From sniffing out explosives to standing guard, dogs are often an integral part of military services, and Navy SEAL Mike Ritland, founder of the Warrior Dog Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Team Dog, understands this better than almost anybody. Ritland works with dogs after they're finished serving to essentially get them accustomed to civilian life, and either houses the retired dogs, or places them in new homes. Along with his job training dogs for branches of the U.S. government and military including the Department of Homeland Security, Customs, and the Department of Defense, there are few people who know as much about the life of these four-legged heroes.
Are there any big differences between the way a Navy SEAL dog is trained and dogs in other parts of the military?
Yes. Each SOF (Special Operations Forces) unit has very specific mission sets that the dogs need to be able to operate with them on. Because of this, each unit has its own program designed to specifically meet its needs.
Traditionally, how long does a dog train for before it's allowed to work with SEALs?
Several years, the dogs are usually several years old before they are deployed, and they start their training at just a month old or so. Think of a Spartan warrior type training mentality with these dogs: They are bred, raised and trained for this type of work.
You talk in your upcoming book about certain traits SEALs have for a potential candidate for members of the team. Are there any particular traits you look for when selecting a dog, or can any dog be trained to work with a SEAL team?
My next book shifts focus from SOF dogs to how we can apply the same training to a pet at home, but it takes a very special dog to do SOF type operations, and we have a very specific and thorough selection test to find the very best candidates. Only a fraction of a percentage of dogs that we look at actually make it to a team.
There are 5 main categories I look at when testing a dog:
2. Environmental stability (will go anywhere like they own the place)
3. Prey drive (willingness to chase objects)
4. Hunt drive (willingness to use their nose to search for objects)
5. Natural forward aggression/heart
I wanted to ask about the Warrior Dog Foundation. About how many dogs do you work with and place into homes every year?
The Warrior Dog Foundation continues to grow every year, and we house most of the retired dogs indefinitely, but are able to rehabilitate a handful of retired dogs each year to families or private individuals.