Meet the 'Warrior Dogs,' Service Animals Finding New Lives After the Battlefield

Like human soldiers, military service dogs bear the scars of war.

Just like the men and women they served alongside, military service dogs can come home broken and damaged.

They have been shot, blown up, traumatized and driven nearly mad. Some can no longer distinguish bad guys from good guys and attack both. Others turn inward and just stop performing the jobs they've been meticulously trained to do. 

When that happens, the canines become a liability to the military, and are dismissed. The lucky ones end up with Mike Ritland at the Warrior Dog Foundation in Commerce, Texas, where the former Navy SEAL coaxes them back from the edge.

He has been doing this for six years, resetting their minds to find a peaceful retirement "in dignity and grace, the way they deserve, for their service to their country," Ritland told

The unlucky ones are euthanized. 

"Every one of these dogs would be in a box full of ashes on somebody's desk if we weren't taking them," he said. "So we are the last-ditch resort for these dogs."

Ritland, a 40-year-old who served 12 years as a SEAL, counts the dogs that served with special forces units as the best and the brightest, just like their masters. They are specially trained, beginning as puppies, to sniff out explosives and apprehend enemy soldiers with bone-breaking jaws that won't unclench until their human handler gives the order.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, where IEDs blew up and maimed U.S.-led coalition forces with impunity, the dogs were indispensable. Their smelling abilities were so keen, they became targets more prized than human soldiers, Ritland said. They were also outfitted with bulletproof vests and security cameras. 

"It's impossible to quantify the amount of lives that those dogs have saved," Ritland said. "It's in the thousands, or even tens of thousands. The 'man's best friend' adage ... is understated.

"We definitely got the good deal out of that."

A dog's sense of smell is thousands of times stronger than that of humans. Ritland likes to use the analogy of a pot of stew simmering on a stove. A human will recognize the aroma and say, "Mmmm, that smells like stew." A dog will sniff the air and smell meat, onions, celery, carrots, flour and water, Ritland said.

That discernment is critical to service dogs, and their job to sniff out explosives and drugs that are hidden and mixed in everyday items, from dirt to watermelons.

Ritland gets his dogs through an informal, word-of-mouth network comprised of military members, law enforcement handlers and canine professionals. 

"They approach us and say, 'Hey, we've got this dog. Here's his background. Can you take him?''' Ritland said.

He has taken all the dogs he has been offered, he said. To date, that is nearly 50, with most being placed with new owners. 

Dogs have been a part of warfare dating back to the Egyptians. They were unleashed on enemy troops and followed by spears and advancing soldiers.

During World War I, dogs were used to deliver vital messages to soldiers in the trenches, while the Soviets strapped explosives to them and sent them to greet German tanks during World War II. The U.S. Marine Corps used them in the Pacific to take islands back from Japanese occupying forces. 

About 5,000 U.S. dogs served in the Vietnam War and they are estimated to have saved 10,000 human lives. They were trained as scout dogs and sniffed out mines and booby traps, including trip wires, according to John Burnam, a Vietnam War veteran who served with a service dog and became an advocate for recognizing their courage in battle.

Like enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Viet Cong placed bounties on the dogs because they were so effective. Only about 200 of the animals came home, according to historians. The rest were put down or left behind.

That is exactly what Ritland doesn't want. 

"These dogs ask nothing of us and provide so much for our troops, for our police officers, for our communities, for our nation," Ritland said. "For us to give these dogs what they deserve is both an honor and a pleasure."

At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some 2,500 dogs served U.S. soldiers. The most famous may be Cairo, a Belgian Malinois that accompanied SEAL Team Six, whose members killed Osama bin Laden during a nighttime raid in Pakistan.

President Obama, who ordered the 2011 attack, later honored the men during a private meeting at the White House. "I want to meet that dog," the president told the assembled SEALs. 

Cairo, muzzled at the request of the Secret Service, was in an adjoining room. "If you want to meet the dog, Mr. President, I advise you to bring treats," the squadron leader joked as Obama went to pet the brave service member trained to slide down a rope strapped to his trainer and then run ahead as a scout. 

"It's important that these dogs are never forgotten," Ritland said.

The Healing Process

When a retired dog arrives at Ritland's farm, the animal is introduced to its kennel cage and put inside. What follows is the "treat fairy" stage, as kennel manager, Jilian Daniel, calls it. "Every time you walk by that kennel, you just throw treats in there," she said. "You don't even look at him, nothing. You just toss him a handful of treats and go about your day."

Eventually, even the most high-strung dog will chill a bit. "That's when you feel like it's probably OK for you to let him out, interact with him a little bit, just kind of see what he's about," she said. "This is their new home, so they want to check it out."

And as she walks the farm, in the middle of nowhere about two hours outside Dallas, Daniel drops treats. The dog learns to associate Daniel with getting good things to eat. "Hey, that lady's the treat fairy. I'm going to follow her. Good things are going to happen, life's going to be great," she said of the dog's thought process.

There are 30 kennel spots at the farm, with 15 occupied by warrior dogs and the rest by dogs being trained for Ritland's private business, Trikos International, which sells personal protection dogs.

The dogs are either Belgian Malinois or Dutch shepherds, highly intelligent breeds known for their physical prowess and for being fearless and loyal.

Daniel's goal is to get the service dog to dial down its innate desire to be hypervigilant and then tackle the warfare teaching instilled by the military. "They've had so much stimulus throughout their working lives," she said.

Stimulus is a nice word for what these dogs have been through. Much of what they have done is still classified, Ritland said.

The canines aren't just military veterans. Law enforcement dogs are likewise schooled. A canine that served in the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, ended up at the farm because he couldn't stop biting people, Ritland said.

