Soldiers have brought dogs into battle since the founding of the country; both British and American generals had their dogs accompany them to the front. During the Battle of Yorktown, a British bulldog followed redcoat cannonballs onto American front lines — one soldier recalled, “He looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.” After a bull terrier named Sergeant Stubby became a national icon for his service in World War I, dogs again became an integral part of combat operations during World War II, when a group associated with the American Kennel Club asked civilians to donate their collies, huskies, malamutes, and a handful of other breeds to the war effort.
Today, military dog training is overseen by the Air Force’s 341st Squadron at Lackland. The squadron teaches canines to both act as guard dogs and also pursue enemy combatants; the ferocity of these dogs made the news late last year when a Belgian Malinois named Conan chased down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and was honored at the White House by President Trump. At present, the military employs an estimated 1,600 dogs, deploying the canines for up to nine years before they go into retirement or are put up for adoption.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division started using dogs to detect narcotics in the 1980s, during the U.S.’s first major crackdown on immigration. The department now owns around 1,500 dogs and purchases about 400 new dogs each year as previous generations grow old and retire. The dogs are charged with sniffing out migrants trying to cross the border: According to the DHS, the department’s dogs seized more than 40,000 people in 2016 along with almost 420,000 pounds of drugs and $6 million in currency. For all the government’s investment in anti-terrorism technology in the years since 9/11, a dog’s nose is far more effective at tracking down drugs and explosives than any robot or computer.
Nevertheless, a good dog is hard to find. The military has bred Belgian Malinois at Lackland since around the turn of the century, but it still acquires the majority of its dogs from Europe, where breeders have decades of pedigree and can thus provide animals of a far higher quality. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science noted that several government dog breeding programs in the United States have been “disbanded or dramatically reduced” because “decision-makers did not understand that steady, long-term genetic improvement requires at least three generations of selective breeding.” (The military most commonly uses the German shepherd, Dutch shepherd, and Belgian Malinois, citing the fact that these breeds are “aggressive, smart, loyal, and athletic.”)
According to Lyle, the Department of Defense is competing for a scarce and valuable resource when it shops overseas. He asserts that countries with other large militaries such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia get their dogs from the same group of well-established European kennels. Dr. Cynthia Otto, a University of Pennsylvania veterinarian who specializes in working dogs and has consulted with an alphabet soup of government agencies, testified in 2016 that the demand for bomb-sniffing canines trained to detect bombs, drugs, and even bed bugs has led to a shortage of dogs across Europe. When these dogs do enter military service, it’s hard to keep them healthy amid the toil of combat. A dog hospital owner who spoke to Bloomberg explained that “they tear tendons, they ruin their hips, they get aggressive spondylosis and it seems like there’s a higher prevalence of cancer.”
The other result of this scarcity is the price the military is willing to pay for a dog. Today, Lyle can command up to $25,000 for a trained Belgian Malinois, up from $12,000 in 2010. Sometimes military officers travel to Europe to buy these dogs directly from the local breeders, but the Buy American Act, the first version of which was passed in 1933, strongly encourages government organizations to purchase new canines from American companies even if those American companies buy them from Europe. This creates a middleman layer that drives up the final selling price — a cost that is paid by the American taxpayer.
The military and DHS bid for hundreds of dogs a year on the “procurement market,” which is something like a highly regulated, government-specific version of eBay. Over the past decade, DOD and DHS have published pages and pages of canine requests, soliciting companies to come to El Paso or San Antonio and present groups of 10 dogs at a time for inspection. For the most part, the contractors who have answered these calls have been large businesses, companies like Dogs for Defense and Police Service Dogs Inc., which also provides dogs to local police departments and sheriffs around the country. (The military itself sometimes donates maladapted or less-than-excellent dogs to police departments, too.)
Lyle has outsold nearly all these large companies on the federal market since he scored his first contract in 2010 for a dozen or so dogs; today, he says he sells upward of 150 per year. When he sees a contract posting on the procurement market, he phones his vendor in the Netherlands and requests a new shipment of dogs; after the dogs arrive, he spends anywhere between a few weeks and a few months training them before driving them to Lackland or a DHS facility. He keeps as many as 50 dogs at a time in the kennel near his house, which requires him to buy more than a ton of dog food each month.
The Buy American Act creates a middleman layer that drives up the final selling price — a cost that is paid by the American taxpayer.
When Lyle brings a dog to the military, the canine has to be more than one year old and capable of passing a two-part performance test. The first part determines whether the canine is “environmentally sound” — that is, whether it can tolerate loud noises like gunfire and walk on slippery or uneven surfaces such as rubber floors or metal stairs. After the military exposes a dog to these stimuli, the dog moves on to the second part of the test, where it must find a rubber toy in several different rooms.
Although the trial is demanding, Lyle explains that by the time the dogs reach Pearl River, they’re almost ready to face the tests at Lackland. The dogs he receives are already old enough to serve, already recognize the toy they have to locate, and have already been exposed in Europe to a variety of different sounds and spatial environments. All that remains for Lyle is to spend a few months walking them around his area — often at PetSmart and Home Depot or in empty fields near his home — and training them to search open areas using specific tracing patterns. He also exposes them to tiny quantities of narcotics and explosives that he receives in occasional shipments from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Lyle says his success in securing contracts is partly owing to his efficiency in conducting this training process but is mostly the result of the high quality of the dogs he brings over. If the dogs didn’t pass the military’s tests, they wouldn’t be accepted, and Lyle wouldn’t make any money.
Though most contractors in Lyle’s position probably don’t run their businesses out of their backyards, middlemen like him are fairly common in government procurement, says Neil Gordon, an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight. The federal government, Gordon says, can sometimes get “stuck in a rut” and stick with the same contractors over long periods of time instead of shopping around for other vendors, so long as the “proof is in the pudding.”
“We see a lot of this in contracts, where they’ll get it from vendors in the U.S. when they could go directly to the source,” said Gordon. “You have to focus on the end result,” he said. “What is the government getting for this money?”
In Lyle’s case, at least, the government seems to be satisfied with what it’s getting, enough to continue working with him. His contracts brought him $750,000 in the 2018 fiscal year alone, and business boomed in 2019: We spoke over the phone twice, and both times, he was in the process of delivering dogs to the government for purchase. But he says what’s kept him in the canine business so long is that he’s a dog lover at heart. His and his wife’s Facebook pages are filled with photos and videos of dogs running around their yard, and in 2008, even as things were going south at the sheriff’s office, Lyle entered two bulldogs in the National Kennel Club’s American Bulldog of the Year contest. One of his entrants, Kajun’s Rocko of Boyd, finished in a tie for 19th by points; the other, Kajun’s Bama Girl, did not do so well, finishing near the bottom.
“You have to be a dog lover to be in this business,” he says. “You’ll come across special dogs, and you send ’em off, and later on, you’ll always say, hey, wonder what’s going on with this dog and where he’s at and how he’s doing.”
Last year, the Air Force helped Lyle answer that question when it released a promotional video starring one of Lyle’s dogs, Daria. In the video, a first-person voiceover for Daria explains how her trainer helped her “find a sense of direction and purpose as a member of the unit” at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, where the Belgian Malinois works on a security detail.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a hero,” the speaker for Daria says toward the end of the video as the dog wrestles with a chew toy. “But when it comes down to it, I’m probably happiest playing with this chew toy. It’s the simple things in life that make me happy.”