Monday, March 25, 2013

The Scientific Basis of Therapy Dog Work

Dr. Dawn A. Marcus of the Department of Anesthesiology of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has written a review paper, The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy, in the medical journal, Current Pain and Headache Reports, 17, 322, April 2013.  Dr. Marcus is the author of Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care, Springer, New York, 2012, and The Power of Wagging Tails: A Doctor's Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing, Demos Health, 2011. She is also the co-author of articles on use of animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic, use of AAT with fibromyalgia outpatients, and one about to be published on the use of AAT with migraine sufferers.  Citations can be found in the endnotes of her recent article.  (Sadly, Dr. Marcus has died.  It must be hoped that her wonderful research will be carried on by others.)

Dr. Marcus refers to studies “showing subjective pain reduction following animal-assisted interventions with therapy dogs,” and argues that “[p]hysiological changes have been identified in both humans and the dogs visiting them that support subjective impressions of reduced distress, decreased pain, and mood enhancement.”   Connecting self-assessments of the benefits of therapy dog visits with measurable physiological changes has long been a goal of those who believe a scientific foundation will reduce resistance from some quarters of the medical community to therapy dog work. Dr. Marcus acknowledges that “[b]ecause psychological and somatic symptoms may also influence the pain experience, these studies measuring subjective pain severity cannot determine if the therapy dog visit directly reduced pain perception or if pain impact may have been diminished secondarily because of other improvements.” 

Physiological Changes in Recipients of Therapy Dog Visits

Although evidence for therapy dog visits having “more than short-term entertainment value” is relatively thin, Dr. Marcus cites studies indicating that “therapy dog visits result in reductions in stress hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as increases in endorphin levels.”  Oxytocin, which also provides anti-stress effects and increases pain threshold, has been shown “to increase following dog interactions.” Reductions in levels of serum cortisol and chromogranin A have also been demonstrated. Blood pressure has been shown to decline with dog visitations.  (For an earlier review paper concerning animal-assisted therapy, see Margo Halm (2008). The Healing Power of the Human-Animal Connection, American Journal of Critical Care, 17, 373.)

Physiological Changes in Therapy Dogs

Anyone who has handled a therapy dog for several years has been asked, as I have, if therapy work is good for the dog.  “It’s good for the patients, but isn’t it stressful for Chloe?”  Chloe and I have been a therapy dog team for nearly five years.  Indeed there can be stress for the dog. In a visit to a cerebral palsy facility, one child locked a hand onto Chloe’s back.  I kept her calm while two attendants gradually unlocked the vice grip of fingers. Fran Breitkopf encountered a similar situation in a memory care unit:

“Although Casey loved to visit people he was not able to sustain visits to deep dementia sections of Golden Hill. It exhausted him and he was only able to deal with the confusion that he felt for a short time.  I did have to pry a woman away from Casey in one of his visits to that section. She grabbed him and hugged him too hard. His eyes pleaded for help and we did have a nurse come in to help us. He was okay after that, not reluctant. When we left the facility, Casey would fall into a deep sleep by the time we got down the driveway to the main road, probably just 800 to 1,000 feet.  I ended up not taking him to that section after a time. On the other hand he loved going to Ten Broeck Elder Care Facility and was good for at least an hour. He just wanted to deliver kisses and sat on everyone's laps and gave them many. He did not want to sit on laps of people who had wet themselves. I always thought he didn't want anyone to think it was he who had peed.” 

Nevertheless, negative incidents are rare and Dr. Marcus describes a study in which visits to humans “resulted in significant positive changes (P≤0.01) in endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, phenyl acetic acid, and dopamine levels in dogs.”  Corstisol levels have been shown to rise in dogs, however, indicating that there is a “need to limit visit frequency.”  Although my experience with Chloe has not been monitored for chemical changes in either of us, I do believe that the stress level varies with the assignment and that some assignments are actually fun for the dog. 

Mirror Neurons

In a section of her paper clearly inviting further research, Dr. Marcus considers the relevance of research on mirror neurons, i.e., neurons believed to be activated by watching activities that trigger responses similar to what is being watched.  This may explain why seeing disgust in someone else’s face may make a person feel a similar disgust, or watching someone vomit will induce queasiness. Dr. Marcus argues that such research may support “the hypothesis that humans witnessing ‘cheerful’ behavior in a friendly dog (such as attentiveness to the subject, mouth slightly open and ‘smiling,’ and tail wagging) might result in empathic imitation of cheerful behavior, possibly mediated by activation of mirror neurons.”