Ritland said he's been bitten several times. One dog clamped its jaws firmly on his wrist and broke it. But such are the hazards of the job.

"If I get bit, it's my fault because I've done something wrong," he said. "That means I have rushed the process ... or I've put the dog in a position where I gave him the opportunity to make a mistake." 

The retraining of damaged dogs entails positive reinforcement. If, for example, the whup-whup-whup of military helicopter rotor blades catapults a poor animal backward in time to a heated battle, Ritland will begin introducing those same sounds at a very low level during playtime with the dog. 

"We'll play ball with the dog, or tug with the dog, so it's like background noise. Then you bring it a little closer and a little louder. So that eventually, when they hear that, they get excited because they think they're going to get treats," he said. 

Ritland is a veteran and he talks like one. Especially about his dogs.

"They're not sitting on the couch with a box of Kleenex and having to rationalize their experiences," Ritland said. All they know is they want to work and be of service.

"R & R [rest and relaxation] really isn't in their vocabulary," he said. "They don't need a vacation. It's better to keep them working. If they're not, that confuses them and makes them crazy."

Ritland has never turned away a damaged dog. Some just cannot be rehabbed for a forever home, and they live out their lives on the farm. Most are carefully placed with veterans, or people who have the room and stamina to keep the animal busy.

But first those hoping to adopt must spend hours at the farm, interacting with the dog under the watchful eyes of Ritland, who makes the final decision about whether the dog leaves or stays.

Asked about the worst dog he's ever seen, Ritland just laughed. "Most of them are all equally terrible," he said.

Off the scale was a dog named Rocky. "When I picked him up at the airport, half of the kennel was destroyed and he was snapping his jaws at everyone that came by. He was kind of the Hannibal Lecter of the group," he said. 

When he got to the farm, Rocky destroyed his stainless steel water bowl, chewed up and ripped out the wall of his kennel, and ate part of the door. Ritland eventually had to bring in a welder to make the door so heavy that Rocky couldn't lift it.

Rocky's military handlers had driven him too hard, Ritland said. "Because of his advanced strength and character, they pushed the envelope."

And Rocky broke. These things happen in war, Ritland said. Some dogs, like humans, just can't take it. Rocky's job was to detect explosives and apprehend enemy combatants for a SEAL team attached to the West Coast. 

"He lasted about a year and a half," Ritland said. "He washed out. He was biting everything and everybody."

The Belgian Melanois, after four years of Ritland's tutelage, found a home with a civilian colleague of his and is now doing fine. 

Whether a dog finds a home, or remains at the farm, makes no real difference to Ritland.

"There's a reason I work with dogs," he said. "It's not having to deal with people. ... If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd be doing what I'm doing right now. My life wouldn't change that much."

Getting A New Home

Bob Welch lives down the road from Ritland on a sprawling cattle ranch. He served in the U.S. Air Force's Veterinary Corps and grew up in a military family. He was stationed in Northern California, and treated service animals for whatever ailment befell them on the job.

About 18 months ago, he met Rudy, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dog retiring to the Warrior Dog Foundation. His family had just lost their longtime pet and were looking for a new one. 

Their ranch was the perfect "environment you want these dogs in, because they have to be engaged," Welch said. So Rudy, a Belgian Malinois, came to live with them and puts in a long work day with his owner.

Every day, all day, the Belgian Malinois is at Welch's side, whether it's driving around in a golf cart to inspect the grass-fed cattle or clearing away downed trees. "He knows exactly what's going on every time we go do something," he said. 

In his former life, Rudy was part of search and rescue teams. "He lives for that," Welch said. "So you go put something somewhere for him to go find it ... or throw a ball for him to go get. He's looking at it as work because he's doing it for you, and that's how he lives. He's dedicated to, 'What do you want me to do?'''

Rudy also serves at the pleasure of Welch's wife, Max, and his daughter, Marissa. If Welch needs to go pick up his daughter, he has only to say her name and Rudy is "at the back of my vehicle ready to go." 

From his own days in the military, Welch knows that service dogs are not lap dogs and never will be, no matter their age. They need to be working, or thinking they're working. That's why Welch thinks up ways to keep Rudy moving, or in some instances, not moving. For example, when it gets hot on his Texas ranch, Welch will throw something into a pond on his property so that Rudy will jump in.

"Because he's not going to go get in the water to cool off because he's working," Welch said. "So the only way to get him out there is to send him out there. ... So we incorporate that into his daily routine."

Rudy's routine on the ranch baffled him at first. For one thing, he had never seen a cow. "Rudy's first high stress was when we came over the hill and there was 130 head of cattle that we got right up next to. They surrounded us."

And Rudy looked up to Welch as if to say, "OK, now what do I do?"

It took a while for the dog to get used to being around cows. And horses. Eventually, Rudy learned that if the livestock were with Welch, then they must be OK. 

Welch had to learn some things himself, such as whenever a door is opened, Rudy goes through it first. "When you open a car door, he's in it before you are." Same thing with Welch's home. "He's in it, running through the house before you are, and that took a little while to get used to," Welch said. 

That's Rudy at work, rushing in to make sure the environment is safe before his human gets through the door.

The only time Rudy rests is when he's in his kennel. "That's his chill mode," Welch said. 

To Welch's friends, Rudy is a celebrity. Welch sometimes thinks that the only reason the family's Dallas friends make the drive is to see the dog.

"I receive texts from friends of ours that aren't asking how we are, but, 'How's Rudy?''' he said, amused.

"He's become part of our family," he added. And that's just as it should be.

"Mike's whole program is based around these dogs that have served with dignity," he said. "They're not going to just stop because they've hit a certain age. They're going to keep doing it until they can't," he said.

"I'm glad our family has been able to be part of that."