War Dog Given Hero’s Funeral

Featured Story

‘Save Robby’ campaign allowed retired war dogs to be adopted
The Daily News, February 21, 2001

Robby, an 8-year old Belgian Malinois, will be laid to rest tomorrow at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery during a funeral service befitting a military hero.

Major John Probst, commander of the United States Air Force 341st Training Squadron, will escort Robby’s remains from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to his final resting place in the nation’s first pet cemetery.

Robby’s simple granite stone, flanked by American flags and a bed of flowers, reads: “Devoted Military Dog: The Inspiration of for the First War Dog Retirement Law.”

A color guard detail from the American Legion Post No. 8 of New Rochelle will fire the guns in the fallen soldier salute. In his prime, Robby was one of 1,400 active-duty dogs trained by the United States Department of Defense for patrol and scout work or drug and explosives protection. Later, he was the graying canine face behind the national “Save Robby” campaign, which led to the first law allowing the adoption of retired military working dogs.

Robby’s followers and other dog lovers will gather tomorrow to bury him beside the War Dog Memorial, a majestic World War I-era statue of a bronze German Shepherd atop an eight-ton granite rock on the cemetery’s summit. The funeral will be at 1pm at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, 75 North Central Avenue in Hartsdale.

Just as the monument represents the countless unknown canines, who devoted themselves to the war cause, Robby’s remains symbolize the dogs who served honorably during peacetime only to be euthanized and thrown out with garbage when they could no longer work, said Beverly Gainer, tomorrow’s keynote speaker.

“We don’t know how many lives have been saved by these dogs, how many terrorists attempts have been prevented because bombs were sniffed out by dogs,” said Gainer, a “Save Robby” organizer. “The minimum we can do for anyone who gives his life in service of the country and saving human lives is to give them the opportunity to have a few restful years and burial.”

Gainer, a veteran service officer for Travis County, Texas, who is also a canine obedience trainer, will tell how the Save Robby Campaign, born about a year ago when the dog’s military handler tried unsuccessfully to adopt his aging canine partner led to a law supporters said is long overdue.

She also will unveil phase 2 of the campaign–the push to open retirement to dogs at an earlier age so they can enjoy it. Military dogs serve approximately eight good years of active duty before they are returned to Lackland Air Force Base, where all military dogs are trained, to report for lighter jobs. By the time dogs are considered for adoption, they are too frail to enjoy long walks on beaches or eating scraps at the dinner table, Gainer said.

“For the past 50 years, the military has worked dogs until they can’t work anymore,” said Gainer, a Vietnam era vet. The history of dogs of war is documented as far back as Assyrian temple carvings depict great dogs straining at their leads during battle, according to the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery Web site. Ferocious dogs were at the siege of Corinth.

By World War I, dogs were trained both as messengers and something like medics, taught to venture onto fields after battle to look after fallen soldiers, said Edward Martin, cemetery director. During World War II, thousands of American families volunteered their pets. Dog hero stories are well documented. Chips, who served three tours in Africa and Europe, is among dog heroes presumed to be buried in Hartsdale. He captured 12 prisoners during one attack in Italy and earned several awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.

Chips returned to civilian life to live out his days, according to dog historian Mary Elizabeth Thurston, who wrote about the “Save Robby” campaign for DOGWORLD magazine.

Thurston said the high regard dogs were held in eroded in 1949. Citing complaints from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Order of the Purple Heart, all war dogs were demoted from personnel to “equipment.” They were stripped of their honors.

Since the Vietnam War era, military dog handlers have tried to adopt the dogs that many became attached to in war and had to leave behind. When Robby came around, the conditions were ripe for a national movement, Thurston said.

“His was one specific face instead of just the statistic like a flat 200 dogs a year,” said Thurston, referring to the number of military dogs who are euthanized annually. “I’ve never seen an issue in which the full specter of the dog world was in total agreement.”

Dog chat sites, Web sites about Robby and a petition drive steamed the momentum. It didn’t hurt that Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD. was in attendance at a demonstration of dog prowess and skill at Quantico Marine Corps Base when Robby collapsed in pain during a military exercise. Bartlett sponsored the bill that was ultimately signed into law November 6th by former President Clinton.

Only two dogs have been eligible to take advantage of retirement. Ronnie, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois who was the first adopted dog, recently was put to sleep, Probst said. He was retired four or five months when he was diagnosed with bone cancer.

A third dog is a candidate, but must be put through a thorough evaluation process, according to Probst, who will also speak at the service.

He said he doubted many dogs would be able to take advantage of adoption because they were typically in failing health by the time they returned to Lackland.

“The dogs we pick are some of the healthiest, strongest dogs available,” Probst said. “Their bodies are used a little more than the average pet who gets to sit on the couch and help you watch TV.”

Another issue is the fact the dogs have spent practically their whole lives on the jobs, sometimes as trained killers. “On average, a dog like Robby or Ronnie comes to us at one year of age, work until the end of their useful days. Usually, by the time their health starts failing, they are thoroughly indoctrinated.”

Thurston said a solution would be to consider dogs for retirement at an earlier age. Moreover, she said, “Save Robby” movement members who have expertise reindoctrinating service dogs have offered their help.

“There are people on the outside world standing ready to help and support [the military],” she said. “Yes, we know these dogs’ medical problems and we know the behavior of these dogs.”

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What kind of records does the facility keep?

Hartsdale records are maintained on a network of eight computers. All burials and cremations are entered on a daily basis. All burial plots indicate the owner’s name and address, the pet’s name, type of care (perpetual or annual) type of flower care (perpetual or annual), plot size, monument information, etc. With respect to cremations all individual cremations include the cremation number, owner’s name and address, pet’s name, attending veterinarian or clinic, date of cremation, date pet’s remains returned, etc. In addition the cemetery maintains copies of burial right certificates, cremation certificates and pet records.

How can I be sure that I am getting my own pet's remains back?

As indicated above the pet holder can always make arrangements to be at Hartsdale for the cremation. However if the owner cannot be present they can be assured that the staff at Hartsdale takes great care in assuring that the pet owner gets the correct ashes back. They accomplish this by verifying/checking the paperwork that is generated from the specific description, case number if applicable, owners name and pets name. This is done at a minimum of three times and the cremation itself is then witnessed by two of our staff.

Can I witness the commencement of the cremation process?

Yes. Hartsdale has what is termed a witnessed cremation. What this entails is that the pet holder makes an appointment to be at Hartsdale at a specific time and date. Upon arriving, for their appointment the pet is placed into a temporary casket and the pet holder is able to spend time with the pet in our viewing room. When the pet owner is ready they may then follow the pet to the crematory and witness the pet going into the unit. Then when the cremation process is complete, normally between 1½ to 3 hours depending on the size of the pet, the pet holder leaves with the cremains.