Therapy Dogs and Disease Detection

Dr. Marcus states that “anecdotal reports from therapy dog handlers suggest that, when therapy dogs are placed in a room with a number of people, the dogs tend to seek out for their attention those individuals who are ill or in distress.”  I have myself noticed this when there are both patients and visitors in a room, though I’m not sure that some level of cueing might be involved, i.e., that I want Chloe to focus her attention on the patient rather than the patient’s visitors, because that is why we are there.  If there were a group of people in a lobby and it was not apparent that one of them was a patient, I couldn’t describe her choices so easily.  Often it is the person that pays attention to her first that gets the attention from her.  Still, it is an interesting observation and deserving of more study. Needless to say, dogs get better at recognizing disease when they are trained to do so, as was demonstrated in one recent paper to which I contributed. 

Some research has indicated that stress responses in humans involve chemical changes, including “increases in glucocorticoids and catecholamines.”  Dr. Marcus notes that studies are not available to determine a dog’s response to such chemical changes, but that they may be able to detect them. 

Dog vs. Human Visits

Casey Visiting a Nursing Home on Halloween
Dr. Marcus summarizes research indicating that patients are more likely to look forward to receiving a dog visit than a visit from a friendly volunteer.  This conclusion will probably not surprise any therapy dog handler.  It is a joke among those handlers I know that neither the staff nor the long-term patients know us nearly as well as they know our dogs, and many do not even know our names or recognize us if we are not with our dogs.  Even patients with Alzheimer’s have been known to recognize a therapy dog by name.  Dennis Civiello, whose West Highland Terrier, Mackie, visits facilities in Phoenix and coastal Oregon, sent me the following account:

“In one case a patient that no longer recognized family members and didn’t move or speak would call out ‘Mackie’ when we arrived for our weekly visits. During the visit she made herself understood that she wanted Mackie on her lap and would attentively stroke and pet him. These moments demanded my focused attention and, more importantly, great care when taking Mackie from her lap because she resisted Mackie leaving. This experience remains vivid in my mind because of the patient’s reaction to Mackie and the reaction from family members that saw, in their eyes, life return to her.”

I once heard a social worker complain that there was no point in his visiting a memory ward when a therapy dog was there.  “No one wants to talk to you until after the dog leaves.” 


This paper presents a very sanguine perspective on the value of therapy dogs for hospital and other populations.  It is the perspective that I think will be established in the end.  I should point out, however, as I did in a blog last August, that there well-grounded reviews that have not been nearly as positive regarding benefits of various associations with animals.  More research is necessary.  I do not think that therapy dogs have to be justified by their providing long-term benefits.  Diana Edelman, in writing her poem to a therapy dog, once told me that she wrote the poem partially to fix Chloe in memory.  That was enough for her, and is enough for me and Chloe. 

Thanks to Fran Breitkopf and Dennis Civiello for contributing thoughts and recollections.   Fran's dog, Casey, a miniature poodle, was one of the best-known therapy dogs in upstate New York and died in January, having been a therapy dog for most of his more than 16 years of life. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

American Pariahs

I have met a few saints in my life.  One of them was A. Gridley Hall.  We worked together in southern New Jersey.  Grid was well known among legal services lawyers up and down the east coast in the 1970s for his work with migrant farmworkers.  Having spent part of his childhood in Spain, the son of a diplomat, Grid’s Spanish was fluent.  Once a farm owner threatened him with a shotgun if he kept coming onto his land to see the Dominican workers, families forced to live in their cars and an abandoned barn because the farmer would not pay for housing. 

Grid was good with the media and got a reporter and a photographer to come onto the farm the time he visited after the shotgun threat.  True to form, the farmer brought out the shotgun and a picture of the angry farmer pointing his shotgun appeared in a Philadelphia paper.  It was a local grower’s association as much as Grid’s lawsuit that forced the farmer to build his first migrant farmworker housing.  The association’s members didn’t need the unwelcome attention that one of their own was bringing on the rest of them. 

I was not part of that. I joined Camden Regional Legal Services the following year, and I did not work in the farmworkers’ unit.  One night Grid was passing through Woodbury and stopped at the local CRLS office.  I had only met him once or twice before. 

“Want to see some pariahs?” he asked.

“Where?” I asked.


He was driving a twenty-year old Ford a farmworker had lent him.  The farmworker couldn’t afford the repair so Grid paid the bill.  In exchange, Grid used the car to go from farm to farm.

