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Ronny Gets Top Dog Status As DoD's First Canine Adoptee

By Gary Emery
Special to American Forces Press Service

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, March 12, 2001 – Doggone him.

That would be Ronny T082. The 11-year-old Belgian Malinois will be leaving the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center here soon for South Carolina. He's about to become the first "retiree" under a new law that permits the adoption of older, excess military working dogs by former dog handlers and other qualified people.

Ronny's new owner, Marine Sgt. Kevin Bispham, is no stranger to the care and handling of a highly trained working dog. He's kennel master at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., and was Ronny's handler for more than three years.

"I love my dog and I'm really excited to get him," Bispham said. "Ronny's done his time and I want to make a good home for him. I'm making everything nice for him. He's not going to work any more."

Bispham said he would take ownership of Ronny in April after he moves from an apartment into a base housing unit with a fenced back yard. The sergeant has already ordered a 20-by-20 kennel for Ronny and must pay all the costs to have Ronny transported to South Carolina.

Until the passage of the adoption law, working dogs that couldn't do their jobs in the field due to age or other factors were returned to Lackland. They were evaluated for possible use as training dogs for new handlers, according to Bob Dameworth, DoD's counterdrug/K-9 program manager.

Former handlers and others sometimes asked to adopt older animals, but DoD policy was that only law enforcement agencies could.

Dameworth said the first concern is for the safety of the people who'd be living around the dog. Military working dogs receive extensive aggression training throughout their working lives, he said.

"Second," he added, "we want to be sure that the dogs -- who have served faithfully all their lives to protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- have the care and medical treatment they deserve in their older years."

The law, signed by President Clinton last November, addresses those concerns on several fronts, said Maj. John Probst, commander of Lackland's 341st Training Squadron. His unit trains all military working dogs and their handlers.

The new law specifically allows adoptions by law enforcement agencies, former dog handlers and other qualified people, Probst said. While more people can adopt, the law still limits adoptions to those who understand the responsibilities of owning such unusual dogs, he added.

When a dog is no longer able to perform patrol duties, the first step is to determine whether it is needed at Lackland to train new handlers, Probst explained. If no, the law leaves the possibility of adoption up to the security forces/military police commander on the installation where the dog last served. Commanders might consult with the kennel master, military veterinarians and even animal behavior specialists on staff at the training center, he said.

Dogs deemed adoptable, based on medical condition and temperament, will normally be offered in the area around the local installation, Probst said. Ronny was special -- he had been returned to Lackland before DoD worked out its adoption procedures, he said.

The local commander and staff also must evaluate prospective adopters, Probst said. They must ensure that applicants understand the considerable attack capabilities of a working dog, as well as the standards of care necessary to keep the animal healthy and happy, he explained.

Adopters, he continued, must sign an agreement that absolves DoD and the government of any liability for damage or injury the dog may cause and for any veterinary costs the adopter may incur.

Probst noted that not all military dogs are adoptable. Some mellow in their old age, for instance, but many don't -- and former military dogs are still potentially dangerous. So the key question, he said, is whether to allow a dog to leave its regimented military life for the more unpredictable local community environment.

"For instance," he continued, "how would that dog react to a good-natured wrestling match involving its former handler? As a commander, with personal experience in the process, I recognize the significant moral obligation inherent in that decision."

While extremely impaired dogs would not be candidates for adoption, potential applicants should understand that dogs up for adoption would likely suffer from some age-related medical conditions, according to Army Col. Larry Carpenter, director of DoD Military Working Dog Veterinary Services.

"These dogs are athletes and have led very active lives," he said. "So it's to be expected that, like many human athletes, these animals will start to exhibit some physical problems as they reach old age."

Potential adopters will be made aware of the medical condition of the dog they want, so they can make an informed decision on whether they have the time and money to invest in humanely providing for the animal, Carpenter said. Dog handlers and veterinary staffers chose their professions because of their love and respect for animals, he noted.

Military working dogs receive extensive medical care throughout their lives, including a complete physical evaluation every six months, he explained. The quality care and advances in veterinary medicine over the past decade have increased the average dog's life span from about 8 years to nearly 11, Carpenter said.

In the meantime, Ronny waits contentedly in his kennel at Lackland, unaware that he may someday rate a footnote in U.S. military history, not for his dedicated service but for a new, unexpected role.

"Once he's here, he can do whatever the heck he wants to," Bispham promised. "He's just going to be a pet."

(Gary Emery is assigned to the Air Force Security Forces Center Public Affairs Office, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.)

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