You see working dogs with police and military personnel and may have even come across one on your travels to this Fetch dvm360® conference if you took public transport. But what happens to these heroes when they retire and lose their benefits?
This article was updated on 4/26/22.
Located 5 miles from Washington, DC, Bob Youngblood, chief operations officer and chief financial officer of Old Dominion Animal Health Center in McLean, Virginia, has seen his fair share of working dogs. Youngblood explained that because the center is 2 miles from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters, they have been taking care of government working canines for 40 years, with contracts from the Department of Defense (DOD) and CIA.
Because of the DOD’s proximity to the veterinary clinic, Youngblood saw firsthand the tragedy that struck our country on September 11, 2001. Days after the attack, dogs and handlers that he had grown to know through work came in for treatment, suffering from exhaustion and injuries, digging through rubble looking for survivors. Youngblood also recalled how the emotions expressed in the clinic in the aftermath showed him the deep bond between handlers and canines.
“It was at that moment [in the aftermath] that it clicked. I understood the relationship between canines and their handlers,” Youngblood said. “It’s a different bond than even a pet owner, and I love my pets, but these canines are different. These canines, if in the CIA or military, save these guys’ lives… In Afghanistan, these dogs go out and they’re trying to find minefields to allow people to do their jobs.
“These dogs become more than just their family members....[These dogs are] on the front line. They’re in the Super Bowl, saving people’s lives. All these canines, the things that they do—they jump out of helicopters, they get Osama bin Laden. The handlers trust and rely on their canine partners in a way that I never really quite comprehended until 9/11, and it became painfully obvious.”
Around 6 months after the attacks, the clinic began treating canines for post-trauma injuries. Canines at the DOD were suffering from serious health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and respiratory issues from the jet fuel and the smoke.
While treating these dogs, the cracks in a system that was supposed to support these dogs began to show, according to Youngblood.
A handler informed Youngblood years later that when these dogs are decommissioned, or retired, they lose all their benefits from the government because there is no state or federal program for these canines once they are done working.
After discovering this, Youngblood decided that something had to be done and that he was going to help do it. In 2015, he created a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that aimed to provide free veterinary health care to these canines for the rest of their lives. Now, 7 years later, Youngblood said that Paws of Honor has helped take care of 250 retired canines across 17 states and has given out $2 million in veterinary care.
The care they need
For Captain Kelly Willard, DVM, a 2021 dvm360® Veterinary Heroes honoree, the care for these military dogs hits very close to home. In 2012, Willard joined the Army Reserve as a veterinarian and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2017 to provide veterinary services. She witnessed the kinds of treatments and serious care needed for these canines’ unique injuries, both physically and mentally.
“I’ll see a lot of paw pad injuries, especially overseas because of the terrain on which they’re working,” Willard said. “They do tend to—in general, stateside, and overseas—have a lot of anxiety that they’re dealing with because of the different situations that they’re put in, and that can lead to mental issues; it can also lead to GI [gastrointestinal] issues, as you know, even on the human side. So then we’re treating vomiting, diarrhea, just kind of a lot of your normal, typical things.”
These dogs also often face other unique challenges during their recovery. Willard explained that for working canines, rest and recovery is hard for them to do. Because they are trained and accustomed to move around with a lot of activity, it is a struggle to keep them down enough to help them heal.
“They’re smart, busy, and anytime they need surgery, whether it’s a gunshot wound or laceration repair, something along those lines, it’s really hard to keep them rested and healed,” she said.
“Then we also don’t want medications in their systems that’s going to linger or decrease their sense of smell. So when we put them back out to work, we want to know that they’re safe.”
When these working dogs return to the United States and eventually retire, their medical expenses tend to increase due to injuries that were suffered overseas. With retirement, however, comes the loss of benefits, and with a loss of benefits come medical expenses that can be hard to pay. Along with the injuries endured, these canines also face long-term effects of their surroundings, wherever they were stationed.
According to Craig Felton, DVM, medical director at Old Dominion Animal Health Center, some of the breeds that are typically working dogs such as German shepherds are prone to certain kinds of cancers. Felton explained that because of where these animals are stationed, they can be exposed to chemicals that increase their risks of developing cancer.
“We find a German shepherd that has a mass on his shoulder. We take an x-ray because he’s limping, and he has osteosarcoma,” Felton said. “And so we’ve had cases where we have gone ahead and worked them up so that we [diagnose the] stage their cancer is in. We go ahead and perform an amputation, and then we set them up with chemotherapy with an oncologist. And so those things cost, you know, tens of thousands of dollars from the time that you start with the early diagnostics to the time that you’re doing the surgery and finally onto oncology.”
When these animals are retired, they face 2 options: either they are adopted or humanely euthanized. Most handlers choose to keep these dogs but then face medical bills and expenses that they did not have to worry about while the dog was in the service.
Paws of Honor is striving to help all retired working dogs get the care that they need. Through fundraising, donations, and veterinary professionals across the country volunteering their time and expertise, the organization is making sure the heroes on both ends of the leash are supported.