Ringo, an impeccably trained military working dog (MWD) didn’t know what to do with himself when Uncle Sam thanked him for a job well done and waved goodbye as the 9-year-old Belgian Malinois headed off to enjoy retirement.
Of course, it isn’t that easy for a service member to leave the military. There are forms and procedures.
Ringo’s transition to civilian life began long before his ride arrived to pick him up and transport him from San Diego to his new family in Colorado. He went to chow, showered, got brushed and enjoyed a bone for good behavior. All in a day’s work for the pooch—except it was the first bone he’d had in all his years of service to his country. It can be assumed that may have been the sweetest treat in all of Dogdom.
And then it was off to his new home, a soft bed and the good life.
As it happened, Ringo’s new home was just a pit stop. He was a beloved member of his new family, but a family medical issue made it necessary to rehome him.
Enter Doug and Pam Davis of Traverse City, Michigan.
Doug is a Vietnam veteran who has loving memories of his combat buddies, MWD Storm, with whom he walked many a lonely night patrol in Phu Cat, Vietnam, and MWD Bullet, who stood post with him at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
There are few pictures of either dog, despite Doug’s fondness for them.
“Everybody said, ‘Why don’t you have any pictures of what you did?’” he said. “And my canned answer is, if you took a picture at 3 a.m. … with a flash … you wouldn’t be around long.”
Despite persistent requests from his kids, the Davis family hadn’t had a dog since Doug left the service in 1970. By 2008, the kids were grown and Doug felt compelled to pay forward what his MWDs had done for him.
“You know … any handler that was over there (Vietnam), their dog was the only reason they came back,” he said. “So we ended up with Ringo.
With gratitude driving them, Doug and Pam headed for Denver. The road trip from Michigan was so long it required overnight stays to and from Colorado. But the trip home offered insight into their new pet.
“I didn’t know what this dog was going to do,” Doug said.
“He was scared,” Pam said. “He jumped on the bed …”
“And then the bed moved. You know how they shake a little bit?” Doug continued.
“And his eyes just … he didn’t know what was going on. Poor guy was just terrified,” Pam concluded.
As it turns out, Ringo was afraid of the crate Doug had set up, but the bed had seemed safe.
As Doug continued his regular work schedule, it was Pam who watched as Ringo found balance between work and play.
“I think the biggest adjustment was … they’ve been so used to being with people—their handlers and the people in the kennels—they don’t like being alone,” Pam said. “Wherever you go, they’re right on your heel.”
Pam quickly learned how devoted these dogs are to their people. Ringo, used to protecting his handler—now effectively Pam—woke from a nap and thought Pam was missing. He panicked until he found her safe.
Another concern for the couple was their 3-year-old grandson, Jacob. “At the time, our grandson and his mother were living with us … and we didn’t know how [Ringo] would react to a young boy,” Pam said. “They just hit it off.”
Aside from keeping tabs on his people and clearing rooms when he entered, Ringo seemed to have left military life behind him. There was just one thing that continued to vex him: Doc the cat.
“The cat was a big deal,” Doug said, adding that it resembled a skunk Ringo had encountered in Colorado.
The Davises’ black and white house cat so closely resembled a skunk in size and color that Ringo spent some time on a leash upon arriving in Michigan—just until the humans could be sure the pets could get along without Doc becoming an hors d’oeuvre.
Sadly, Ringo—who had been described as a 3-year-old in a 9-year-old’s body— passed away the year after he came to live with the Davises.
“I think one of the things people have to realize is that if you adopt an older dog, their life expectancy is only maybe two or three years … and you think, ‘Oh, I can do it,’ but it’s heartbreaking,” Doug said.
Despite hesitation over adopting another MWD, Doug wasn’t given a choice about welcoming another into his home.
Debbie Kandoll, a military spouse with a soft spot for our canine troops, had brought Ringo and the Davises together. She knew Remmy, a Dutch shepherd, and the couple would be another good match.
“Debbie said, ‘Well, you’re going to get another dog,’” Doug said. “Pam and I both said, you know, we just can’t go through that pain again. And a few months later, she called and said, ‘I’ve got you a dog. I’m bringing him to you.’”
