The Army’s Superdog Program: How You Can Train Your Dog To Be a Superdog


This brings us to the United States Army’s contribution to our knowledge of dogs, which occurred when the military attempted to apply these findings in order to rear the “perfect dog.” The army’s motives were quite practical, since the use of dogs in the military is widespread. Although the exact number of dogs employed across all of the military services is classified, we can get some idea from information which was released by the 341st Training Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, which operates the Defense Military Working Dog Program for the U.S. Air Force.

More than 125 military personnel are working full-time as dog trainers in this facility, which contains 62 training areas and spreads over 3,350 acres. There are 691 kennel spaces in this facility alone, and trained dogs are shipped out to military installations around the world. Given that the air force is only one of the services with dog training facilities, it is likely that thousands of dogs are probably being trained for military purposes each year. 

Although many dogs are trained for patrol use only, which includes scouting, searching, and attacking, others are trained for property protection. One of the most important uses of dogs is in detection work, which involves finding explosives, firearms, and drugs. Dogs are also called upon to locate land mines. In various countries that have been subjected to war and civil conflict, such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Rwanda, two or more people, on average, fall victim to land mines each hour.

The military have more than seven hundred dogs assigned to locating mines in these countries at the time of this writing. The dogs are faster and more efficient than mechanical and electronic detection means, which is especially important given that there are millions of acres of land contaminated with mines to be dealt with. 

Back in the 1960s the U.S. Army became interested in using dogs for detecting explosives, including land mines. What prompted this was the fact that manufacturers of mines had begun to use plastics and other nonmetallic components that were invisible to the metal detectors normally used to find mines.

In addition, magnetic mine detectors do not work well in areas where metal content is high in the soil, or where there are many bits of metal scattered on the surface or below, such as in former battle locations which are apt to be strewn with expended shells, bullets, and bits of metallic debris. None of these conditions is a problem for dogs, however, because they are sensing the explosive chemicals directly; the presence or absence of metals is irrelevant to them. 

The Army Veterinary Corps started a Biosensor Research Division to do research on the mine detection problem. The idea was to have animals (mostly dogs), which would be trained to locate mines and other substances of interest. The term “biosensor” indicates that animals, rather than electronic sensors, were being used to find explosives. The division aimed to develop techniques that would produce dogs that were physically fit and had the sound temperament and high intelligence needed to perform these services.

Financial, as well as efficiency considerations, were behind this effort. To train and maintain such a mine detection dog can be very expensive. The process takes, on average, about twenty months, and can cost in excess of $100,000. Most of this cost is simply the salaries paid to the personnel and the handlers who are training the dog over this extended period. Obviously, with such an investment of time and money in each dog it is important that the dog be physically sound, so that it can have a reasonable lifespan and a long, successful time in active service.

For example, German shepherd dogs were known to develop hip dysplasia, a crippling genetically related disease that could end a dog’s usefulness in the military. One success of this program was to develop breeding programs to eliminate hip dysplasia from the potential army dogs. 

Having a physically sound dog is not enough, however. The dog has to have an appropriate and stable personality. It is a fact that dogs are more likely to be dropped from service dog training programs because of psychological and behavioral problems than for physical shortcomings. Traveling to war-torn countries can be stressful, and if the dog does not react well to stress, its ability to perform is impaired. If the dog is not sociable around humans and does not take instruction well, it will be difficult to train.

If the dog is spontaneously aggressive, it will complicate relations with civilians and others in the work area and may be a potential danger to the people it encounters. For all of these reasons, an applied research program was begun with the goal of creating a dog with a sound personality. 

It has proven difficult to get full access to the records of the research from the biosensor program. Some of the documents describing the research are still considered classified, but through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act some material was made available to me. From this, I learned that the operation was set up at Edgewood Arsenal, some sixty miles north of Washington, DC, near Baltimore, under the command of Colonel M. W. Castleberry.

The most complete information available deals with the group of German shepherd dogs bred between 1968 and 1976 and subjected to various special early stimulation conditions. Detailed records were available for 575 animals representing four years of testing. The animals were born under controlled conditions and came from a set of eighteen sires and seventy-one dams.

At this facility, in addition to an unspecified number of researchers and veterinarians, there were also forty-eight human handlers involved in the training and testing of the dogs. A few reports that made their way out to the popular press referred to this research as the “Superdog Program.” 

The biosensor rearing program attempted to improve the personality of the dogs by providing the pups with mild stress early in their life. Colonel Castle- berry described what the researchers were trying to develop this way: 

“Temperament is the big problem. You want a bold, outgoing, self-confident dog. I define temperament as that ability in a dog to induce respect from a human being. We don’t want dogs that are fearful, slinky, apathetic, that snap at you when you’re not looking or that are out-and-out vicious. A puppy that runs right out and greets you in a friendly manner—that’s a damn good puppy.” “The chief problem of temperament is in developing a dog that is calm and cool, but not one that is so calm and cool that he doesn’t care.” 

Michael W. Fox, who was then with Washington University in St. Louis and ultimately would go on to become the scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States, was one of the researchers who helped set up the stimulation procedures used by the army and was also called upon to assess their effects. Puppies bred as part of the program were subjected to a full hour of intense controlled stimulation for four to five weeks.

They were exposed to flashing lights and a variety of sounds. They were exposed to cold stress by putting the pups into a refrigerator for a minute each day, they were put in a device that looks like a tilted merry-go-round for a short period and then on a sort of teeter-totter device that tilted them back and forth. They were physically manipulated, including touching of their paws, mouths, and other body parts. They were put in a bath that was deep enough to require them to swim, and then rubbed dry and brushed.

From three weeks of age on, they had a daily play period with their human researcher. Some of these experiences were clearly more than mildly stressful for the pups, because, as one researcher described it “There was a lot of unhappy yelping and squealing especially when they were cold-stressed, tilted, and whirled, when they were very young.” 

The results of these experiments proved that puppies that were handled and stressed in this manner grew up to be more confident, less fearful, and were better problem solvers. They also explored their world more and seemed less likely to be emotionally upset by unexpected events, loud sounds, and bright lights later in life. They seemed more socially dominant compared to pups that had not had such early experiences. 

Overall, they tended to learn more quickly and to remember better the things that they had learned. Indeed, they did seem to be the “superdogs” that the army was seeking. 

Unfortunately, all was not perfect. Some pups found the stimulation far too intense, and eventually failed some of the temperament tests. The fact that there are individual differences among dogs, and a suggestion that the basic program of stimulation might have exceeded the optimal levels of early stimulation, was later verified by Fox using beagles instead of the army’s German shepherds. 

The best research to date has greatly toned down the intensity and duration of stimulation, and evidence is that a milder form of early stress produces all of the benefits of the Superdog program, without triggering negative effects or damaging the personalities of even the least resilient puppies.

Overall, this modified Superdog program produces smarter and more stable pups than you would get if you simply left the pup alone at this time (as some books on dog rearing advise), or just presumed that its mother and littermates will provide adequate stimulation. Active handling of the puppy by humans is all that is required, and one does not need any special equipment. Let me outline how such a program of early stimulation should go.

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