Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: When a bite a day can’t keep the dentist away

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: When a bite a day can’t keep the dentist away

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense, Chief Canine Correspondent

There’s a reason why even tough handlers wear a bite suit when training their dogs; catching a bite hurts, even with the extra inches of padding. A dog uses its canine teeth, four fangs, to “penetrate the tissue” and “sink into their prey.” Those chompers paired with a powerful jaw is without a doubt a dog’s most useful weapon, and for a suspect deciding whether to pursue a target, an MWD baring his muzzle fully lined with pearly whites, might be all the incentive required to keep a ne’er-do-well in check. It would be a wise choice: The average German shepherd’s bite packs something like “400 and 700 pounds of pressure per square inch.” Which is why merely having a patrol dog — and the extra set of teeth — acts as a deterrent and, as they say in the MWD world, a force multiplier.

So when a working dog gets a toothache, it’s not something to ignore. And after Roy, an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois broke his tooth during bite-work training in March, his handler, USAF Staff Sgt. Joel Brooks, knew that even though they were deployed in an area that couldn’t manage Roy’s injury (an undisclosed post in Southwest Asia), he had to get to a location that could.

The team made it to the 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Eckert, who treated Roy, noted that treating a dental injury in a dog can be difficult on a deployment. While canine teeth have “all the same characteristics of human teeth … their enamel is much thinner … their teeth are much longer, which means special tools have to be used when working on a dog.”

Veterinarians are usually reluctant to pull teeth because it weakens a dog’s jaw. As another vet-tech, Army Capt. (Dr.) Elizabeth Williams, explained a couple of years back when she had to perform a root canal on an MWD named Kitti, “a dog’s teeth are more deeply rooted and pulling a tooth requires pulling a bit of bone as well.”

When Eckert examined Roy, he could see that while the break in the tooth, which had exposed the nerve, was indeed a painful one, it was decided a filling was the proper course. A filling is another dental procedure that’s far more complicated for dogs than humans, requiring that Roy get full sedation.

Brooks, who’s been working with Roy for the last year, stayed with his partner through the procedure: “It’s not easy putting a dog under,” he said. “Whenever [Roy] stopped breathing, I stopped breathing too. It’s really nerve-racking when his respiratory rate slows down because you hear stories of dogs that go in for something routine but never wake up.”

But when Roy woke up, Brooks was right there to give his ears a scratch and ease him out of the anesthesia so he wouldn’t be frightened or disoriented.  

Not for nothing Roy is a pretty tough dog. “When he broke his tooth biting the suspect, he let out a loud yelp.” But Brooks said, “even though he was in pain, Roy continued to hold on to his target with his bite until ordered to stop.”

Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Free Press.