Remmy isn’t just any working dog, either. Like Ringo, he had no idea what a doorbell was. Unlike Ringo, the Taliban had a bounty on his snout.
The former MWD spent four years in Afghanistan with handler Dan Traeder, a former Army special operator. About two years in, their Humvee hit an IED and Remmy worked with a different handler until Dan recovered and they reunited.
“This guy saved my life more times than you can ever imagine,” Traeder said, adding Remmy is credited with at least 11 combat bites—the number of Taliban he helped capture. That record earned him special attention from the enemy.
“[Remmy and Traeder] were effective enough by the first year, there was a $10,000 reward for the team,” Doug said.
Traeder described him as courageous and “a better soldier than me.”
“I’m basically a big, dumb goof that was lucky enough to stumble into a dog that had more talent than I did,” Traeder said, adding he admired Remmy’s bravery. “I always had a sense he knew when he got out of the truck to search … He knew what he was doing. It would have been very easy … to get to an area and say, ‘You know what? Maybe we don’t need to search this. … Let’s go back. Let’s play it safe.’ But his getting out of the kennel and his stepping forward always gave me courage. His … never once failing to answer that call, made me answer the call, made me a better soldier and made me take it to the bad guys.
“Everybody always said, ‘If I could have a toaster that would search in front of me, I’d do it,’ but the fact is, the toaster wouldn’t have inspired anybody [and it] wouldn’t have provided the love and affection he did.”
Ringo and Remmy, special in their own rights, are by no means alone.
Kandoll has worked to help find MWDs retirement homes ever since she adopted MWD Benny, a German shepherd, in 2008. Her husband, Mike, was in the Air Force and about to deploy and a well-behaved dog would be good company. Little did she know where that decision would lead.
Benny, a former narcotics detection and military K9 patrol dog, spent his retirement with Kandoll demonstrating his exceptional obedience and unconditional love to schoolchildren.
To date, Kandoll, a Spanish teacher turned flight attendant, has welcomed four MWDs into her home.
She realized early on that some retired military dogs weren’t easy to adopt. Though MWDs come home from the front lines, their home bases might be overseas. While they might have homes waiting for them in the States, the cost to get them here was more than $2,000 and out of reach for most. The military has no provisions to transport these dogs, so Kandoll found a solution. She began fundraising efforts to help make these seemingly impossible adoptions possible.
She also started militaryworkingdogadoptions.com, a nonprofit organization through which she offered tips on how to adopt a military working dog and worked to rehome MWDs in need.
“We’ve helped, gosh, over 400 dogs in various ways,” she said.
Though Kandoll dissolved the nonprofit in September, she has left the website with its valuable information available. That doesn’t mean she’s done helping MWDs, though. She’s simply sharing her knowledge with United States War Dog Association to help get MWDs home from their overseas locations.
She said there are things those considering a military working dog adoption should understand before jumping in.
“They need to have some sort of big dog experience,” Kandoll said. “If they’re willing to take the lead, the dog is willing to follow. That’s probably the number one thing.
“They need to realize it doesn’t matter how many dogs they have or how much property they have. What matters is the quality of time they’re going to spend. If they’re going to be gone for 12 hours a day and expect the dog to be in the house alone, that’s pretty cruel. The dog is used to being and doing. The more the dog can come and be and do, the happier the dog is, because … in the dog’s mind, it’s all about you.”
That’s the ethos that sustained the dogs during their working career, she said.
“They’re not just dogs. You can’t treat them like some people treat dogs,” Kandoll said. “They’re humans. They’re human warriors in fur, basically.”
Additionally, if you do choose to adopt an MWD, be ready to help them adjust to life as a pet, she said, adding these aren’t typical dogs.
“They don’t bark at the same stimuli that other dogs do. They don’t know what a doorbell is. They don’t know what a trash can in a house is. Many of them are not housebroken, but they’re so intelligent, within three days they are.”
