While we certainly need to remember and thank our human military soldiers on Veteran's Day, we also need to remember our canine soldiers. These amazing animals have saved countless lives. There is a memorial to war dogs in front of the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, honoring those dogs who served in World War II. I recall one story during the unveiling ceremony where one of the veterans told of how the soldiers were dug in their fox holes on a Pacific Island. The dogs alerted to enemy activity during the night, and quietly crawled from fox hole to fox hole to warn the soldiers of an impending attack. This undoubtedly saved many lives. There are also numerous instances of detecting explosive devices and warning soldiers, as well as scouting out caves and tunnels in addition to many other activities.
We all have our most memorable cases. Sometimes it’s hard to pick a most memorable. Maybe it’s a child’s pet that you pulled from the jaws of death. Maybe it’s a seeing eye dog that helped keep a person safe and is literally their lifeline. One of my most memorable cases was a retired military working dog, Layka. I know that some of you have heard the story of Layka before, but it still brings a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat (it’s happening now, darn it!) whenever I think of what this brave soldier, yes soldier, sacrificed for her country and platoon. This amazing dog was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine and she was named the Military Working Dog of the Year. Why? In Afghanistan, soldiers were clearing a village. They believed all the buildings were secure. Layka was sent in to one of the last buildings to make sure all was clear. Unfortunately, one person remained. Layka immediately attacked and was shot point blank with several rounds from an AK-47. She was critically injured. If this brave warrior had not interceded, at least several soldiers would have been shot and possibly killed. She was administered treatment and flown to a facility that could offer better care. Initially the thought was to euthanize her because she was so badly injured, but the soldiers in the platoon refused, pleading their case that because she saved their lives, they wanted to save hers. She underwent hours of surgery, and the decision was made to amputate one of her front legs and treat her other wounds.
Layka recovered, was discharged from the military because of her injuries, and was adopted by her handler. Fast forward a couple years when she was playing with her family one fall day and decided to chase after an ATV. In a freak accident, she injured her remaining front limb. Three very special people, Becky and Barry Switzer and Darrell Wilkerson of Ground Zero Emergency Training Center (Darrell is now with Smoky Mountain Service Dogs), flew Layka to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center on a private plane. After assessing her injuries, it was decided that a partial fusion of her wrist joint would give her the best chance of a functional return, given that she only had three legs. Layka was a challenge due to her high drive, her wariness toward us as strangers, and all the weight bearing forces acting on her single remaining operated forelimb. Layka stayed with us for 3 months during her rehabilitation and when she was discharged with many tears and hugs, she was using her repaired limb better than expected.
Layka was the first-ever military dog honored during a salute to veterans during a football game in Neyland Stadium, November 2015.
Dr. Cindy Otto and co-authors recently wrote an editorial titled Working Dogs: Form and Function which discusses the shortage of working dogs internationally because of the increased demand for a variety of functions, including the military and police forces. It also discusses some of the intense demands on dogs, including harsh environmental demands. I urge you to read this article, available as an open access article (with permission from Dr. Otto) to gain a further appreciation for these dogs and the work that they do. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2019.00351/full