WASHINGTON – Just before now-retired Air Force Sgt. Craig Lord boarded a plane home from Vietnam in 1969, he gave one of his closest comrades a few words of advice.
“Do a good job for the next guy, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Lord, of Memphis, Tenn., told his partner Winston — a German shepherd trained as a sentry dog.
Winston was put down three years later, after almost a decade of service – – standard procedure for service dogs that are no longer of use to the military.
The House was scheduled to take up a measure Tuesday that would immediately stop the practice of euthanizing military dogs and pave the way for their adoptions, but it still had not been acted on Tuesday evening.
“These are working dogs that contributed something to our society,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and lead sponsor of the bill that has attracted 38 co-sponsors.
Backers said they expect the measure to pass the House. If it does, Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., has said he will introduce a similar bill in the Senate, said his spokeswoman, Lisa Harrison.
The issue came to Bartlett’s attention after a recent article in Stars and Stripes profiled Robby, an aging, arthritic military dog who could be euthanized within the next year. The dog’s tale attracted the attention of both lawmakers and animal rights activists.
“We feel it is hard enough for the dogs who are forced to spend most of their life in kennels,” said Cem Akin, a spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s tragic that they cannot spend their retirement with a loving handler.”
The Defense Department currently euthanizes about 200 dogs a year of about 1,400 dogs it has in service and another 400 in training, many of them German shepherds and Belgian Malinois.
The dogs usually have 10 to 13 years of service when they are put down, according to officials at the Pentagon’s Military Working Dog Program.
Bartlett’s bill would end the blanket euthanasia policy and let the dogs go to the homes of people trained in taking care of them. That could include anyone from former military handlers to private citizens, although a spokesman in Bartlett’s office said the Pentagon would develop a screening process for adoption.
Some, like Lord, caution that the dogs can still be very dangerous and should only be adopted by experienced handlers, severely limiting potential homes for the animals.
“All of our handlers are military members and they move around a lot,” said Gary Emery, an Air Force spokesman. “A lot of them are single and live in the barracks so it (adoption) would be impossible. There’s not really a groundswell for this.”
Still, a handler like Lord said he would absolutely consider adopting one of these dogs.
“These dogs deserve a decent retirement,” he said. “They deserve to retire like you and I do.”