“They don’t think about damaging a car like this.  Unless they see me drive up, they don’t even know how I got there,” he explained.

But we weren’t going to a farm.  We went east of Glassboro and left the highway beside some railroad tracks, then drove about a half a mile to the end of the dirt road, probably made so that railroad repair equipment could reach a transformer station. We left the car beside the station and continued beside the tracks on foot.  There was a corn field to the right. 

“There’s housing for the farmworkers over there, beyond several fields.  One of the men has a sister there, which is how I know about them.”

About a hundred yards past a turn in the tracks we saw two men standing beside a small cinder block building with a rusted metal roof that would have provided shelter only to the extent of concentrating rain into streams. There was no door to the building.  There never had been.

Grid spoke to the men in Spanish, introducing me as a friend.  Grid was wearing jeans, a white dress shirt and an old wool blazer.  He had left his tie somewhere, but in the universal tradition of legal services law he could have qualified to go into court by just adding the tie.  Not elegant, but passable.  I was wearing a suit since I was not yet comfortable with the disapproving looks the local judges gave to the lawyers who dressed like Grid.  I had removed the tie but I still looked more like a lawyer than I wanted to that afternoon.

Grid looked into the building and said something to someone inside who was lying in the shadows. The reason for going there was that Grid had arranged for the man to visit a doctor and he explained to the man lying on the floor and one of the men outside that he would pick them up the next day and take them to the doctor.  Grid always found people who would help.

It was while this was going on that I noticed the dogs lying beside a pile of rubble about twenty feet away at the edge of the corn field.   

“Yours?” I asked the man who was not part of the conversation Grid was having. 

“Not ours, no one’s,” he said. 

“Why are they here?” I asked. 

“Nowhere else for them,” he shrugged.  

I walked towards the dogs.  One was a German shepherd, skinny, old, weak, not quite starving.  The other was—if I had to guess—a collie terrier mix with ears that flopped forward towards the tips.  The shepherd seemed broken as I got closer, with only enough energy to raise his head.  The smaller dog stood and looked at me, cocking his head as if it were a question.

The pile of rubble was mostly made of broken plant pots, red clay, large, probably all once of the same size, as if some commercial operation had used them. On top of the pile was a wooden Saint Francis, about three feet high, the base and one foot of the saint missing.  Black, charred on one side, someone may have once tried to use it as firewood, but long ago.  It had mushrooms growing out one side and there was a bird in the saint’s hand, also broken, missing the part of the wing that would have extended upwards and away.  The wing that connected with the saint’s torso was still intact, more elegantly carved than one expects of garden ornaments, which it must once have been.  There was still some white paint on the face, and the eyes looked towards the sky as if commending the bird to God. Someone had stood the statue up, propping it with red shards.  I always thought the men in the little camp had wanted to to give some dignity to the broken saint who shared their poverty.

The man I had spoken with caught up with me.  He had a nearly empty can of beans in which he swabbed a piece of bread.  He got it brown on one side, tore it in half and threw one piece up the in air.  The collie mix jumped and caught it.  The man put the other part of the slice in front of the shepherd, which looked at me in a way that made me turn away, as if I had shamed them by watching this. 

I walked back towards the cinder block structure.  Grid was waiting for me. 

 “Isn’t there a dog catcher?” I asked naively.

“The town would just kill them. They’ve got friends here.”

As we drove back, he told me the men had been living in the cinder block house for several weeks.

“They’ll move on when their families do, but they can’t live in the housing. They don't want to give the farm their papers. They can ride on the backs of the trucks, but unless one of the relatives finds them work, they’ll stay here till the end of the harvest.”

“Why do they come along at all?”

“Desperado, the one I’m taking to the doctor. Probably the others too. For things long ago.  They couldn’t do much harm now, obviously.”

“What will happen to the dogs?”

“The migrant families won’t let them in their trucks. Maybe the one that can move, but probably not even that.”  

“Tell me when they leave. I’ll bring them some food.”

The dogs were feral, abandoned, but surviving for a time.  In other parts of the world they might join the pariahs at the edge of a village. Their status would be determined by the order of the fluid packs pariahs make and their survival would depend on their adaptation to that order. Here they had found each other. They could at least share their sorrows. 

Gridley Hall moved on to the Ford Foundation, working in South America, then died young, of AIDS.  I thought of him, and of that broken Saint Francis, when the new pope chose to take the name of the patron saint of animals.  I am not a Catholic.  Auschwitz exists, so God does not, Primo Levi argued.  If every year millions of animals are gassed, burned, mutilated, forced to fight, terrorized in countless ways, or just abandoned, happiness is not a divine principle for them either. Yet we sign petitions, scream at the wrongdoers, raise signs and arms to the sky, send letters, because we want some light for them, and for ourselves.

