WASHINGTON – Help came too late for Robby.
The 8-year-old Belgian Malinois that became the poster dog for the drive to allow the adoption of retired military working dogs was euthanized earlier this year, just over two months after the legislation was signed.
But other dogs are already benefiting from Robby’s sacrifice: Ronny became the first “aggression-trained military working dog to be adopted by a private citizen since 1949,” said Gary Emery, a spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base, where the dogs are trained.
A second adoption was expected to come as early as Friday, officials said.
“I would love to have seen Robby be the first” adopted under the program said Tom Johnston, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Save Robby campaign.
Military dog handlers who served in Vietnam had been trying since the end of the war to adopt the dogs that many became attached to in war and many had to leave behind to uncertain fates.
Military dogs are trained for double duty, such as patrol and bomb or drug detection. Older dogs that cannot patrol can be used for detection, or to train new dog handlers.
It had been the practice of the military to euthanize dogs when they were declared “excess” and could no longer play a part in training new handlers or other dogs.
The adoption movement began to gain steam last year, when veterans and animal rights activists rallied around Robby, who some feared was about to be put to sleep. The Save Robby campaign generated Web sites, petition drives and news articles that caught the attention of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, who sponsored legislation to force the military to allow adoption of retired service dogs.
The bill passed late in the last Congress and was signed into law Nov. 6 by President Clinton. But it took months for the military to work out the details of the adoption procedure.
Col. Larry Carpenter, the head veterinarian at Lackland, said he visited Robby in September, before the new law was passed, and that the dog was doing pretty well. But by January, Robby’s health had declined, and his neck and back problems made it hard for the dog to walk.
On Jan. 19, Robby ‘s time ran out.
“Robby was severely debilitated” and had to be euthanized because there he was not a good quality of life, Carpenter said.
Ronny, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois, became the first dog to be adopted under the new program, in late March.
“He’s happy. Very happy,” said Ronny’s new owner, Marine Sgt. Kevin Bispham.
He was Ronny’s last handler and had worked with the dog for about three and a half years, most of that time in Parris Island, S.C. After the dog was declared excess, he was sent to Lackland for evaluation and testing, then shipped back to Bispham once he was approved for adoption.
Now Ronny’s life is a lot different from the patrol and drug sniffing he did in the service.
“He gets to lay in the dirt all dang day,” Bispham said.
Ronny spends most of the day in his new 20-by-20 foot kennel, but takes walks with Bispham or his wife and stays inside — when he’s not getting in trouble for chewing up shoes.
Although Bispham gives Ronny medicine for pain and for a bad joint, he said the casual observer would never know that the dog is injured.
Carpenter compared the dogs to athletes. “As they age. little things start to build up,” he said, and the dogs may have some medical condition that limits their performance.
Johnston said he is pleased the military has worked quickly to implement the new adoption rules — even though they did not come in time to save Robby.
Robby’s cremated remains are scheduled to be interred June 24 at an annual war dog memorial ceremony in the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Hartsdale, N.Y.
-30- CNS 04-27-01