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Soldier dog There are currently 1.5 million U.S. soldiers on active duty and about 2,700 dogs assisting them. (K9 Inc / Reuters / Landov)

Soldier Dogs

Military dogs use their sense of smell to keep soldiers safe

Some of the nearly 1.5 million U.S. soldiers on active duty partner with about 2,700 soldiers of the fourlegged variety—dogs!

The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines enlist dogs because of the their powerful noses. German shepherds, one of the most common breeds of soldier dogs, have a sense of smell about 45 times greater than humans. The specially trained dogs sniff out bombs, weapons, and people who pose a threat.

Soldier dogs undergo months of tough training. They learn things like obedience and how to detect certain scents. Each dog is then paired with a human soldier, called a handler, with whom it forms a deep bond. Then the hard work begins.

In combat situations, dogs often walk far in front of their units to search for hidden bombs, or enter buildings before the troops to see what’s inside. Many dogs even parachute out of airplanes with their handlers!

“These dogs do great things,” says Marine Gunnery Sergeant Greg Massey, who’s in charge of the Military Working Dog Program at the Marine Corps headquarters in Virginia. “They are heroes.”

One of the most famous soldier dogs, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo, accompanied a team of Navy SEALs when they found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. Bin Laden was the mastermind behind the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Cairo’s primary job was to detect anyone who tried to escape or enter bin Laden’s compound and to attack anyone who threatened the soldiers during the raid.

Soldier dogs go to war until they are about 9 years old. Then families adopt them, and the dogs get to live out the rest of their lives as civilian pets—a well-deserved reward after putting their lives on the line for the safety of our human soldiers and our country.

This article originally appeared in the September 3, 2012 issue of Math. For more from Math, click here.

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