I did not take the time to go back. When I did it was several years later and I could not find the place, that particular stretch of old railroad, the cinder block building, anything. 

So remembering the broken saint and the camp of pariahs I pet Chloe, a false self-absolution for that and many other sins.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dogs of Detention, from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca and Camp Delta

There is probably no image more associated with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004 than the photo of Specialist Lynndie England holding what appears to be a dog leash attached to a naked prisoner.  Investigations into the abuse revealed that at least some of the five Military Working Dogs (two Army, three Navy) working at the prison were used to intimidate and frighten the prisoners.  Some prisoners were apparently bitten by the dogs. The 2010 court martial of a dog handler was described here in a prior blog. 

The recent release of over 100 U.S. detainee policy documents by Wikileaks might be expected to bring further light on abuse involving canines, but a search through all of the records so far posted shows no evidence that this is the case.  In fact, it appears that deployment of Military Working Dogs to detention facilities may have been cut back to such an extent that dogs are no longer available for some of the legitimate functions they might be expected to perform at such locations.    

Camp Bucca, Iraq, Standard Operating Procedure

Camp Bucca is a detention facility in southern Iraq near the town of Umm Qasr.  Its primary mission is to handle overflow from the Baghdad Central Confinement Facility (Abu Ghraib).  Among the documents posted by Wikileaks was the Camp Bucca, Iraq, Standard Operating Procedure (105 Military Police Battalion, October 30, 2004), labeled for official use only.  The Procedure goes into detail about how Military Working Dogs are to be used at a detention facility.  

Since the Abu Ghraib prosecutions usually referred to the general Army Policy (190-12) on canines, this document’s specific concerns with detention operations is worth detailed analysis.  Portions of the Camp Bucca documents appear adapted from Camp Delta (Guantanamo) documents that were not part of Assange’s release. The Procedure is described in detail in the appendix at the end of this piece. As can be seen from our parenthetical comments, the Procedure is not always well written or considered. 

Abu Ghraib

Just a small part of one deposition of a Navy canine handler at Abu Ghraib will be sufficient to show how some of the handlers were either tricked or ordered into ignoring standard procedures:

“I have a Belgium Melon [Malinois]. He is a control [patrol?] explosive dog. My dog had never been in a prison environment. The dogs didn't have to be retrained we used the same commands.

“On the night of 24 NOV 03 we were with the IRF [Internal Reactionary Force] when we received a call to search the hard site for explosives. We had heard also that a prisoner ... had been shot. All 5 dogs were there that night. The army dogs were for security while our dogs searched for explosives. We went to specific Tier, I couldn't tell you the name, but I could show you if I were in the facility. We searched the cells for explosives, none of the dogs responded. We were preparing to leave when we were told we needed to search another cell. I decided to conduct the search. I reentered the Tier and saw two individuals who were dressed in green BDU's [battle dress uniforms]. They instructed me to search the cell and as I approached the cell I heard a lot of shouting and screaming. I looked around and noticed that there was no one else up there; that no other cells were occupied.

“I [peeked] my head in the cell and noticed four individuals, three males and one female. One male was in the corner, two males were crouching, and the female was next to the rack. I was having a hard time controlling my dog because of the noise, and the actions that were happening. I finally got my dog under control when on[e] of the MI guys told one of the detainees, "If you don't tell me what I want to know I'm gonna get this dog on you", or words to that effect. I realized that it wasn't a search and they actually wanted my services for interrogation. I exited the cell, but my dog would break the plane of the cell. The two individuals and the female, which I know now to be an interpreter, reentered the cell and went back in a started yelling and screaming at this guy again.

“With all the yelling and screaming going on my dog breaks my control and charges the cell. The cell was very dark; the only illumination was a pin light. I see the female wincing, and I notice my dog on her arm. I immediately call my dog off of her, and my dog comes back to the heel. I ask the female to come out so I can check her. She comes out of the cell and I constantly ask her, ‘Are you alright, did he bite you??’ She says she is ok and that she wasn't bit. I looked at her arm no bite mark, no blood, and her DCU uniform wasn't torn. I once again ask her if she is ok, and does she need medical attention.  At that point I see SGT [redacted], and I ask what’s going on, and he responded by saying he didn’t know.  Once I realized what was going on I left, I didn’t want any part of what was going on.  As I was leaving, SGT [redacted] followed and then I heard someone say, ‘where’s the dog, where’s the dog??’”

