LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Army and the Air Force have forged a unique partnership to train and care for military dogs who worked in the most dangerous war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. The dogs, who patrol alongside soldiers and sniff out bombs, are trained and treated for their injuries at the Defense Department's new veterinary facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Texas Public Radio's Terry Gildea visited the facility.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
TERRY GILDEA: Here at the Defense Department's Veterinary Service Hospital, members of the Army and the Air Force work together to train and care for all of the dogs sent to some of the most dangerous places in the world. It's a unique partnership, and the new hospital that recently opened at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio is fully equipped to support the program.
Unidentified Woman: Solo(ph), hey. Boy...
HANSEN: Solo is a young male Labrador Retriever, who might have what it takes to be a military working dog. Dr. David Fletcher looks at Solo's x-rays as an assistant tries to wake the dog up after being sedated.
Dr. DAVID FLETCHER (Radiologist, Defense Department's Veterinary Service Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio): Whenever we purchased these dogs, they're initially screened for detection, and you know, do they had the capabilities that we require in a military working dog.
GILDEA: Solo was purchased from a local breeder, and doctors want to make sure he can handle the physical stress of the job. But Dr. Warren Matthew notices that Solo's hip joints aren't quite strong enough, and he could be injured during training. So Solo is rejected from the program.
Dr. WARREN MATTHEW: You got to realize, these are real athletes. Be like you trying out for the NBA, you know, you might last an hour, but these guys have a lot of hard work ahead of them and they've got to start in just prime shape.
GILDEA: Solo will now be returned to his breeder and perhaps sold to a family who can care for him. If he had been accepted, he would have been trained as either a special search dog or learn to sniff out explosives.
Dr. MATTHEW: For most part a lot of dogs that are accepted, especially in the last few years, do end up down range with their hammer.
GILDEA: Down range is slang for deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan where the dogs will work with their human companions. If they're injured, they end up back here for their recovery.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
Disso(ph) is a male Belgian malinois, a breed that looks a little like a German shepherd. He was working in Afghanistan when he collapsed on patrol. Doctors believe he might have some kind of neurological disorder that keeps his hind legs from working properly. But veterinary physical therapist, Kelly Myers says that so far, Disso is responding well to treatment.
Ms. KELLY MYERS(ph) (Veterinary Physical Therapist): This dog showed some improvement within the first few weeks, so that gives us some idea that he can turn around and come back. But how quick that will be, we don't know. It's just like human medicines, sometimes it all depends on the patient and what has happened.
GILDEA: Lieutenant Coronel Lorraine Lynn(ph) is chief of surgery at the Veterinary Hospital. She says dogs come in from Iraq and Afghanistan with all kinds of injuries.
Lieutenant Col LORRAINE HILL (Chief Surgeon, Veterinary Hospital): We've an achilles tendon laceration come in from Iraq. We've had an ankle fracture from Iraq. We've had a gunshot wound, I'm not sure exactly whether he was from Iraq or Afghanistan, that came in just for rehabilitative therapy alone.
GILDEA: There are an estimated 2300 dogs working in the military, and all of them make their way through Lackland. The Air Force is the branch that trains them. The Army is the only branch that has veterinary doctors so they provide the care.
Lieutenant Col. HILL: We are like the Walter Reed or the Brooke Army Medical Center for definitive care and rehabilitation for any of those dogs.
GILDEA: A hospital also cares for dogs that patrol airports and bus terminals with the TSA. Sinney(ph), an adult vizsla, is retired from the TSA and is now a breeder. Major Douglas Owens, Chief of Internal Medicine at the dog center, monitors Sinney as she is pregnant with 10 puppies and having complications.
Major DOUGLAS OWENS (Chief of Internal Medicine, Dog Center): We're trying to make sure that she is healthy and strong and can deliver all these puppies normally so we don't have to take her to surgery.
GILDEA: Sinney's puppies will ultimately enter a TSA training program after spending some time here in what veterinary technician Vicky Miller (ph) calls the whelping kennel.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
Ms. VICKY MILLER (Veterinary Technician): Ideally, we'd like to have all the puppies dual certified where they do detection for explosives and also a patroller.
GILDEA: But before the pups - their training handlers, they must mature. So the Army sends them away to foster families until the dogs reached seven months of age. At that point, the attached families have to give them up so their training as military working dogs can begin. Upon graduation, the dogs are sent down range to help soldiers complete their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doctors hope they don't see the dogs return to the veterinary service hospital at Lackland until they're ready to be retired. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea.
HANSEN: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.