Whenever the public thinks about vocations that local males have to go through as part of the National Service programme, training and handling dogs doesn’t usually come to mind. Unbeknownst to many, dogs have played a significant role in Singapore’s defence for many years.
With the recent news that retired sniffer dogs from the police, military and civil defence units can now be officially adopted by the public , I was curious about what it’s like for an NSman to work with not just military weapons, but dogs.
The news also garnered mixed reactions from the online public, with some netizens worried that “large and aggressive dogs” will now be roaming their HDB neighbourhoods.
To gain a deeper insight, I contacted Kenneth*, a dog handler who had just finished his National Service in the Military Working Dog Unit (MWDU).
They Are Not One And The Same
Having worked in the MWDU for a long time, Kenneth shares the same sentiments that the general public is largely unaware of the roles of military dogs in the MWDU, and other similar defence units in Singapore.
Currently, there are dogs working in the Singapore Police Force, the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and the Singapore Armed Forces, where the Military Working Dog Unit is part of the Military Police Command.
These dogs begin with basic obedience training at 18 months old, after which they will undergo more specialised training as either guard dogs or sniffer dogs.
Guard dogs, such as German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois dogs, play a huge role in military security. They often have a keen sense of smell to be easily aware of any intruder or trespasser, and undergo attack and agility training.
Sniffer dogs, such as Cocker Spaniels and English Springer Spaniels, may be smaller in size. However, there are also larger breeds such as Labrador Retrievers. These dogs are tasked to sniff out hidden explosives, weapons or other contraband items in public areas.
Kenneth, who was in charge of a malinois, is well aware of the stereotypes placed against guard dogs.
“The stereotype of fierce and aggressive attack dogs are very wrong. They are just a minority in the unit. If anything, most of our guard dogs are very affectionate, especially after you bond with them,” he explains.
All dog handlers like Kenneth have to undergo a basic dog training course before being assigned to one dog for the entire duration of his National Service. As a dog handler, Kenneth tells me that he spends a lot of time every single day with his assigned dog.
A typical day will usually consist of kennel cleaning, dog grooming, feeding, the usual exercising and occasional playtime. However, daily schedules at each unit may differ due to their different job scopes.
“Our kennels are clean enough that we do sit in them or nap in them with our own assigned dogs,” he adds.
When asked about the most rewarding aspect of his job, Kenneth tells me that it may “sound cliche”, but he feels the most satisfied when he sees his dog healthy and happy.
“It is very hard to put into words the satisfaction I get upon seeing my dog’s excitement when he sees me, or simply when he’s around me.”
He also adds that he feels satisfied when his dog sleeps soundly in his lap. “Not unlike seeing a little kid sleep, I suppose,” he adds humorously.
As a dog lover myself, I understand the deep sense of satisfaction he was describing. One could only experience such intense emotions when you have forged a deep bond with an animal that you truly cared for.
Not All Fun And Games
On the other hand, Kenneth also describes the challenges of working in the MWDU.
One fundamental aspect of his job as a guard dog handler is to work overnight and experience irregular working hours, which had somewhat “screwed up” his body clock.
Additionally, the MWDU also provides extensive medical care to the dogs themselves after consulting external vets. Kenneth states that in certain cases, the handler may be required to provide the dog with special medical treatment, and that can be challenging at times.
At the end of the interview, Kenneth elaborates on the general misconceptions the public might tend to have about military dogs and the MWDU, among which the most prominent and controversial was that the MWDU puts their dogs to sleep once they are old and unhealthy.
“We only put them to sleep when they are truly suffering,” Kenneth explains.
He then recounts an incident when his boss was reluctant to put one of the old dogs to sleep despite its ill health. “The dog was pretty much disabled…he could not control his bladder and bowels…(and) had to be hand fed,” Kenneth says.
Eventually, the decision was made to euthanize the dog, as it was unbearable to see the dog suffer for the rest of its life.
Every Dog Needs A Home
Upon retirement at around 8 years of age, the military dogs will be housed in kennels and taken care of till the end of their lives.
However, like many other members of the MWDU, Kenneth’s greatest wish is to see these dogs happily adopted.
When asked about the public’s possible fears that these dogs might be aggressive in nature, Kenneth explains that there is no need to worry. The dogs are specially trained to only attack based on commands, or when the handlers are threatened.
“The guard dogs that we put up for adoption…are (also) assessed for aggression and how well they will fit into the outside world,” he adds.
Kenneth also has intentions to adopt his own dog if he gets the chance to. “I would love to adopt him so that he can interact with other dogs, make friends, and enjoy something other than dried dog food for once.”
After all, these dogs have contributed to the safety of the nation with unwavering loyalty and devotion.
They definitely deserve a loving home.
*Not his real name