(ACLU FOIA files DOD000679, DODDOA002964) For other accounts of incidents involving dogs, see The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel. 

Army vs. Navy

The deposition of the Navy canine trainer has some partially redacted language that is disturbing, suggesting that the Army and Navy handlers did not work well together.  The Navy handler giving the deposition stated that he raised questions “on what we could and could not do in this environment, but we never received straight answers.” He undertook to develop a standard operating procedure for canine operations at Abu Ghraib.  He states, “I know *** tried making the Army Handlers follow the SOP and I personally gave *** two copies of the SOP, but like I said before *** didn’t want to be part of a team…. *** set up a wall between the Army dog handlers and us.  *** stated that the Navy was basically dipping into his Kool-Aid.  I sit down with *** to try to work as one team, but *** didn’t want to work as a team.  We work for the IRF commander, and the Army dogs work for the compound.” 

The meaning of the last sentence is unclear, but may suggest that the Army handlers were more amenable to using their dogs for intimidation.  Perhaps the reason for the apparent lack of cooperation was fathomed by Major Denzil Frost in a 1990 master’s thesis prepared for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  In the thesis, A Centralized Source of Information for the Military Working Dog Program, Frost argued:

“The goal of management should be to facilitate mutual support and cooperation between the various phases/sections that produce MWDs.  Effective management creates an environment that allows the organization to meet the challenges to solve its problems.  Ineffective management generates rivalry, jealousy, parochialism, and disunity.  In this age of daily change, capability lies in flexibility.  Fragmented executive authority, coupled with the absence of a centralized source of information on working dog production leads to the compounding of bureaucratic inertia that is built into the current MWD program.”

This observation was made in 1990, but it was true at Abu Ghraib, and may be true today. As we have described before, the FBI and ATF have never seen eye-to-eye on the training of explosives detection dogs, and it is not surprising that the same is true of other federal agencies. 

Riot at Camp Bucca

Camp Bucca Layout (courtesy Zone Interdite)
An incident at Camp Bucca in November 2004, which did not involve any dogs, reads like an out-take from a Kathryn Bigelow movie.  The incident is in a memo posted by Wikileaks involving an attempted escape:

“While walking around the exterior fence of Compound 4, SGT Thorne noticed several detainees running to the cooling tent in the back of compound 4 and crawling under the southwest corner.  SGT Thorne then notified SSG Fischer of the situation where he rushed over to verify.  After verification SSG Fischer and SSG Dalton entered into Compound 4 to clear all detainees out of the cooling tent.  While SSG Fischer and SGT Dalton were walking up the east side of the compound Tower 2-4 noticed detainees grabbing at the corner of the tents pulling out stakes and bamboo sticks.  Since there were Compound Control Team members inside the compound SPC Montanez yelled for the detainees to put the weapons down and when they didn’t SPC Montanez fired one point shotgun round of non lethal munitions at the crowd.  The detainees were out of range, but they did start running toward the cooling tent. 

“When SSG Fisher and SGT Dalton came around the Northeast corner of compound 4 they noticed a large group of detainees headed toward them swinging tent poles and stakes.  SSG Fischer yelled for help from the towers.  SPC Eakes in Tower 2-5 responded by shooting seven shotgun rounds of non lethal.  Four rounds of point and three crowd dispersal shotgun rounds of non lethal munitions.  Three rounds hit one detainee in the chest, but the detainee was not apprehended and did not seek medical assistance as he took off into the compound.  SSG Fischer and SGT Dalton were escorted along the perimeter of the compound by a rover team.  As SSG Fischer and SGT Dalton crossed the shower area and in front of the holding area SPC Sommers fired two shotgun rounds of non lethal at the crowd following them  One round of point and one crowd dispersal non lethal munitions in order to help the CCTs safely escape.  The crowd of detainees was throwing rocks, poles, and anything else they could get their hands on at the two CCTs in the compound. 

“While everything was going on inside compound 4, 20-30 detainees rushed the vehicle gate of compound 4 and pushed it open.  SGT Thorne called for help and the rovers came immediately to close the gate.  Roughly 20-30 detainees escaped out of the vehicle port and headed to the southern exterior perimeter fence.  As the rovers were chasing after the escapees, 10-15  detainees started turning back and heading back to compound 4.  As they arrived at compound 4 SGT Thorne and SFC Schrock organized them by the vehicle port of compound 4. 