These intelligent humans in fur coats were not always able to be adopted as house pets, however. It’s been just more than a decade since the military has been allowed to put these four-legged troops up for adoption.
“So, earlier in the military working dog history, there was no vehicle within the law that allowed us to transfer military working dogs owned by the government to [civilians],” said Collen McGee, chief of public affairs for the 37th Training Wing at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland in Texas. “In 2000, Chapter 153 of Title 10 was changed to allow that to happen, and it’s called the Robby Law.”
The Robby Law, named for MWD Robby who was euthanized after being retired despite his handler’s attempts to adopt him, not only allows for the adoption of retired military working dogs, but prescribes how it’s to be done, McGee said.
“Because we have dogs of all ages and ranges that are ready to retire or not able to pass training or can’t certify … the first option is that we offer that animal to another federal agency or to a local [law] en-forcement agency. They don’t usually like to adopt a dog that’s older than three … because obviously they want to get their time out of the animal, too.”
And when those retired canines are adopted, the expectation is they will enjoy the rest of their years as pets. “If somebody (a civilian) is going to adopt that dog, they cannot put it to work and they have to sign an agreement for that. The law is very clear that [it’s] time for the dog to retire.”
The next priority after federal and law enforcement agencies is the former handler, which McGee calls a win-win. “The handler’s been trained on that dog’s techniques—they’ve learned from the same book—and they understand each other.”
Currently, this is the scenario in 95 percent of the MWD adoptions, though McGee said that doesn’t mean there aren’t dogs left for interested and qualified civilians to adopt—especially if you’ll consider a puppy.
“In the case of a puppy, like the ones we breed here [in Texas] … some are just genetically inclined to be couch puppies,” she said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be. You can’t make them find anything. They just want to play and be pet.”
If this is the case, their foster parents, who are considered their first handlers, have the opportunity to adopt the dog.
All dogs have to pass tests to make sure they’re suited for family life, regardless of who’s adopting—a former handler or a civilian. Consequently, the potential adopters are carefully screened to make sure a particular pooch is appropriate for their family and housing arrangement.
“It’s really, what’s the best interest for the dog. If the dog has arthritis, it wouldn’t be a good idea to put that dog in a family home where there are a lot of stairs that dog would have to climb,” McGee said. “If a dog is maybe a little bit aggressive toward other dogs—and some dogs are and it’s not necessarily a condition of being a military working dog—then we want to make sure they’re going to a home where they’re going to be a single-dog family.”
Small children and military working dogs don’t always mix well so McGee said that’s also taken into consideration. “We want them to have a quality of life [of ] a pet,” she said.
“We also have to check and make sure that dog is safe to adopt out, and that’s another part of our program.”
Pet parents adopting an MWD can expect to come home with a Belgian Malinois, a shepherd or Lab—the three types the MWD program breeds. They should be aware that, while the military will spay or neuter the dog and provide a 30-day supply of any medication it’s taking, that is where the military’s responsibility ends.
“If a dog has got some serious health issues—because that happens with age— then we want to make sure that whoever is adopting them can provide the same level of care they were getting,” McGee said. “That doesn’t mean the individual [necessarily] has to pay out. There are a ton of great organizations that have stepped up to help pay for medical expenses for military working dogs.”
In fact, should a former MWD need to be rehomed for whatever reason, the military is unable to help, but as McGee pointed out, there are organizations that can help. If adopting an MWD sounds intimidating, or keeping the new kid entertained sounds exhausting, McGee assures it’s not.
“There’s going to be a lot of energy … and they’re going to explore a lot,” she said. “They’re going to get into stuff, and the younger they are, the more aggressive they’ll be about that,” she said. “But I’ve also had anecdotal stories of a dog … who adjusted very well to being a couch puppy. As a matter of fact, I heard a story of one who took over the couch.”
If all else fails? “A lot of them have trained with a Kong (a heavy-duty dog toy). … So that’s probably going to be your best piece of play equipment.”
If, like the Davises and Kandoll, you have a desire to pay it forward and bring one of these four-pawed patriots into your home, you can learn more at tinyurl.com/DODdogs.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.