Dogs: Not only are they man’s best friend, but their service and devotion to humans are, arguably, unrivaled. Among other things, they make fabulous companions, help in the detection of various diseases, provide assistance and comfort to those who need and lead search and rescue teams to lost souls who otherwise would never be found.
Our furry friends can also make excellent four-legged soldiers who serve alongside regular soldiers in combat forces across the world. To this end, dogs play an integral part in the IDF and, like all army personnel, often put themselves in harm’s way in order to serve and protect. Some even lose their lives.
Dogs have always played a significant part in the defense of Israel. Even before the creation of the state in 1948, mutts were doing their bit.
In 1939, the Hagana began to use dogs to protect their villages, which often came under threat by their Arab neighbors. Their so-called “canine unit” joined the IDF following the establishment of the state in 1948 at which time it was based in Kiryat Haim, north of Haifa.
The unit was disbanded a few years later, however, in 1954, and for the next two decades, canines didn’t play any part in the country’s security detail.
A wave of terrorist attacks in the early ’70s led to the re-establishment of the canine unit in 1974. This unit, known as Oketz (sting in Hebrew), still exists today. It started with just 11 soldiers and operated for the first 14 years in complete secrecy, during which time it participated in dozens of covert missions. The public had no idea of its existence until the 1980s when it took part in an operation in Lebanon.
Oketz operates with specially trained dogs, who play a significant role in complex and serious missions, including counterterrorism and search and rescue. Each is trained in a particular specialty, such as attack, locating weapons, detecting explosives, etc.
The dogs, some of whom are native Israelis and others who make aliyah in order to serve their country, comprise mainly German, Belgian and Dutch Shepherds. Like their human comrades, these four-legged soldiers are only assigned a specialty after a lengthy training period.
As Yaviv Stern, a certified dog trainer explained, “The initial training develops the dogs’ instincts, discipline and aggressiveness so they won’t balk in fear.”
“Only the best are selected at this stage,” he went on. “A dog that’s too apathetic, too sensitive to food or tends to chase cats, doesn’t reach the unit. It must be brave and have exceptional attributes. Its instincts are developed through biting games with rags or other objects, playing ball and lots of walks.”
Their job depends on the individual skills of each animal: “Explosives detection dogs must be extremely disciplined and quiet; search and rescue canines need a highly developed sense of smell; and attack dogs require strength and fearlessness.” (Israel Defense)
As well as the dogs, new recruits must undergo rigorous screening and testing before joining the unit, where they receive their dogs during training.
Thereafter, they spend a lot of time with their dogs, forming unbreakable bonds that are essential during military operations.
Remembering Israel's four-legged heroes
SADLY, SOME of these wonderful animals lose their lives while protecting their human comrades.
Seven-year-old Django, for example, a Border Police dog was killed in action earlier this month, when he took part in a special operation in Nablus. He was caught in an exchange of heavy crossfire during a raid by the IDF against the terrorists who murdered Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee in the Jordan Valley in early April.
Django, a courageous, four-legged soldier used himself as a shield to protect his officers from terrorist fire: “Django prevented the lives of the fighters involved from being harmed by throwing himself ‘into the line of fire as a shield to selflessly save his partners,’ a Border Police statement said,” (The Jerusalem Post).
When one of these brave doggy soldiers is killed in action, he or she is laid to rest in the canine cemetery on the Oketz base, which has a monument in the center bearing testament to the relationship between the soldiers and their canine partners.
Despite the sorrow which inevitably follows when a dog falls, their role in the unit is clear, leaving no room for guilt or apportioning blame. “The dogs’ purpose is to benefit the human, not vice versa,” says Y, one of the unit’s officers. “We arrange a small memorial service, read a short passage – something simple and symbolic – and then the soldier who lost his dog receives a new four-legged team member.”
Soldiers who draft into Oketz are fully aware of this from the start. They can only do their jobs properly if they have the ability to separate themselves absolutely from their four-legged partners when necessary.
“An absolute separation exists between humans and the dogs, and each soldier is aware of this,” states Y.
Not only do canines form an integral part of the IDF’s special forces, keeping our soldiers safe and even saving their lives on the front line, they also help soldiers and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTSD). These service dogs are trained by the Israel Guide Dog Center to help those suffering the devastating effects of trauma. Studies and reports from the center’s patients have shown how PTSD service dogs can significantly alleviate the severity and frequency of trauma symptoms.
While no one could sensibly argue that using dogs to help humans in this way is wrong, some find the role of our four-legged friends in combat situations unethical, citing it as a misuse of animals:
“I understand that using dogs like this does save our soldiers’ lives, but that doesn’t mean it is ethically acceptable. We, as a species, have convinced ourselves that we are a higher order and, as such, we can decide to do whatever we want with the rest of the natural world,” said one person, who chose to remain nameless.
For me, there is no argument: While I am your typical dog-lover who wholeheartedly believes that dogs are wonderful (I have two, Woody and Bella, and I was devastated when Hugo, our beloved spaniel, died recently), if our four-legged friends can be trained to reduce the risk of harm to our soldiers, even saving their lives in some cases, then they must be used in this way.
It’s important not to underestimate the role which canines play in the defense of Israel. As written in the Magazine, “Dogs can be a man’s best friend – and they can be a terrorist’s worst enemy.”
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel where she works at The Jerusalem Post.