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How DHA Plans to Boost Battlefield Care for Military Working Dogs

Military dog in surgery Army Maj. Renee Krebs, Veterinary Medical Center Europe deputy director and veterinary surgeon, prepares to amputate Military Working Dog Alex's leg. Alex, a MWD with the Army’s 91st Military Police Battalion, 16th Military Police Brigade, was injured in Afghanistan in 2018 and suffered shrapnel wounds to his left leg and back side as well as a broken bone in that same leg. He was medically evacuated to the VMCE, Pulaski Barracks, Germany, for care. After spending more than a week at VMCE, Krebs made the decision to amputate the leg to relieve him of the pain but also to provide a quicker recovery time (Photo by: Ashley Patoka, Regional Health Command Europe).

Alex, a military working dog, was working alongside his handler with an Army military police unit in Afghanistan in 2018 when a nearby insurgent detonated a suicide vest. In shock with severe injuries including a fractured leg, the German Shepard was medically evacuated immediately.

Over the next few weeks, Alex received intensive care and treatment at the Department of Defense’s Veterinary Medical Center Europe in Landstuhl, Germany. Although he recovered well, his wounds were too severe to allow him to return to duty, and Alex was medically retired from the military and adopted.

Alex is just one of the many military working dogs (MWDs) deployed in support of combat operations.

“In FY 2019, nearly 1,000 MWDs deployed to support multiple combat operations,” mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Defense Health Agency (DHA) Veterinary Services Chief Army Col. Nicole Chevalier.

In the last two decades, more than 4,000 MWDs dogs have suffered combat injuries. But detailed information on the dogs’ injuries and treatments were not captured in any existing database, making it difficult to do any research and analysis on those incidents, Chevalier said.

Database Would Improve Care

Tracking that information and creating a comprehensive military working dog trauma registry is a key next step to improving MWD combat casualty care. This would allow military veterinarians and working dog handlers to draw lessons learned and improve the training and medical care provided to these highly trained canine warfighters.

The Defense Health Agency Veterinary Services is currently seeking funding for the MWD trauma registry, which should be operational in late 2021.

“A trauma registry would provide data to inform both evidence-based performance improvement and research efforts to better protect dogs in combat zones. In turn, this will minimize morbidity and mortality rates and reduce lost working days due to illness or injury,” Chevalier said.

Data from the registry might also help in the development of protective equipment.

A registry “would uniformly create an abstract containing vital statistics on a particular dog, the nature of how the dog was injured, and the extent of the injury itself, successful or failed treatments, and outcomes,” she explained.

This is important because “now there is a global shortage of working dogs,” Chevalier said, and they are not easy to replace.

Military dog heading back to the U.S. to be adopted
Alex, a military working dog injured in Afghanistan in 2018, returns to the Veterinary Medical Center Europe for a visit following a leg amputation surgery. Alex’s left leg was badly injured and he was medically evacuated to Veterinary Medical Center Europe for care. Alex recovered in Germany then headed back to the United States to be adopted (Photo by: Ashley Patoka, Regional Health Command Europe).

"These dogs provide critical force protection for the warfighter."

In 2010, a Pentagon task force concluded that the best bomb tracker is a dog, Chevalier added. Using mechanical systems to track down improvised explosive devices resulted in only 50% of IEDS being detected. By contrast, 89% of IEDs were detected by military working dogs.

These canine warfighters improve force protection, mission readiness and lethality because they can find insurgents and weapons caches and protect troops, Chevalier continued.

"Because of the lack of research support to date, even a modest investment to translate key advances in battlefield care for humans to MWDs could yield substantial gains," according to a commentary by the Military Working Dog Trauma Registry Strategic Planning Group published in the November/December 2018 journal "Military Medicine."

K9 Combat Casualty Care Committee

The K9 Combat Casualty Care Committee (K9C4) was officially chartered this year, Chevalier stated, and will operate under the auspices of the DHA Joint Trauma System Defense Committee on Trauma.

The K9C4 will use information from the trauma registry to improve MWD trauma care delivery through development of clinical practice guidelines and informing training and education initiatives for health care providers.

Two forms that will populate the DOD Military Working Dog Trauma Registry are similar to those used for human warfighters. They are DD Form 3073, "Canine Tactical Combat Casualty Care Card," and DD Form 3074, "Canine Treatment and Resuscitation Record." These forms were recently published by DHA.

The American Veterinary Medicine Association supports the creation of the registry.

Another way to help MWDs would be new developments in battlefield treatment, explained Army Lt. Col. Sarah Cooper, the chief of Animal Medicine at the DHA. Veterinary Services is working to have canine blood products available on the battlefield to more quickly treat injured dogs.

"The MWD Trauma Registry, K9C4, and canine blood products on the battlefield are all efforts underway to enhance protection and improve outcomes for MWDs," Cooper said.

"Data from the [DOD Military Working Dog Trauma Registry] will be used to guide product research and development, training for canine combat casualty care and development of MWD clinical practice guidelines. The goal is to prevent MWDs like Alex from being injured, but if they are injured, to ensure the best possible outcome for these canine warfighters," Cooper said.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who once served as the commander of U.S. forces in U.S. Central Command, said in 2008: "The capability that working dogs bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we can have in our inventory. Our Army would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource."

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