Highly trained dogs play an integral role in the United States military. Some 1,600 pooches work alongside soldiers while performing such vital tasks as detecting explosives and tracking down targets. Earlier this year, for instance, a military dog named Conan gained his moment in the spotlight after helping special military forces kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
Now, as John Vandiver of Stars and Stripes reports, the Army is developing new technology that will better protect the ears of K-9 companions while they’re on the job. Like human personnel, military dogs are frequently exposed to high levels of noise during training and on the field—and like humans, they are susceptible to temporary and permanent hearing loss.
“Even a short helicopter flight can affect a dog's hearing, resulting in impaired performance and inability to hear the handler's commands, which can hinder the mission," says Stephen Lee, senior scientist at the Army Research Office.
Hearing protection systems are currently available for military canines, but the devices are rigid and hard to put on the dogs. So with support from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, the medical device company Zeteo Tech has been working with Peter Scheifele, executive director of the animal acoustics laboratory Fetchlab, to create better gear.
The product, known as the Canine Auditory Protection System (or CAPS), is a little hood made from acoustic absorption materials that block loud sounds. The hood is lightweight and flexible, helping it fit comfortably on a dog’s head while also sealing its ears from excessive noise. CAPS is only an inch thick, so it isn’t cumbersome to canines working in tight spaces and can be worn with other protective gear, like goggles.
According to the Army Research Laboratory, the research team tested CAPS “extensively” on military and federal enforcement dogs “for wearability, usability and comfort.” Tests performed during helicopter operations reportedly showed “a significant reduction in short-term hearing loss.”
This isn’t the first time the defense officials have invested in technology to keep military dogs safe. In 2017, for instance, Kyle Stock of Bloomberg reported that the Department of Defense was buying highly realistic canine mannequins—some of which had a pulse and an internal bag that mimics breathing—to help train medics to care for injured canines. It isn’t just the pooches’ well-being that is at stake; the demand for specialized working dogs is high, and the animals are expensive to acquire.
“With terrorists targeting public transportation and tourist sites all over the world, global demand for bomb-sniffing dogs has surged,” Stock writes. “Canines with finely trained noses now fetch $25,000 and up on the open market, where border patrol units, the State Department, and private security firms go for canine talent.”
According to Vandiver, it is not yet clear when CAPS will become available to units that handle military dogs. But researchers have high hopes for the hoodie’s capabilities. "This new technology will extend canines ability to work in a wide range of environments, and empower a broader use for military working dogs in operations,” says Lee.