FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- During the month of July, a handful of U.S. Army South Soldiers traveled to Colombia and Honduras to conduct subject matter expert exchanges with partner nation soldiers and civilians.
While subject matter expert exchanges, or SMEEs, are not an uncommon form of engagement within Army South's area of responsibility, the topic of these two proved to be an exception. The focus for each one of these engagements centered on military working dogs, or MWDs.
During the two engagements, the focus of each SMEE shifted slightly. While Colombia possesses a more robust MWD program, the Honduran army is in its early stages of development. "Because the two countries are in different stages of their programs, we chose to center our exchanges based on what was important to each of them," said Master Sgt. Kirby West, the Army South military working dog program manager. The veterinary working group focused on exchanging classes to create better understanding of each country's Veterinary Corps and MWD programs. The classes led to discussions on challenges each program faces and points of collaboration.
During the trip to Colombia, the Army South contingent chose to highlight the proper care of the working dogs to include the detection and treatment of common diseases among the dogs, specifically Leishmaniasis, a disease caused by protozoan parasites that is transmitted by the bite of certain fly species. Leishmaniasis is a disease that affects MWDs and Soldiers, often leaving permanent scars and potentially impacting force readiness.
During the SMEE, West and Lt. Col. Jerrod W. Killian, the Army South chief of clinical operations and command veterinarian, worked with 15 veterinarians and two dog handlers from the Colombian army. This exchange was the first time all 15 Colombian veterinarians were gathered in one area for a class.
"The discussions centered on the prevention and treatment of MWDs diagnosed with diseases specifically Leishmaniasis," said West. "We also discussed other important topics such as the proper care and treatment of the working dogs while they are deployed." Both groups presented veterinary classes, and discussions geared toward mitigating the impact of Leishmaniasis. In addition, the Colombians learned how to collect tissue samples of an working dog with active Leishmaniasis. This was the first time most of the Colombian veterinarians were shown how to collect samples.
Currently, the working life of a Colombian MWD is about five years. In the U.S., a working dog can be expected to work up to 10 years. With proper disease detection and care of their MWDs, the Colombian army is hoping to extend the working life of their approximately 3,500 working dogs.
"The Colombian military fully understands the value of their working dogs in detecting improvised explosive devises and narcotics," said Killian, who led the veterinarian SMEE. "There is no piece of equipment that can replace these dogs. So, keeping them healthy is critical and requires a deliberate and robust veterinary team. The Colombian Army has increased the number of veterinarians in uniform, from three to 15, over the last year. This investment in veterinarians will certainly extend the working lifespan of Colombian MWDs." Prior to leaving Colombia, the Army South contingent toured one of Colombia's largest military kennels and received information on Colombia's MWD breeding program.
With the cost and time commitment invested in selecting and training a working dog, the importance of an effective breeding program becomes vital. In the U.S., a dog selected to become an MWD does not start training until approximately 15 months of age, while in Colombia, dogs as young as four months begin their training to become MWDs. "The Colombian army's breeding program appears to have found the right way to breed dogs to become MWDs," said West. "They have successfully bred more than 140 dogs with a 100 percent success rate." After leaving Colombia, the Army South team shifted their focus to assist the Honduran army in their implementation of a brand new MWD program. Honduras began the construction of their first kennel and purchased their first MWDs in May of this year. While they currently only have seven dogs, the Honduran army hopes to have that number swell to 30 dogs by mid next year.
"It's a new program and they are reaching throughout the region for assistance," said West.
Dominican soldiers are working with Honduran MWD handlers to train them on the proper use of the MWDs. In September, there is a plan to send 20 Honduran handlers to Colombia for training.
The Honduran army commanders see the importance of a strong MWD program in countering transnational organized crime, said West.
"These dogs are a force multiplier," said West. "They can detect and locate substances that we can't see." Like in Colombia, an emphasis on the care of the dogs was stressed to the Honduran soldiers in attendance. The Army South contingent gave classes on where and how to use the MWDs, the cost of maintenance for the dogs, equipment requirements, certification and training standards and a veterinarian brief on the initial and continuing care for the MWDs.
"Our SMEE with the Hondurans focused on the operational planning and utilization, the organizational structure and certification and training of an MWD program," said West. "This is important in the implementation of a successful MWD program." Even though the MWD programs in Colombia and Honduras are in vastly different stages of their development, the importance of the programs to the security of the region remains the same. And while security and stability in the Central American region remains crucial, West and Killian believe lessons learned from both SMEEs can have a lasting impact on MWD programs in the United States as well. "The ability to exchange information and dialogue with both armies will have a lasting effect on both countries' dog programs," said West. "We can certainly learn just as much from our partners as they can learn from us."