“When SPC Heid and SPC Sommers responded to compound 4 to assist SGT Thorne in flex cuffing the group, they noticed the detainees attempting to get up and move away.  SPC Heid yelled for them to stop and sit back down.  The detainees ignored him and started moving away.  After yelling multiple times at the group of detainees to stop, SPC Heid fired four point and one crowd dispersal non lethal shot gun rounds at the moving group of detainees.  Two point rounds did hit the detainees, but the other two pint and one crowd dispersal non lethal rounds, there was not a positive report they were hit.  There was not a positive identification on this group since they turned back and forced their way back into the compound through the same vehicle gate they came out of. 

“After the gate was secured the second time SFC Shrock parked his Humvee up against the gate for extra security. During the escape attempt SSG Signorella from compound 10, chased after and caught two detainees.  As he was walking the two detainees back to compound 4, SSG Signorella noticed three detainees running alongside the west side of compound 10, which he yelled for them to stop.  The detainees kept going so SSG Signorella fired one crowd dispersal shotgun round of non lethal munitions.  One detainee was hit for sure, but the other two kept going.  Detainee 155786 was hit with four pellets.  Three in the upper thigh of the left leg and one on the tip of the nose. 

“Because of everything going on, detainee 155786 was taken to medical instead of being treated at the compound.  Also while chasing the escaping detainees SGT Grubbs fired two point rounds of non lethal shotgun munitions at two detainees climbing up the southern outer perimeter fence.  Detainee 158798 was hit by one of the point rounds, but did not need medical assistance.  The other round did not appear to hit the other detainee.”

The fact that dogs might have secured the perimeter better than non-lethal shotgun blasts, which seem to have had little deterrent effect, is worth noting.  Also, dogs would have been useful in finding the detainees who escaped.  They may have been used, but their presence was not noted.  The policy of not deploying dogs except as an alternative to lethal intervention, described in the Camp Bucca Standard Operating Procedure, is apparently being followed. 


Camp Bucca at Night (original source unknown)
The job description of Military Working Dogs assigned to detention facilities is perhaps closer to that of the ancient war dog than any other assignment given to modern military dogs.  They are assigned to guarding, patrol, and tracking duties, but also to crowd control.  Make crowd control more aggressive and one has the war dogs the conquistadors brought to the New WorldIn one of the Abu Ghraib investigations, an assessment of an incident that occurred on August 23, 2003, stated the following:

“MP dog handlers cooperated with MI interrogators under the MPs’ watch to use dogs to frighten, intimidate, and even bite detainees…. MP dog handler SG [redacted] was disrespectful and racist (he said, ‘After working at the prison for so long, the dogs came not to like Iraqi detainees.  They didn’t like the Iraqi culture, smell, sound, skin tone, hair color, or anything about them.’)”

War dogs always did best when the enemy wore different clothing, had a different skin tone, and a different diet than the members of the army they served. This is not a matter of what they like, but whom they are trained to attack. In the heat of battle they were less likely to turn on soldiers of their own forces if the enemy was distinguishable by multiple features.  The prejudiced statement of the unidentified sergeant is a projection of his or her racist perspective, but nevertheless captures the essence of why dogs could be so effectively used in detention facilities in the Middle East.

Although the training materials released by Wikileaks are not well written or correct in some respects, we want it noted that we believe that many MWD handlers receive additional information from other sources and do not fail in some of the ways that might occur if the formal procedural materials were all that governed their actions.   

We looked at the State Department documents released by Wikileaks almost two years ago. The references to dogs in those documents largely concerned State Department support of canine operations for generally friendly governments.  Some governments were found to be abusing dogs or not using them for what they had been trained to do.  Still, there was not too much for anyone to be embarrassed about.  There is even less in the latest batch of Wikileaks releases.  The military seems to have learned its lesson.  The evidence is that dogs are not now part of abusive interrogations.  The criminal penalties given to the military staff at Abu Ghraib has cut deep.  Still, it may have made some commanders too shy. 

One also has to wonder if the Army policies that are so restrictive of service dogs on military bases might in part be the result of the bad press that some commanders feel was attended on them from Abu Ghraib.  It is time to move on.  

APPENDIX: Camp Bucca Standard Operating Procedure 

The Standard Operating Procedure includes a number of general procedures for handlers.  Handlers are to “take up a short leash upon approaching anyone with their dog to allow a safe distance between their dog and the personnel in the area.” Generally handlers are to “keep their dogs on leash.”

