Commando Dog: Osama bin Laden's four-legged foe

May 05, 2011

Navy SEALs may have taken down Osama bin Laden, but not without a fierce four-legged friend by their side. Accompanying the SEAL's was a dog, whose breed is speculated to be either German shepherd or Belgian Malinois. Gerry Proctor, an officer at Lackland Air Force Base where the dog was trained, answered questions about the training process for these dogs, what they can do and why having a military dog was valuable to the Navy SEALs while taking down Osama bin Laden.

Read today's blog post: Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd breeds under spotlight as possible war hero dogs

Hi everyone! Thanks for chatting with me today.  I'm ready to answer your questions.  I'll answer as many as I can.

What exactly does a dog do on a mission like this?

It depends.  It could be a patrol dog that can go into a room and find people in that room.  It could track down people fleeing, or it could be as simple as protecting its handlers or the people on that mission. 

How do dogs go down on helicopter ropes with soldiers, like the dog when they captured Bin Laden?

That is a special forces unique function, so I can't answer that. We don't actually train the dogs to jump out of airplanes.

Are Malinois' suitable for family life?

Absolutely! They are very friendly, trainable dogs.  They happen to have capabilities the military need as well, like they are very trainable.  They are very eager to please their handler, so they know what their boundries are and react well to training.  They are brave dogs as well.

Navy SEALS' DOG: Sniffing Osama bin Laden? How?

Dogs' sense of smell is about like peoples sense of vision in that we can detect a broad spectrum in a single color, they can do that through scent.  We see those subtle differences in tone, shade, and intensity.  It could pick up an artifact that we may have had from bin Laden and that scent, and then track that scent.

What kind of training do these dogs go through to do missions?

It starts out with the dogs in their late adolescent phase and it's just a very routine proceedure.  Teaching a dog one thing, reinforcing that, and then moving onto something else...just like you would train a human!

What breed, age and gender was this MWD hero?

We have no idea what specific dog may be doing any particular mission.  That would be like asking for a guy in Iowa, but you don't know his name.

Where do you get the dogs for training?

We purchase some dogs from recognized breeders and we also have our own breeding programs where we foster them out to families and put them into the training program.

Woof woof woof woof woof woof. Woof woof? Thanks.

Bark, bark!

Thank you, thank your team, hug those dogs.

The handlers and the dogs appreciate the consideration.

Do you make the dogs run in the sand in boots and wet clothes carrying a Zodiac? Only kidding, what is the physical training for these four legged soldiers?

There is none except the dogs are regualry exercised, both physically and mentally.  These dogs are not in kennels.  They exercise a lot.  But no, they don't make them run two miles in under four minutes or that kind of thing.

How close do the trainers get to the dogs emotionally? How do the trainers deal with the injuries or deaths of their canine partners?

Actually, it is just like eveyrthing else.  It depends on the individual.  But I have never known a handler that said they didn't have a close significant bond with their dog.

These people aren't put into this program, they ask to be part of it.  So injury and death of a dog is, obviously, a traumatic emotional experience for the handler as well.

Can you tell me what the capabilities of these dogs are, beyond that of a normal patrol/detector dog?

If you're talking about the special forces dog itself then no, because that is training done by the special forces people.  But at our level, we fundamentally train three types of dogs: patrol, explosives dogs, and combat tracker dogs.

Thank you for taking our questions today. I have read that combat dogs will guard/protect their handler fiercely if that person is injured, so they seem to know when something is wrong. What I want to know is whether they understand that a mission was accomplished? Do they read the body language of the soldiers and relax or lie down? Do they get to participate in the celebration, or are they always "on duty"?

The dogs are very disciplined and they do exactly what the handlerwants it to do - no more, no less.  The dog doesn't think about it, it only responds. 

As far as celebration, the dog has to be fully engaged all the time, whether that's in training or playing. The dog's celebration is the reward for the handler doing what it wanted him/her to do.

Are the dogs female or males? I own a German shepherd- have only owned GSDs since I was a little squirt- so I know they are wicked smart! What is your biggest challange with a GSD or Belgain Malinois? Is it their stubborness? Challanging personalities? Or is it not too bad since they are raised from puppies and dont know any different? Do you keep the dogs when they retire?

All dogs, just like people, have personalities.  We all have different challenges and different motivators.  We generally adopt the dogs out once they retire.

How long does it take to train one of these dogs?

The average is 120 days. 

At what age do you start training? Is there an age limit? Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Generally, once they are out of their adolescent phase, just like a teenager.  We want to train them when they're at their most "moldable" point.

Generally about the 7 month point is when they enter the program.

You mentioned that the dog may have sniffed an article of Bin Laden's that our people have, and then led them to him. Are you saying then that we maintain a scent bank somewhere for the collection and storage of those scent samples?

No, I was only proposing a scenerio on how it could be used.

My 5yo blue merle rough collie girl would like to take him out on a date. She is buying. They can go to a herding trial the first week in June or maybe he can come over and they watch Marmaduke and have Frosty Paws. She can teach him how to work sheep. And sir thank you for all your sacrifices and hard work with these great dogs. A DOD civilian employee

Dogs do not live with their handlers.  The dogs live in kennels. 

