(Family Features) When Cpl. Matt Foster left Afghanistan after his tour of duty in 2013, he didn’t know whether he would ever see his K-9 partner again.
For nine months, Foster and Sgt. Mick, a black Labrador retriever, lived and worked together keeping the military compound at Camp Leatherneck and the surrounding area in Helmand Province safe from explosive attack.
Foster’s interest in becoming a military dog handler in the Marine Corps came from a high school friend who served and ultimately lost his life in Afghanistan.
“I’d always loved dogs and this seemed like a good fit for me,” he said. “Only a certain number of dogs are assigned to a unit, so I was fortunate to be selected.”
After being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, Foster did not give up in his quest to adopt Mick. The 7-year-old Lab had been discharged for medical reasons and Foster said he lost count of the number of adoption forms he sent attempting to be reunited with his dog.
“It is very difficult for a Marine infantry K-9 handler to keep his dog when he returns from active duty overseas,” Foster recalled. “Once back in California, the dogs go on a truck to North Carolina to be redeployed, and generally we never see them again.”
That, in fact, is what happened with one of Foster’s two explosives detection dogs.
“Macey, a chocolate Lab, was my first dog and Mick joined us later,” he said. “Macey and Mick were my babies; we lived, ate and slept together for more than a year.”
Ultimately, Foster’s quest to reconnect with Mick was successful, and they are together again living in Colorado.
“When I first got Mick back, I was worried that I might not be able to take care of him,” he recalled. “After what you go through with your dog in the service and then adopt them afterward, you wouldn’t want to say goodbye to your partner because you couldn’t afford to take care of him.”
Once military and police dogs retire, with no guaranteed pension for their medical care, the burden and cost of care often fall solely on their caregivers. Now an advocate for military dog adoption, Foster has joined The Sage Foundation for Dogs Who Serve and the RIMADYL K-9 Courage program to help other retired military dogs and handlers.
The RIMADYL K-9 Courage Program is a charitable healthcare donation program that, together with The Sage Foundation and National Police Dog Foundation, provides financial and in-kind product donations of $150,000 annually to support the veterinary needs for up to 500 retired police and military K-9s.
“I’m a big believer in the power of the human-animal bond, and I think anyone who loves a dog can relate to that special relationship,” said J. Michael McFarland, DVM, DAPVP, Group Director, Companion Animal Marketing for Zoetis, the company behind the program. “But it goes to another level with these former working dogs. I think it’s difficult for most of us to even comprehend how special that relationship is.”
Foster agrees: “I know firsthand the wear and tear on these dogs while they are in service, and having a program to help offset their medical needs is very helpful.”
Officer without a pension
Despite being considered an officer of his county’s sheriff’s office, Dano is another retired working dog whose veterinary needs and expenses will mount after retirement.
“Dano is an extraordinary dog,” said Senior Deputy Sheriff Danielle Delpit of her K-9 partner. “He’s been injured, tazed and involved in two critical incidents.”
One of those incidents resulted in Dano saving his human partner’s life. For his bravery, the German shepherd received the first National Police Dog Foundation Hero Award.
Recently, Delpit noticed that Dano, now 7 1/2 years old, was slowing down and she reluctantly decided it was time for him to retire.
“As his handler, I am looking out for his best interests first. He couldn’t jump into the car like he used to, I could tell he was in pain,” she said.
After Dano’s retirement, it became Delpit’s responsibility to care for him.
“While on active duty, Dano’s veterinary care was covered. But now that he is retired, it is up to me,” she explained. “Dano has injuries; he has a bad back and I know he will eventually have arthritis. The RIMADYL K-9 Courage Program will give me peace of mind to know I’ll have help to give him the healthcare he deserves.”
Even before Dano’s retirement, Delpit decided not to have another K-9 partner.
“There can never be a replacement for that one special dog. He’s not only made me a better police officer, he’s made me a better person,” she said.
K-9s in service
Since the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military has been using working dogs as messengers, sentries, scouts and mine detectors.
An estimated 1,775 military dogs are actively working to protect military personnel. Each dog saves as many as 150-200 service men and women by detecting explosives and hidden weapons caches.
In an average year, 300-400 dogs retire, but it’s not required that a military dog serving overseas be returned to the United States at retirement. Legislation is pending in Congress to mandate their return for U.S. adoption.
The Sage Foundation for Dogs Who Serve (www.sagefoundationfordogs.org) works to promote the welfare of dogs who have faithfully served in wars, police work, crime prevention and rescue. Their work includes education and public awareness, as well as making medical care available for these hero dogs.
Today, law enforcement dogs are used at the local, county, state and federal levels, and are considered full-fledged police officers. Unlike their human counterparts, however, these officers do not receive a pension.
With a mission of making K-9 teams mission-ready and self-sustaining, the National Police Dog Foundation (www.nationalpolicedogfoundation.org) provides funding for the purchase, training and medical needs for police dogs through retirement.
You can help
Learn how you can support retired police and military dogs at www.rimadylk9courage.com.