Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., is giving new meaning to the phrase "pet project."
The Armed Services Committee member inserted language in the House-passed FY09 defense authorization bill that requires the military to move toward buying only American-bred dogs to sniff out bombs, patrol bases and perform other tasks in the United States and overseas.
The military now gets its canine corps from three sources: the breeding program at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Texas, private domestic breeders and European vendors.
But the vast majority of the dogs -- and the ones most military officials prefer -- come from fabled European bloodlines.
European countries have centuries of experience breeding working dogs, such as the German shepherd, Dutch shepherd and Belgian Malinois, all now used by the U.S. military.
The product of that experience is a stronger dog that has more drive than its American counterpart, said Oscar Balladares, a spokesman at Lackland, which trains dogs -- and breeds some of them -- for all the armed services.
To meet the heavy demand, Lackland officials take four to five trips to Europe each year, bringing back between 80 and 100 dogs on each trip. For its part, Lackland breeds just over 70 dogs each year, with the goal of boosting that to 100 dogs annually by 2010.
Meanwhile, the military deals with only 19 domestic breeders, who often have only a handful of dogs that meet the Defense Department's strict requirements. Balladares said it is often not cost- or time-effective for Lackland officials to travel around the country to procure only a few dogs on each trip.
It would be "preferable" to buy all of the dogs from U.S. vendors, Balladeres said. But, he added, "the reality of the situation is the number of qualified dogs to meet our annual needs is not available" domestically.
Rogers, who has visited Lackland, wants all that to change. He said he is concerned that the United States simply isn't getting the pick of the European litters.
"European sources are getting first choice; we're getting second choice," Rogers said this week, referring to competition with European countries and others, such as Israel, which put a premium on homeland defense and use dogs extensively for security.
"We're the most powerful, wealthy country on the planet. There's no reason for us to be taking anybody's second-hand product," Rogers said.
He also is concerned that European breeders simply do not have enough capacity to meet what he believes is an increasing demand for canines within both the military and the Homeland Security Department, which also buys working dogs from Europe.
For security reasons, military and law enforcement officials typically are cagey about the exact numbers of working dogs in their units. But Rogers said the military's use of contractor-dog teams in Iraq and Afghanistan is one indication the Defense Department needs to bolster its canine forces.
"We don't have enough capacity from that stream of dogs [from Europe]," Rogers said.
In addition, Rogers said the United States is paying too much for each dog procured overseas. Lackland estimates that it spends, on average, between $3,000 and $4,000 for each canine.
Rogers, who said he vetted his provision with the military and received no pushback, said he wants to bring the best of the European bloodlines to the United States to insure capacity and quality and cut costs.
Initially, the Defense Department will need to be heavily involved with the breeding "to give confidence to some of these users that the breed lines are just as strong as the ones that they feel so highly about now," Rogers said. Ultimately, he said, he'd like to turn over much of the breeding to the private sector.
The issue is not new to Rogers, who has been fighting for years to improve and increase canine units used by the Homeland Security Department.
As ranking member of the Homeland Security Management, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, Rogers sponsored a provision in the enacted 9/11 Commission bill last year that, among other things, encourages increased domestic breeding of military dogs.
Rogers also has a strong district connection to the issue, as Auburn University in eastern Alabama researches, trains and breeds working dogs. The university does not currently sell any of its dogs to the military.
But Rogers insists that the issue, for him, is not a parochial one.
"I'd love to see Auburn do well [but] it is not my motivation," he said. "I am completely committed to getting more of these assets in place. If Auburn gets it, that's wonderful. If they don't, that's OK, too."
This article appears in the June 7, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.