Retired US Army Special Forces Officer Rick Hogg says he owes his life to the partner who served by his side in combat missions for five years, a K-9 Special Forces combat assault officer and Dutch shepherd named Duco.
Shortly after the two retired in 2018, Hogg learned that Duco had bone cancer, and Hogg struggled with the extensive veterinary bills necessary to give his beloved partner a longer life. When Duco lost his battle with cancer last July, Hogg created “In Honor of Duco,” a project that partners with the Scott’s Wish organization to help retired military handlers care for their K-9 officers once military service ends.
“There is no ‘doggy Veterans Affairs’ for K9s, all the responsibility falls on the handler after retirement,” said Hogg, who had a 29-year career with the military, including the 82nd Airborne Division and then the Army Special Forces.
“When they have saved your life, there is a bond like no other. When you know you are here on this planet because of that dog, you want to help them without having to worry about the money.”
While serving as a Special Forces combat assault dog, Duco received health benefits and care just like Hogg and other servicemen and women.
But unlike other veterans, eleven Duco and other K-9 officers retire, they lose all ties to the armed forces, including veterinary care. It was not until 2000 that Congress passed a law that protected military working dogs from being euthanized upon retirement and allowed handlers or law enforcement agencies to adopt them instead.
Hogg said the need for specialized veterinary care for retired military working dogs is significant since they often endure even more dangerous conditions than their handlers. The K9s are on the front lines in detecting human assailants or sniffing hazardous chemicals looking for bombs and other threats, Hogg said.
“Their bodies take a beating, just like ours, so if there are injuries that we sustain, it’s the same for them,” said Hogg, who fell with Duco from a helicopter during one mission. “We are putting them in front of US troops to look for those who want to cause us harm. It’s my goal to repay their service by ensuring they have the proper health care in their retirement.”
While In Honor of Duco is less than a year old, the project has already helped other retired K9s and their handlers. The most recent is Layka, who took four shots from an AK-47 while saving the life of her partner, retired US Army Ranger Trent McDonald and his teammates.
For her bravery, Layka became the first K-9 since World War II to receive the Medal of Heroism Award.
The project also sponsored the Military Working Dog Team Support Association Christmas care packages, which were sent to all K9s and their handlers deployed in global combat zones, as well as supporting Second Chance K-9, a military working dog support group.
In Honor of Duco is part of the Covington-based Scott’s Wish, which offers financial assistance both to those struggling to cover costs while dealing with life-threatening diseases and to special causes related to animal welfare.
Scott’s Wish co-founder and President Denise Gutnisky said the organization was started to help a friend deal with the loss of her son, Scott Lala, the organization’s namesake, who died in 2008 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“Initially, our focus was on people suffering from life-threatening illnesses. But we were also all animal lovers and knew firsthand how animals help people and the healing power of pets, both as companion and therapy animals,” she said.
Scott’s Wish has helped patients of all ages deal with cancer treatment, organ transplants, newborn birth defects and other life-threatening issues by helping with transportation, lodging and therapy, along with special requests such as car repairs, storage fees and wheelchair ramps. “We do anything to help the patient continue treatment or improve quality of life,” Gutnisky said.
Scott’s Wish also has sponsored service dogs for veterans and therapy dogs for children with disabilities or guide dogs for the blind, covered veterinary bills for pets of homeless veterans and provided transports to save animal’s lives in high-risk shelters.
She said the In Honor of Duco project reflects the two parts of the Scott’s Wish organization. “Saving the dog often means helping the handler whose lives are so intertwined. Most of these handlers could never afford to pay thousands of dollars for the specialized medical care needed,” she said.
One of the most recognizable fundraisers for Scott’s Wish is the Mardi Paws parade, which will be held March 6 at 2 pm through downtown Covington. Hogg, along with McDonald and Layka, will be a part of the event.
Anyone interested in making a donation can do so directly to Scott’s Wish or In Honor of Duco or even specifically earmarked for Layka.
Hogg also asked citizens to petition their Congressional representatives to help retired K-9 officers retain military status after retirement.
“The number of lives saved by these dogs… God only knows that answer,” he said. “They are 100% US service members.”
For information on In Honor of Duco, visit www.scottswish.org or www.Warhogg.com.