The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan has led to a dog surge — and unexpected problems in procuring high-quality dog food with enough protein and nutrients for hundreds of canines used to find explosives and perform other energy-intensive missions.
Along with about 37,000 U.S. and NATO troops, the number of military working dogs being brought into the country to search for mines, explosives and to accompany soldiers on patrol is increasing substantially, according to Nick Guidas, the American K-9 project manager for Afghanistan.
Guidas, a civilian contractor who primarily oversees dog operations in southern Afghanistan, said he has 50 dogs on operational teams and about 20 more awaiting missions. He expects that number to go up to 219 by July.
"It may go as high as 315 dogs in Afghanistan," he said Saturday at a crowded kennel full of highly trained German and Dutch Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labradors on this air base, the hub of U.S. and international security forces' operations in the volatile Kandahar area.
"Because of the surge there is more need for working dogs. But one of my main problems is getting dog food," he said. "It's hard to convince people sometimes that it's a priority, but it's a necessity if we are to keep these dogs working."
Guidas said because of the energy-intensive demands of their missions, the dogs require special food and can't just eat scraps.
The dog food, which is made commercially in the United States and has extra protein and nutrients to keep the dogs healthy while working in the heat and cold, must be shipped to Pakistan and then trucked to Kandahar.
But space on trucks is limited and prioritized. Food and supplies for humans come first, and logistics planners are still adjusting for the eating needs of the bigger pack of dogs to be put to work.
"It doesn't get a higher priority than a Coke or some potato chips," Guidas said of the dog food. "It moves when it moves."
Even so, the dogs have become an essential component of many units because of their versatility. They can be trained to search for a wide variety of explosives and parts used in making improvised bombs.
In the past month alone, military dogs in southern Afghanistan have made 20 finds of unexploded devices, weapon caches and other materiel.
The U.S. has about 2,800 military dogs, the largest canine force in the world. It has used dogs in combat since World War I.
The dogs don't come cheap. It costs about $40,000 per dog a year, and each goes through about five months of training. This year, Guidas expects the cost of the dog food that he needs to reach $200,000, up from about $80,000 last year.
He said each dog can work for five or six years, but the demands of the terrain and of the mission are harsh, particularly on the dogs' joints. If a dog is injured or sick, it is not sent out on operations.
Only two military dogs have been lost in southern Afghanistan in the past five years, Guidas said.
"We take very good care of these dogs," he said. "In some cases they are treated better than us."