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Originally published August 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2007 at 3:02 PM

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Wounded war dogs treated as soldiers

When he came to, the Marine's arm hung limply. It was broken by ball bearings hurled from a suicide bomb. Yet Brendan Poelaert's thoughts...

The Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — When he came to, the Marine's arm hung limply. It was broken by ball bearings hurled from a suicide bomb. Yet Brendan Poelaert's thoughts quickly turned to his patrol dog.

The powerful Belgian Malinois named Flapoor had served him as partner and protector for the past four months in Iraq. Now, the dog staggered a few steps along the Ramadi street, then stared blankly. Blood poured from his chest.

"I didn't care about my injuries, my arm," his handler says. "I'm telling the medic, 'I got to get my dog to the vet!' "

About 2,000 of these working dogs confront danger beside U.S. soldiers, largely in the Middle East. With noses that detect scents up to a third of a mile away, many sniff for explosives in Iraq. Their numbers have been growing by about 20 percent a year since the terrorist attacks of 2001, says Air Force Capt. Jeffrey McKamey, who helps run the program.

In doing their jobs, dozens of dogs have become war wounded — scorched by the desert, slashed by broken glass, struck by stray bullets, pounded by roadside bombs.

Their services are so valued, though, that wounded dogs are treated much like wounded troops. "They are cared for as well as any soldier," says Senior Airman Ronald Harden, a dog handler in Iraq.

Their first aid comes out of canine field kits bearing everything from medicine to syringes. Some are evacuated to military veterinary centers hundreds of miles away, and even to Germany and the United States to recover. Many are treated and return to duty.

On the day of the Ramadi blast in January 2006, Poelaert, trained in veterinary first aid, began care as soon as both were loaded into an SUV. He pressed his finger to his dog's chest to stop him from bleeding to death. When they reached the base camp, a medic with veterinary training took over, starting Flapoor on an IV. Poelaert departed reluctantly for his own surgery.

Flapoor — the name means "droopy-eared" in the Dutch language of his homeland — eventually would go to Baghdad for care of his punctured lung and belly wounds. He later would rejoin his handler and fly to the United States for rehabilitation.

Healing under the California sun at Camp Pendleton, Flapoor is now back to his usual self in most ways: fast, friendly, eager-to-please. But he still suffers a sort of canine post-traumatic stress disorder. "He's really jumpy around loud noises now," Poelaert says.

Military dogs must be in top condition, and the training is rigorous.

Dogs take their basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they learn to tolerate the crack of gunfire and sputter of helicopters. They are trained to sniff for explosives on command, freezing and staring at suspicious objects.

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Merely baring their teeth, they can cow a crowd. Commanded to strike, they can easily flatten a big man with one leap, flying like a 50-pound sandbag tossed from a truck.

Malinois and shepherds predominate, but other breeds are trained, too.

In Iraq, the demand for explosives-finding dogs has escalated. They lead patrols with their handlers in tow, sniffing bags and other suspicious objects along the way.

The bombs have bulked up in past months, putting dogs and handlers at more risk. To protect handlers, some dogs are now trained to wear backpacks with radios and respond to remote voice commands.

"As much as I love these dogs, their job is to take a bullet for me," says trainer Sgt. Douglas Timberlake.

The military estimates it spends six months and $25,000 to buy, feed, train and care for the average dog. They are tended by 440 Army veterinarians worldwide.

Army veterinarian Lt. Col. Michael Lagutchik, who supervises care at Lackland, thinks about 10 dogs have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Injuries are common among the dogs. They are cut or scraped. They are bitten by spiders or stung by scorpions. Their eyes and ears are irritated by blowing sand.

The most common injury is probably overheating from the desert sun, which can sometimes spur a dangerous stomach condition called bloat.

Handler Jason Cannon, now a Tennessee state patrolman, knew something was wrong when his dog started to act skittish while searching people crossing into Iraq from Syria. A vet suspected dehydration and prescribed two weeks of rest for the dog.

"We went out and played ball, pretty much hung out," Cannon says. "Mainly, we didn't do any work at all. 'Vacation' is a good word for it."

Less often, dogs on a mission get shot or bombed. Lackland trainer Trapanger Stephens, who did duty in Iraq, remembers seeing a veterinarian rescue a shot dog with a breathing tube right in the field. The vet did surgery then and there.

Cpl. Megan Leavey and her dog ended up back at Camp Pendleton when another bomb exploded in Ramadi. She suffered a concussion, and the animal's shoulder was injured. The dog underwent a regimen familiar to athletes: icing, heating, stretching, and motion exercises.

Dogs may wear bulletproof vests or booties to cushion their paws. They sometimes wear doggie goggles — called "doggles" — to keep out blowing sand. However, most handlers have their dogs go natural for fear of overheating.

Regardless of the dangers, the dogs are fearless. For them, checking a road for bombs means a fun walk, their handlers say. "They like what they do," says Poelaert, who has returned to Exeter, N.H.

These days, he's trying to move beyond memories of the Ramadi explosion, which killed dozens, including fellow handler Adam Cann.

One image still inspires him, though: the sight of Cann's wounded dog stretched over his body, as if to protect him.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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