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon.” “Their remarkable ability to identify even faint odors has been honed through evolution over thousands of generations, and experts at DARPA tell [him] that it will be a long time before any high-tech sensor can match it.”

In his capacity as acquisition czar at the Pentagon, Carter found that “[w]hen warfighters in Afghanistan demanded military working dogs in unprecedented numbers,” he had turned to dog breeders and Pentagon buyers to understand the various capabilities of the different breeds of dogs.

A U.S. army soldier trains a sniffer dog to detect explosive devices at Qayyara airbase west of Mosul, Iraq, August 10, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

Dogs were ‘high-priority’ for overseas forces

The other type of dogs used in Afghanistan, Carter found, were “attack dogs that accompany guard forces and will fiercely engage with threatening individuals when commanded to do so by their handlers.”

Carter added that “acquiring enough dogs to supply the needs of our overseas forces is a high-priority challenge” which the Pentagon solved by importing suitable breeds.

But the Pentagon didn’t do the training, though: “The breeders themselves do most of the training, preparing the dogs to perform up to standards and specifications that we set for them.”

As for Conan, despite being slightly wounded by the denotation, she was “fully recovering” and had returned to duty with her handler, the Pentagon confirmed.

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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