Faithful Friends looks to find handlers for retired bomb detection dogs
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Woody and Raka don’t act like heroes.
Romping in the lobby of the Faithful Friends Animal Sanctuary in Salisbury, the Labrador retrievers chase tennis balls, chew a toy lobster and roll on their backs in their camouflage-covered dog beds.
But two years ago, the dogs were serving in the Army during the Iraq War. For several tours of duty, they sniffed out bombs and explosive materials to protect U.S. soldiers.
“There’s no telling how many lives these dogs saved while they were over there, and they deserve the best in their retirement years,” said Shelley Swaim, operations manager for Faithful Friends. “And that’s what we’re going to make sure they get.”
Earlier this month, Swaim received a phone call from the Rowan County Animal Shelter. A woman had surrendered two Labs she could no longer care for.
“I have two special American heroes here,” Swaim remembers hearing on the phone. “I think you’re going to want to see them.”
The mother of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. John Stewart, who returned from serving in Afghanistan on Christmas Day, Swaim was wearing his dog tags around her neck as she listened to the story of Woody and Raka.
She burst into tears.
“I’ll be there in five minutes,” she told the shelter.
Faithful Friends is still searching for complete information about the dogs, but here’s what Swaim has learned so far:
Woody, 7 years old, and Raka, 9, were deployed several years ago to Iraq. They were trained by the military and served as bomb detection dogs in Baghdad and a forward operating base in Tikrit.
They likely served four or five tours back-to-back and had several different handlers as the soldiers rotated out.
Toward the end of their service, while Woody was on patrol and Raka was locked in his kennel, the building where the dogs were housed caught fire. Several dogs perished in the blaze, but Raka was saved.
Shortly after the fire, both dogs were retired.
The Army does not pay to ship retired dogs home after their service, but a veterinary technician who cared for the dogs was returning to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.
She paid to have the dogs shipped home with her, and Woody and Raka returned to the United States in October 2010.
The technician’s mother lives in Rowan County and took the dogs into her home.
The mother then suffered severe financial hardship and will move with her daughter to Hawaii, where the technician has been reassigned. They can’t take the dogs, so the mother surrendered them to the shelter.
“We are trying to put the rest of the pieces together,” Swaim said. “We haven’t been able to get the answers we need.”
Ideally, Swaim and Mary Padavick, Faithful Friends president, would like to reunite the dogs with someone who handled them in Iraq.
But if they can’t find a handler, they will allow members of the public to adopt the dogs.
They already have a flood of applications.
Every person in the top five potential placements has served in a branch of the U.S. military. And even after adoption, several have said they are willing to turn the dogs over to one of their Army handlers if ever located.
“They really want to provide the best they can for the dog,” Swaim said. “It’s not about ‘I want a Katrina dog,’ or ‘I want a bomb-sniffing dog.’ ”
Swaim will not insist the dogs go to the same home.
“It’s not a requirement to stay together,” she said. “It’s all going to be about finding the perfect place for each dog.”
Volunteer Mark Parshall bought the extra-large dog beds, and volunteer Janet Gill covered them with authentic Army camouflage, brought back from Afghanistan by Swaim’s son.
Gill said it was the toughest sewing assignment she’s ever had.
“I was so scared, knowing where it came from and what these dogs did for us,” she said.
She also sewed a camo bandana for each dog, and Parshall had their names embroidered on the beds and bandanas.
When the dogs first arrived at Faithful Friends, they immediately went to a car in the parking lot. Swaim was concerned, then realized they were searching it.
“They still have the training and the instinct,” she said. “They still remember their jobs.”
The dogs have amazing personalities, know several commands and are “incredibly social,” Swaim said.
“They were well-trained and well-cared for,” she said.
The dogs are on a diet to lose a few pounds. Raka, an American Lab, suffers from anxiety and licks a spot on his leg raw. He is being treated for the condition, which shows improvement.
“Basically, he has dog post-traumatic stress disorder,” Padavick said.
Woody, an English Lab with a square head and boxier muzzle, took pleasure Sunday in jumping into Raka’s dog bed whenever his buddy got up.
“They are the best dogs,” Padavick said.
The public can meet Woody and Raka Saturday at Bark for Life, a canine event to raise money for Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society.
“Our boys,” as Swaim calls them, will walk with Faithful Friends volunteers at the event, which starts at 10 a.m. at the Rowan County Fairgrounds.
Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. and costs $15 at the event or $10 in advance. All dogs current on vaccinations and on leashes are welcome.
It’s rare for canine veterans to end up in an animal shelter, Swaim said.
“It’s really necessary to give back to them because they served for us,” Padavick said. “And now we want to do right by them.”
To learn more about Faithful Friends, call 704-633-1722 or go to www.faithfulfriendsNC.org .
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.