“As a rule, there should be at least fifteen feet between dogs or between a dog and another person. When it becomes necessary to approach other dog teams, dogs must be held on short leashes. A greater distance must be allowed during break periods because this is the time for the dogs to romp and play at the end of the leash.”

A handler should not sit or lie down when accompanied by a dog “because he would be in an extremely awkward position to control the dog if it suddenly lunged.” (Actually, it’s quite easy to control a well-trained dog from a sitting position.)

The handler should not leave a dog unattended in a patrol vehicle “for an extended period of time.” (This needs to be more specific. As we noted in a prior blog, a dog can die in 20 minutes if a vehicle is sitting in the sun on a hot day.)

“The handler will not tie his dog to any object with the leash for any extended period of time since the dog may chew through the leash, break it, gain freedom and perhaps cause injury to itself or others.” Also, dogs are not to be staked out unobserved or left unobserved with a muzzle on.   “The handler will never tie his dog to a vehicle or other movable object.  The dog might receive a serious injury if the vehicle is moved.”

Physically harmful behavior to the dog is not completely prohibited.  “Personnel should never turn their backs on dogs.  Never kick, slap or hit a dog, except when directed in training and as a training aid.” 


Standard Kennel Building Shell (AR 190-12)
The Procedure specifies that at “NO TIME will any unauthorized personnel be allowed access to the kennel facility.”  Handlers are to refrain from “running or engaging in any type of horseplay in or near the kennel area.”  The concern is that such horseplay “can create a situation wherein a dog might break out of its kennel and/or cause injury to itself, a person or another dog.” 

If a loose dog is noticed in the kennel area, “the first person to notice the animal must give the alarm ‘LOOSE DOG’ and everyone in the area, except the dog’s handler, must freeze.” The handler is to secure the dog. 

Stopping a Dog Fight

The Procedure gives detailed information about breaking up a dog fight:

“[B]reaking up a dog fight is a two-man job; no one should attempt to accomplish it alone. Fighting dogs should never be pulled apart; pulling them apart may cause a ripping or tearing of the flash and/or disable the dogs. In breaking up a dog fight. the handler should:

(a)    Keep his leash taut as he gradually works his hand toward the snap of the leash.
(b)   Firmly hold the leash one inch from the snap with his strong hand and slip his weaker hand underneath the dogs' neck.
(c)    Grab the throat of the dog with the weaker hand at a point below the lower jaw.
(d)   Choke the dog until the air supply is cut off, thus forcing the dog to release its hold.
(e)   Repeatedly command the dog "OUT!" during the entire procedure."

This seems to accept a poor level of training. A well-trained dog should not engage another dog and two dogs being handled by two handlers on lead can surely be kept apart.  While cutting off the air supply to regain control in a fight may be used in extreme circumstances, it seems a draconian response to a situation that dogs and handlers should be trained to prevent in the first place.

The Procedure assures that an “alert handler can avoid being bitten by his own dog.”  (One would hope.)

Veterinary Treatment Facilities

The handler “must always be alert and prepared to control his animal at all times while medical care is being given….  A dog must always be kept a safe distance from other dogs, handlers and vet personnel. Dogs must be muzzled and kept on a short leash at all times while in the vet clinic.” (It’s not clear how a dog that is taken to a veterinarian for medical care can always be kept a safe distance from medical personnel.  This may just be poor writing.)

Other personnel are advised not to stare at MWDs, not approach them suddenly or aggressively, avoid horseplay around them, and generally that they “are not pets and are limited in the amount of socialization they receive.” (This also assumes, and perhaps accepts, insufficient training.  Dogs should be under control and should not attack people or other dogs who look at them.)

MWD teams always have the right of way.  “If you cross paths with a MWD team ensure you give the handler at least 10 feet of distance between you and him.”  

Patrol Procedures

Handlers “must warn personnel who attempt to approach their dog that the dog will attack you without command.”  (Dogs, if trained to attack, should do so only on command, so this further indicates a lack of understanding of appropriate canine methodology.) 

“Handlers will ensure that when patrolling with the dogs in the front of the vehicle that the right side (passenger) window is rolled up sufficiently so that the dog cannot escape or jump from the window while riding in the vehicle.”

