By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense chief canine correspondent
The Canine Detection Research Institute of Auburn University -- the very same that developed the vapor wake dog -- has a new technology, a remote and potentially long-range guidance system for military and police-enforcement dogs.
The idea behind this new invention is that it allows working dogs to maneuver through areas -- whether to search for drugs or hunt down explosives -- all without a human handler. The "hand" that guides can be from a remote location, even miles away if they're able to perfect the technology.
Here's how it works:
The handler conceivably commands the detection-dog via auditory tones, and steers it by triggering vibrations on the sides of the harness's 'backpack.' Initial tests apparently generated positive results, as subject 'Major' responded to commands with an 80-percent accuracy rating."
From what I've read, the idea is that a dog, unencumbered by its human handler, can take on the really "risky" jobs. This increases the "stealth" factor since the dog is less visible and free to go where man can't. But, as you can see from the photo above, the system is external, and large and cumbersome at that. Military dogs -- typically very well-trained, purebred dogs in excellent health of recognizable breeds -- already stand out. This large satellite contraption seems to me little more than a giant target on a dog's back. The only clear benefit is that the danger for the dog's handler has altogether been removed, while I wonder: Is the danger now greater for the dog?
Which leads us to another, broader question about how these war dogs function in the greater, more strategic eyes of the military: When we strip away the emotional bonds and companionship, are these dogs more soldier or service?
Based on the last year's worth of these posts, we've come across conflicting anecdotes. In many cases, dogs were clearly not seen as four-legged soldiers. During the Vietnam War the canines flown in were classified as "surplus equipment" and left behind when U.S. and allied troops left. And the most crude example I've come across: During WWII the German Army used their military dogs for detonation, reducing them to mobile bombs.
But more recently, the dogs on the ground and Afghanistan and Iraq are treated like any other active-duty human soldier. They are helicoptered to hospitals, given blood transfusions, and when necessary, undergo extensive life-saving surgeries. One could argue that thousands of dollars go into the breeding and training these dogs and that the attention and extreme measures and expense afforded on their behalf is merely the military protecting its significant investment.
Still, the military of today seems to be trending away from treating its war dogs as trainable robots or pieces of "equipment" and considers them true comrades in arms -- utilizing all the many benefits they provide their troops, many of them psychological as well as physical. And in that vein, nothing of significance prompts me to believe that this new navigation invention -- at least in its current form -- will add to the service our war dogs provide. I can't imagine many handlers feeling otherwise.
If there is a case to be made, let me know. In the meantime, if the military wants to employ a GPS system for its dogs, I'd rather it be one like this.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.