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DHA Spearheads Effort for Working Dog Research Collaboration

Image of Picture of three different dogs. Bagzi, Shelton, and Batman (left to right), 647th Security Forces military working dogs, take a break from training at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, May 7, 2021. All three MWDs work as patrol explosive detection dogs and are trained to detect the presence of improvised explosive devices by smell (Photo by: Air Force Airman 1st Class Makensie Cooper, 15th Wing).

SERIES: This is the First in a series of articles focused on the Defense Health Agency's role in Military Working Dog care.

Military Working Dogs provide a critical force protection capability and are an important force multiplier for the combatant commander.

The Defense Health Agency's Veterinary Service is at the forefront of the effort to develop and foster working dog knowledge sharing and research collaboration within the Department of Defense, federal and state government agencies, and civilian research and academia communities of interest. Research efforts to evaluate and optimize the health, readiness, and performance of working dogs, including MWDs, is vital to saving the lives of service members and civilians.

To disseminate this research and share ideas, more than 220 people attended the third annual Working Dog Research Forum March 31-April 1, representing working dog research, veterinary care, and employment from the DOD, federal and state governments, civilian academia, laboratories, and agencies.

The forum explored a variety of issues associated with working dogs in the military and civilian sector and their experiences, physical performance, protection, and medical management if wounded on the battlefield.

Presentations included:

  • MWD Fitness Assessment and Physical Capabilities
  • No More Underdogs: Releasing the Full Potential of the MWD though Fitness Assessment and Physical Conditioning
  • Tranexamic Acid in Dogs with Traumatic Bleeding or Spontaneous Hemoabdomens
  • Canine Escape Respirator: Project Update
  • Person-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (PBIED) Detection Evaluation
  • Developing Odor Capture and Delivery Technology and Canine Training Methodologies to Facilitate Canine Detection of Hazardous and Restricted Targets

Army Lt. Col. Sarah Cooper, chief of animal medicine at DHA's Veterinary Service, organized the forum.

"As a veterinarian, I am familiar with the canine combat casualty care and physical conditioning topics," she said. "I found the olfaction research interesting, and it expanded my understanding of the science of olfaction and how complicated developing items like detection training aids can be."

Among the presenters was Army Maj. Brian Farr, a veterinarian who spoke about a qualitative study of explosive detection canines (EDCs) and the knowledge requirements that underpin explosive detection work.

"The gap in knowledge is where and how we're going to assess these dogs" and "the need for solid understanding" of their performance capabilities and limits, Farr said.

He noted that "a lot of the explosive dog world is tacit knowledge" accumulated by trainers, kennel masters, and handlers through experience and that senior leaders "are processing knowledge and passing it on to junior personnel," but these data have not been captured effectively.

His small-scale study asked questions of 17 military, federal and law enforcement agents, agricultural, and private experts about requirements for an effective EDC and how their performance can degrade. The questions were asked during semi-structured interviews, and then hundreds of pages of transcripts were completed and data coded. The "richness of the data" made up somewhat for the small sample size, Farr said.

In the future, Farr and his team hope to do a "quantitative survey of current handlers to determine broad and organization-specific requirements and frequency and range of degrading factors. We need to pull that information out of the heads of handlers and leaders," he said.

Army Lt. Col. Emilee Venn, chief of the Army Public Health Center's Animal Health division, discussed her research on decontamination of working dogs exposed to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) contaminants or in hazardous material (HAZMAT) situations.

Her study of 28 working dogs looked at two methods of decontamination: The standard method with high volumes of water and a study method using low-water volume and 4% chlorhexidine gluconate scrub brushes. The latter method may be more employable in forward positions where water is at a premium.

Venn's study found that the low-water-volume was effective; however, both methods left residue in the dogs' coats despite significant scrubbing, especially in those dogs with longer fur.

Dr. Andrea Henderson, chief of rehabilitation at DOD Working Dog Veterinary Service , described the extreme physical and mental demands placed on working dogs and presented a system of physical and neurological conditioning that could help dogs work at peak efficiency in odor tracking and patrols.

"Neuromuscular training includes exercises that stimulate proprioception, plyometrics, agility, balance, dynamic stability, and core stability," she said.

Assessments and training must be "field-expedient and use readily available equipment, must be repeatable with personnel without significant training, and must assess parameters desirable for MWD performance: speed, cardiovascular endurance/olfactory endurance, power, and balance," she told the forum.

Cooper said the biggest impediment to MWD research efforts is "the lack of dedicated funding or program of record and coordinated research oversight." There is an initiative under way "to look at how to solve this problem for veterinary-related MWD research efforts," she said. "Events like this forum are critical to knowledge-sharing and enable DHA to better serve the health, readiness, and peak performance of MWDs."

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