The Procedure states that the primary function of patrol dogs “is detecting unauthorized personnel and warning the handler. Once the handler has been alerted, it becomes the responsibility of the handler to cope with the situation in the most appropriate manner.”  A secondary function is “to pursue, attack and hold any escapee.  Releasing the dog constitutes the application of physical force and is governed by use of force requirements.”  (This indicates protocols accepting of the “bite and hold” approach, which may explain why this is still the primary training method in wide use by civilian law enforcement today even though “bark and hold” may be the preference for agencies, if only to reduce potential liability.)

Before a dog is released, all lesser means of force must have been attempted “when it is reasonable to do so.” The handler is “to apply the minimum amount of force necessary to prevent escape. Before releasing an MWD the handler will give the command ‘Halt’ three times.” 

The Procedure states that a MWD team is most effective on foot and that “a patrol dog used during daylight hours provides a good psychological deterrent to escape.”  Patrolling is also appropriate at night and during periods of reduced visibility, presumably e.g., sand storms. 

“The K-9 NCOIC [non-commissioned officer in charge] will ensure at a minimum there is a dog team on duty every night from 2000—0400. When both handlers are working, one team will randomly work 8 hours between 0400—2000. Handlers are encouraged to occasionally have dogs bark, and conduct aggression training within the IF [Internment Facility] area to demonstrate MWD capabilities. It is recommended that handlers do both foot and vehicle patrols within the IF area.”  In an incident at Camp Bucca described below, this procedure should have assured that a dog would be available to deal with a riot. 

Nevertheless, dogs cannot go everywhere and MWD's are to “stay out of inner perimeter of compounds unless doing riot/crowd control, extraction/protection of personnel or a command directed search of the tents for contraband.”

Guard Duty

Helicopter Seating Charts (Camp Bucca Procedures)
MWD teams may be posted around holding areas and processing centers to prevent prisoners from escaping.  They may be used to guard detainees while in transit, and assist in the search for escaped prisoners.  When taken on helicopters transporting detainees, they will be near the guards, whose seating placement is indicated in one of the documents released by Wikileaks. 

Crowd Control

Using dogs in crowd control must be determined to be “absolutely necessary by the responsible commander [and] direct confrontation with demonstrators is not recommended.”  It is to be considered “only as an alternative to the use of deadly force to gain control of the situation.”  Specific procedures are the following:

(a)    During peaceful stages of confrontation MWD teams will be held in reserve, out of sight of the crowd. As the situation worsens, dog teams may be moved forward to within sight of the crowd, but away from the front lines.
(b)   When on the front lines dogs are kept on a short leash and allowed to bite only under specific circumstances authorized by the responsible commander. Dogs will never be released into a crowd.
(c)    Other riot control personnel should be positioned approximately 10 feet from MWD teams to avoid unintentional injury.
(d)   MWD may be used to help apprehension teams catch and remove specific individuals in a group of detainees. In this role, the dog team is used only to protect members of the apprehension team.

Using short leashes in bite situations, as with riots, would seem to put handlers unnecessarily in harm’s way.  It is not difficult to see why dogs at Abu Ghraib might have been easily used for intimidation in situations that did not involve extractions.

If a handler is hurt or unconscious, another handler is to be notified immediately to take control of the MWD. 


Specific directions are given with respect to tracking dogs:

“When the need for tracking arises, personnel who are on scene should avoid the area and keep other personnel from entering the area to reduce contamination of the area. MWD's will always precede the search party: the search party should maintain a sufficient distance from the dog team to reduce distractions.”

Dogs Not Present in Interrogations

The Procedure states that Military Working Dogs are not to be used “to coerce or menace detainees during interrogation, or any other similar circumstances.” 

This was emphasized in many other places among the Wikileaks documents since the horrors of Abu Ghraib were made known.  A policy distributed by Headquarters, Multi-National Force-Iraq, on January 27, 2005, states:

“Under no circumstances will the following interrogation techniques be approved or utilized: sleep management, stress positions, diet manipulation, environmental manipulation, removal of clothing, or sensory deprivation.  Military working dogs will not be used for, or be present during interrogation.”

Violations of this policy are to be “reported through the change of command and intelligence oversight channels … and if appropriate, referred to competent authority for criminal investigation and disposition.... Suspected or alleged violations may also be reported through other appropriate military officials such as criminal investigators, Inspectors General, Chaplains, or Judge Advocates.” 

It would appear that less egregious situations might not lead to full-blown criminal actions, and might be dispensed with less formally. 


The Procedure states that “K-9 personnel train almost every day to keep up proficiency levels.  Non-handler personnel are authorized and encouraged to act as decoys.”  Realistic law enforcement based scenario training may be used.

This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. The authors thank Kingsbury Parker for comments.