In military operations such as this, aren't the dogs seen as more of a tool than a companion? Do you think this will cause controversy with organizations such as the Humane Society of the US or PETA?

Working dogs aren't companions; they have a military purpose. 

Where do military dogs live when they aren't on duty or deployed? Where will this dog live when it is retired?

Dogs don't have off time.  When they're not on duty they live in the kennel.  When it's retired we try to adopt that dog out.  You can find adoption information for our retired dogs here.

Do the dogs recognize when they are in combat vs. training? Or is it usually just a game for them? Can they sense tension or stress from the soldiers?

Dogs don't have the same perspective that a human would, and for a dog, it's doing what it likes to do - which is obey the handler and get rewarded. 

How quickly do these dogs pick-up training? And how long, in general, does training last before a first "mission"?

Generally it's 120 days, but we do wash dogs out of the program.  If they're not making the grade then we adopt them out. 

Articles I've read have speculated that the breed of the dog used for the OBL raid was either a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois. Can the breed be confirmed?

I can't speak to the exact dog, but we train mostly German sheparts and Malinois, but it depends on what the capabilities and traits of the dogs are.

We actually have some of what people would call "muts" that we train.

Would a dog be on the ground?

What would be the alternative?

Why, if the Gov't. is silent about operational details, is this piece of information relevant and how could it display operational details?

Well we're not talking that dog or that mission, so it's not really an issue.

Do they train combat tracker dogs at Lackland? I thought they were doing it in North Carolina. Thanks for the Q&A. i went through the MWD handler course at Lackland a few years back.

We do, those are trained here.

If these dogs are in high risk situations, and suffer deplorable working conditions, aren't they considered more of a tool than a canine companion in missions such as this? Do you think there will be controversy over the treatment of these animals from The Humane Society of the US, or PETA?

How? These dogs are treated better than anybody's dog in the house.  It's a punishable offense in the military to maltreat or mistreat a dog.

How does the training compare to Schutzhund or Mondio Ring training?

Well these dogs are trained to be military working dogs.  They are trained to perform specific military tasks, so I would say that it doesn't compare.

How good are dogs at sniffing bombs, and are dogs "ahead of the technology", meaning, are they still able to sniff out bombs after new hiding techniques are developed?

There is no technology that can replace a dog for its sense of smell.  Mechanical means are only about 50 percent effective, and the dogs have to certify at 95 percent effective.

I'm not sure what hiding techinques you're talking about, but like I said, their smelling is like how we see color; it's very, very specific.

My neighbor has trained his dog to run over to my place, after I leave, and water the plants. If I pull into the driveway before he finishes, he gives me a look that mixes taunting with satisfaction. Is there a sound or something I can do to make him prefer watering his owner's plants more than mine?

You should mind your own garden better so the dog won't feel compelled to go take care of it for you.

What happens to military dogs when they become injured or too old for "active duty." They technically belong to the military, correct? So it's not like handlers could just take them home and keep them there.

We try and adopt our dogs out.  Here is the link for more info on adopting our dogs.

I heard that many law enforcement organizations get their dogs from overseas breeders. Apparently, the breeding facilities do a lot of the training. So K9 handlers learn all the commands in German, because that is what the dogs know. I have always wondered why this is the case. Aren't there American breeders & trainers who could provide the same quality of dogs & training? Thanks.

You're talking about civilian law enforecment, which is a different situation, so I'm not sure I can speak to that. 

How did you discover the Malinois' battle capability? Unlike the German Shepherd, they're a fairly rare breed.

This one I can't answer.  We actually have a phd who is in charge of the breeding program.  There are folks much smarter than me who have the history and background for what to look for in a dog and the breed and genetics.

Do dogs go on just about every mission or is it mission specific? Basically, how often do the dogs participate in these types of missions?

The answer to that is no because there are only so many dogs so they have to deploy them like any other weapons system would be used - not randomly, but for a specific task.

Thanks for being here. I'd like people to know the War Dog Association in NJ will send gift packages to handlers and dogs

Thanks for the kindness!

Has a whole Chapter about combat dogs and zombies. Obviously fictional, but it did make me realize that dogs can be extremely useful in certain combat situations. Thank you for your (and your dogs') service!

Well, we don't train zombies so it's hard to say how it they would interact. Thanks!

I am impressed with the ability of dogs to sniff bombs and other materials as needed. I work in a building that has them. I am wondering what limitations, if any, these dogs have, and I ask hoping they have very few limitations.

They do what they're trained to do, and again they have to maintain a 95 percent accuracy rate to be certified.  So I'm not exactly sure what the limitations are.

Thanks for the questions! We appreciate the interest in the military working dog program.  I hope we've been able to enlighten you a little bit about why these dogs are so important to national security.

In This Chat
Gerry Proctor
Gerry Proctor
Gerry Proctor is the public affairs officer for the 37th Training Wing, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Proctor is responsible for the public relations role for all of the training missions on Lackland including the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School. He has served the U.S. Air Force both in uniform and as a civilian for more than 30 years. His assignments have taken him worldwide reporting military news and creating pathways for civilian media to tell their story.
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