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They are some of the fiercest, most specialized weapons in the U.S. military’s arsenal. They also are in increasingly short supply and carry a high price tag, leaving the Pentagon to fend off the highest bidders around the world.
War dogs—among the military’s most precious resources—can detect scents more than 1,000 times better than any human or equipment, making them ideal for patrols, finding bombs, and chasing down terrorists—most recently the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Despite the military’s reliance on German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador retrievers, it is forced to buy them abroad or from stateside vendors, many of whom also buy the dogs from Europe, because the Defense Department doesn’t have access to an American breeding program that can satisfy the need.
Now, the Senate is nudging the Air Force—which oversees the Defense Department’s military working dog program—to figure out how to breed the dogs domestically to have a secure and stable supply and cut costs.
‘Born and Bred in Europe’
“I was surprised to learn from the Air Force that the vast majority of our working dogs are actually born and bred in Europe, which raises costs and puts us in competition with other countries,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement to Bloomberg Government. “I wanted to do what I could to help establish a strong program to breed working dogs here at home, where we already have an expert training program.”
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is behind a provision in the annual defense policy bill that would back a review of how these dogs are bought. It’s the first step toward buying American, “by assessing what resources are necessary for the Department of Defense to meet increasing demands for military working dogs by supporting American breeders,” Blumenthal said.
The Armed Services Committee wrote in the report accompanying the annual defense authorization bill, S. 4049: “Due to the finite number of breeders overseas, as well as rising market demand, the cost for the Air Force and other agencies to procure whelped military working dogs from Europe is skyrocketing.”
Military rigors and contracting have posed roadblocks for U.S. breeders, often small-business owners unable to absorb the extra cost and time required to navigate the military’s needs and requirements.
Canine experts, including the American Kennel Club, have pushed the concept of a national breeding center as a nucleus designed to sell to the government. Without its own breeding program, the U.S. is forced to pay high prices and compete for a shrinking supply of dogs that aren’t genetically perfect and come with increasing health issues, they argue.
A puppy can cost $5,500 to sometimes as much as $25,000 these days on the open market, where border patrol units, the State Department, and private security firms go for canine talent.
There are about 1,600 active working dogs in the military, but only 10% are bred at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The rest are imports primarily from Central and Eastern Europe, where dog-training culture has deep roots. Military procurement officers make four trips a year to buy European puppies. And about 15% to 25% of the puppies that pass initial muster don’t make it through the rigorous training to become military working dogs.
450 Dogs Per Year
The Air Force budgets $5.3 million to buy dogs each year, and the 341st training squadron at Lackland has an operating budget of about $8 million. The Air Force buys about 450 dogs a year.
Last year, the Air Force bought 427 dogs—214 from domestic vendors and 213 from overseas. Of the 214 dogs bought domestically, all but 20 were born in Europe, according to data provided by Laura Andrews, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Buying a dog overseas costs about $5,500, and in the U.S. about $9,000, according to the Air Force’s data. Often civilian vendors go to the same overseas markets and then resell the dogs to the Defense Department with an average markup of $3,000. In addition, it costs $60,000 to train one dog, the Air Force said.
“We make every effort to maximize our domestic procurement, but the majority of dogs are purchased as adults from vendors in Europe,” Andrews said in an e-mail. “There simply is no market value to a vendor in operating a breeding program to the capacity needed to meet the demands” of the Defense Department.
Dogs have played a role in battle since ancient times, when Romans sent dogs with razor sharp collars into the enemies’ ranks. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and an increase in terrorism around the world, dogs have become increasingly important to modern military operations, serving as sentries and bomb sniffers to reduce potential human casualties. That has the U.S. competing with cash-rich Middle Eastern nations and other countries for a finite number of specially trained dogs, most of them from Europe.
Puppies enter training for a K-9 unit at Lackland at around 18 months, starting with obedience work and drug and/or bomb detection. Families adopt dogs that fail to make the cut.
Some of the dogs get a second round of training in how to patrol, detain an enemy, and attack. A dual-purpose dog spends about 120 days completing both training cycles.
Breeding dogs in the U.S., “is a really valuable thing to consider because we do not want to outsource national security,” said Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who is one of the minds behind creating a national breeding cooperative.
It’s the initial investment “that people have a hard time justifying,” even though in the long-run a co-op would provide healthier, more stable dogs able to start work earlier and keep working longer, Otto said.
A cooperative would bring together organizations and breeders to produce healthy, purpose-bred dogs, Otto co-wrote in a 2018 paper for the Frontiers in Veterinary Science journal. Success would hinge on private breeders and groups retaining ownership of the breeding stock to ensure a lineage of genetically advanced dogs, especially during times of scarce government funding, they wrote.
Security ‘Shouldn’t Be Outsourced’
The American Kennel Club also backs the concept of a national breeding center that would oversee a database of working dogs, a semen bank, genetic evaluations, and standards for the selection of breeding stock. A national semen bank would capture the genetic potential of current high performing dogs, said Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations at the AKC.
“U.S. breeders can and should be a source of military working dogs,” Goffe said. “These dogs represent a crucial component of public safety and security that shouldn’t be outsourced overseas.”
The coronavirus pandemic that prevented agencies from traveling overseas to obtain new dogs this year illustrates just one reason the U.S. needs to be able to rely on domestic sources for dogs, added Goffe.
But breeding high-quality dogs is expensive and intensive.
Incentives ‘Hugely Askew’
Government agencies looking for explosives-detection dogs typically don’t work with puppies younger than 10 months, and for the military it’s often 18 months. That leaves breeders to raise puppies for longer while preparing them for advanced training, an expensive process.
Then there’s no guarantee the puppy will be purchased by the government, said Goffe.
“There are excellent breeders here in the U.S who would like to supply these dogs, but the incentives are hugely askew,” Goffe said in an email. “The process is intimidating, typically seeks a large number of dogs at one time that a breeder working alone couldn’t provide and offers very little incentive for dog breeders.”
Breeders can sell the same puppy at eight weeks to a home for about the same price the government currently pays, she said.
‘Total Cost Per Dog Deployed’
While the cost of buying and training military dogs is known, the full lifetime expenses of military K-9 operations are more elusive.
Blumenthal is pushing for the military work program to have its own dedicated accounting line in the Defense Department’s budget to “more accurately capture the facility and resource requirements necessary to successfully and efficiently provide military working dogs to all the military services,” according to the defense authorization report.
House and Senate negotiators still have to settle on a final version of the defense authorization bill. The House version, H.R. 6395, didn’t contain similar language. The legislation must be enacted by the end of December to avoid expiring policies and pay authorizations.
The American Kennel Club has been pressing for more transparency of the actual cost per deployed dog, especially if that dog comes from overseas.
“If we can know what the real, total cost per dog deployed is, and that price can be reflected in a fair price offered to U.S. breeders for a well-bred and -raised dog from the U.S., we believe the incentives issue can be addressed,” Goffe said in an e-mail.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org