The counterinsurgency operations conducted by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan use a number of new weapon systems. Yet there is room for technologies that are long in the tooth—military working dogs (MWD).

Although used in combat for centuries, the profile of military working dogs has risen in recent years. The U.S. began to train dogs in 2005 to work off-leash to detect explosives. In May, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo was involved in Operation Neptune Spear, the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. military is not the only force to recognize the utility, potential and efficacy of MWDs. Britain's investment in canine assets is on the rise, with the opening earlier this year of a training compound at Camp Bastion, and a doubling of air-conditioned kennel space at the base's Working Dogs Unit.

“Everyone wants a dog,” says Cpl. Richard Marshall, a dog handler with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in Afghanistan. “They've seen what they can do and how proven they are out here.”

British dogs in Afghanistan are trained in three roles: AES (arms and explosive search) dogs search buildings and compounds; vehicle-search dogs hunt for weapons and explosives concealed in vehicles ranging from motorbikes to trucks; and protection dogs detain, deter and detect human threats.

Gun-dog breeds such as Labradors and Springer or Cocker spaniels typically carry out search roles while the larger German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois are preferred for protection (though Malinois can also perform search). Protection dogs will “indicate to the handler the presence of an intruder,” says Marshall, and being reasonably big, they're a deterrent. All dogs are trained to bite. “They can attack with or without the handler's command.”

Individual temperament rather than breed characteristics decides whether a search dog is better suited to a vehicle or AES role. “An AES dog needs a bit more variety in his life to keep him going,” Marshall explains, “whereas vehicle-search dogs are quite happy doing vehicle after vehicle.”

The advantages are clear. A search dog can complete a check of a truck or compound more quickly and with greater accuracy than a human, and a protection dog gives a patrol an additional point of escalation between a verbal exchange and cocking a weapon.

But there are downsides. While dogs are not unknown in Afghanistan, “as a rule, [Afghans] don't like dogs,” Marshall notes, so MWDs may not be advisable in a hearts-and-minds operation. Moreover, since the public donates most British military dogs and procurement cost is minimal, training is specialized, protective equipment is necessary, and the added load on a handler is significant.

“The handler has to carry double the water and food of a normal person on patrol, because he's got the dog to look after as well,” says Marshall. “If you're going to put a dog on a helicopter, he will need his hearing protected, so you need Mutt Muffs. There are Doggles for his eyes, and boots in case you're walking over glass or anything like that. We have cooling jackets as well, if they get too hot, though we find they acclimatize as easily as we do.”

Deaths among working dogs are rare—three British dogs have been killed in Afghanistan, as well as two handlers—but injury is an ever-present threat. Handlers have to learn canine first-aid, and try to pass the basics on to fellow patrol members if they are incapacitated and someone else has to assist the animal. There are military veterinarians in theater, but they may not always be at Camp Bastion. In serious incidents, dogs are medevaced with troops and may be operated on by surgeons in the [human] hospital. “They're very good with us up there,” says Marshall. “We've had X-rays and dental work done on the dogs.”

As a result, most animals make it to retirement. The U.K.'s Defense Animal Center maintains a database of people keen to adopt the dogs.

Industry is helping to make dogs more versatile partners. A Canadian company, K9 Storm Inc., supplies vests with different levels of ballistic and stab protection that retail for $2,000-3,000. The company's latest product is K9 Storm Intruder, a waterproof vest with integrated camera and antenna, enabling video and night-vision footage from a dog to be broadcast to a handler's monitor.